The need to do something about an apparent surge in anti-Semitism brought about 250 people of all faiths to Temple Emanu-El on Thursday morning, March 30, for the first Atlanta Leadership Forum on Anti-Semitism.
“We can’t be complacent in the face of anti-Semitism and any other form of hate,” said Lauren Menis, who less than five weeks earlier launched the event’s organizer, the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, with several fellow Davis Academy mothers in response to acts of anti-Semitism and waves of bomb threats against Jewish organizations, including the Marcus Jewish Community Center.
The extent of the problem across the United States and Canada since January was laid out by Shelley Rose, the interim director of the Southeast Region of the Anti-Defamation League, which co-sponsored the event with the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Chapter: 165 fake bomb threats called or emailed in to JCCs, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions, including the ADL’s Buckhead office, and vandalism at three Jewish cemeteries.
“My 14-year-old shocked me to the core,” AIAAS founding partner Danielle Cohen said, breaking into tears before managing to explain her daughter’s reaction to the bomb threats. “She said she believed another Holocaust could happen.”
One response from the ADL, with the Islamic Speakers Bureau and Northside Drive Baptist Church, is a free workshop Sunday, April 23, at the church in Buckhead on becoming an “upstander” instead of a bystander in response to hateful comments (atlanta.adl.org/upstander).
Scott Allen, representing Christians United for Israel and Georgia Christian network Israel365, said the forum was the gathering he had long prayed would never be necessary in the hope that anti-Semitism would die out.
Instead, Menis said, “we are living in a time when a culture of hate has almost become acceptable.”
A refusal to accept that reality led more than 150 organizations to attend the forum. In addition to synagogues, the Israeli Consulate General, day schools, camps, youth groups and most of the other Jewish communal groups active in Atlanta, the gathering included churches, Muslim organizations, interfaith groups, public schools and school districts, universities, city and county government officials, local police chiefs, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, local prosecutors, and U.S. Attorney Joe Horn.
The crowd grew so large so fast, fueled by a secret Facebook group with more than 4,200 members, that AIAAS had to turn away some groups.
Cohen said the forum’s organizers worried about falling short of attendees’ expectations and wanted to be sure to deliver the wow factor. Looking out at the crowd, she said, “This is the wow.”
“I honestly cannot begin to recall the last time such a diverse and esteemed representative body came together in Atlanta to discuss a topic such as anti-Semitism, let alone how to respond and combat it,” said Dov Wilker, the regional director of AJC Atlanta.
“Today’s program is a clear demonstration of what happens when you take passion and combine it with the drive to make a difference,” he said.
Host Rabbi Spike Anderson said the gathering was inspiring and invigorating, and he charged the participants in discussions spread across 26 round tables to present ideas to create “the Atlanta Jewish community we know we can be.”
Among the ideas presented after two hours of presentations and table discussions:
- Buy coffee for all the customers at a shop one morning in exchange for them taking and sharing anti-hate information.
- Refuse to show fear or let life be disrupted by threats.
- Hold neighborhood potluck dinners so people get to know one another.
- Bring baked goods to law enforcement officers to thank them for their efforts to prevent and solve acts of anti-Semitism.
- Actively listen in conversations with people who are different and show genuine interest in their problems.
- Launch an interfaith day of teen service projects.
- Engage in interfaith social justice work and acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
- Create lessons for schoolteachers that fit the Georgia standards and spread messages of love instead of hate.
- Have exchange days among organizations such as the Breman Museum, the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust’s Anne Frank exhibit and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to share one another’s interests.
- Repeat events such as Thursday’s forum in individual communities across the metro area.
- Collect and share data about the problem of hate in Georgia, and electronically and/or physically mark important sites of anti-Semitism and other hate (Leo Frank’s 1915 lynching, the 1958 Temple bombing, the 1906 Atlanta race riot, etc.).
- Hold diversity festivals.
- Issue a united public statement on behalf of all the organizations involved with AIAAS.
A recurring theme throughout the morning was the need for a hate-crimes law in Georgia, one of five states without such a statute. The Jewish community played a pivotal role in enacting a hate-crimes law in 2000, but it was thrown out by the state Supreme Court in 2004 for being too vague. Since then, a disagreement over LGBTQ rights has prevented new legislation from passing.
Marcus JCC CEO Jared Powers, who talked about the threats against his institution, urged the crowd not to focus on hate. He said the center received supportive postcards from around the nation after the bomb threats, and the leader of a local mosque that itself was threatened offered to have members guard the JCC’s gates at night.
“In the face of hate,” Powers said, “the love and friendship of others shines through.”