When word came recently of a national rally against anti-Semitism in Washington D.C., Dr. Hank Kaplowitz of Union knew he had to go.
The retired Kean University professor and founder of its Human Rights Institute feels it is “important to stand up in the face of anti-Semitic attacks, both from the right wing and the progressive left wing, physical attacks on Jews in Los Angeles and New York. It’s important to stand up and be counted.”
So Dr. Kaplowitz arranged for a bus that took seven members of Congregation B’nai Israel of Milburn down to Washington on Sunday; three other members of the congregation traveled there separately.
“It was a well done rally, though unfortunately done with little notice in advance and at a bad time in terms of kids being away at camp,” he said.
The rally in front of the U.S. Capitol drew a reported 3,000 people.
“The speakers were excellent,” Dr. Kaplowitz said. “It was wonderful to show the united feeling that Jews have to stand up against anti-Semitism. One of the messages we are going to bring back is that we need to have some speakers regarding anti-Semitism as part of our synagogue’s adult ed programs.”
He noted that in May, Rabbi Ari Isenberg, the congregation’s leader, took part in a local rally called “Stand Up Against Anti-Semitism, Stand Up With Israel.” That rally, in Milburn’s Taylor Park, drew about 350 people.
Dr. Howard Kessler of Westfield joined Dr. Kaplowitz on the trip to the D.C. “I was very happy that I went and supported this very important cause,” Dr. Kessler said. “We need to be vocal for the Jewish community. If one is quiet about these things and just lets the problem fester without properly bringing it to the attention of the American people, then it will only get worse. It’s just vital for us to speak up as Jews, to be proud that we’re Jews, to know that we as Jewish people have something to contribute to this world.
“We should be able to wear our Jewishness as a badge of honor.”
Dr. Kessler said that he was saddened that “we didn’t have more young people there. I saw many people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. We really didn’t have enough lead time to mobilize people to do things. Had we had more time, I believe the response on the mall would have been much larger.”
Speakers at the rally denounced anti-Semitism as un-American and made the case that Jewish identity and support for Israel are inextricably connected. But there were differences among the speakers and in the crowd on how precisely Israel figures in the fight against anti-Semitism.
Some of the most searing messages came from people who have suffered anti-Semitic attacks in recent years. A recurring theme among these speakers was that they never expected to suffer such attacks in the United States. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, who sustained stab wounds in a July 1 attack in Boston, appeared with his arm still in a sling, and in evident pain.
“I was born in the Soviet Union, in the city of St. Petersburg,” Noginski said in Hebrew, having explained that he was still too pained to speak fluently in English. “I remember how even as a young child, I experienced terrible anti-Semitism. Never in my darkest dreams did I imagine that I would feel the same way here in the United States, the land of freedom and endless possibilities.”
The crowd shouted “hero!” as Noginski spoke. He had held the attacker at bay outside a Chabad facility where about 100 children were in summer camp.
Another speaker hailed as a hero was Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who described how he said the Viduy, the Jewish prayer before death, as a gunman killed 11 worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. Rabbi Myers was the first to alert the police of the attack.
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are all endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Myers said, quoting the Declaration of Independence. “To be an anti-Semite means you do not accept that pact of being an American.”
The rally drew a broad array of sponsor organizations, covering the religious spectrum and including many right-wing and central pro-Israel mainstream Jewish organizations.
Representatives of more left-wing groups were notably absent; they had been asked to join but opted out of attending because some of the sponsoring groups adhere to a definition of anti-Semitism that encompasses harsh criticism of Israel, including the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. Groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now oppose BDS, but object to defining it as anti-Semitic.
Melissa Landa, who leads the Alliance for Israel, a relatively new group that has as a central tenet that BDS is anti-Semitic, set the tone at the outset of the rally. She had launched plans for it after anti-Semitism spiked during the Israel-Gaza conflict in May.
She spoke of the “shared promise for our children, that they will be free to live as proud Jews, and exercise their religious liberties granted by the United States Constitution, free to wear their yarmulkes and Magen Davids and free to speak their love of Israel without being attacked in the streets of New York or Los Angeles.”
Ms. Landa, like other speakers, named lawmakers on the left and the right who recently have incurred accusations of anti-Semitism. Mentions of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat whose criticism of Israel has been seen by Jewish groups as crossing into anti-Semitism, notably garnered much louder boos than those of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who has drawn fire for peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and for likening coronavirus restrictions to anti-Jewish law the Nazis imposed.
Noa Tishby, an Israeli actor, appeared with conservative pundit Meghan McCain and Alma Hernandez, a Democratic state lawmaker from Arizona. Each suggested that anti-Zionism was equivalent to anti-Semitism.
“So much of the anti-Semitism of today simply attributes all the evil tropes, lies and libels that have been used for centuries to justify the worst horrors against Jewish people to the Jewish state,” said Ms. Tishby, who is well known in Israel and recently published a book called “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.” “As you will hear today, this hatred is being used to attack our Jewish communities. It is being used to impose a heavy cost on anyone who identifies as Jewish or even God forbid, Zionist.”
Ms. McCain has become an outspoken defender of Israel on the talk show “The View” — which she announced earlier this month that she is leaving — and elsewhere.
“I’m Meghan McCain and I’m a Zionist because, apparently, this is now something that is controversial to say,” she said at the rally.
Elisha Wiesel, the son of the late Holocaust diarist and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, had joined the planning of the rally to bring in mainstream and liberal-leaning groups after Ms. Landa hit a wall in bringing them in.
Major mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, as well as the Orthodox Union and Reform and Conservative movements, signed on as sponsors, but few of their representatives spoke.
Mr. Wiesel said he feared division but was soothed by the unity he saw.
“The sages teach that it was our own hatred for each other that caused the destruction of the first and second temples,” he said. “And in the weeks leading up to this rally, it was this fear that dominated my field of vision, the fear that our community was divided beyond repair. That fear is our enemy’s dream. But looking out at all of you today if it comes clear that instead of dividing us, the enemies of the Jewish people, whether from the right or the left at home or abroad, they have instead united us.”
Mr. Wiesel appeared to nod to the concerns that some liberal groups had — that criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians would be conflated with anti-Semitism at the rally.
“We can disagree even passionately, without being divided,” he said. “We can even disagree on Israel,” he said. “ We must not tolerate calls for an end to the Jewish state of Israel, through a one-state solution that once again leaves the Jews defenseless. We must also not tolerate denigration or hatred towards the aspiration for dignity and self-determination of our Palestinian cousins. If we hate, we will not win.”
Just minutes after his own speech, Mr. Wiesel jumped in to intervene and help out a fellow speaker — Erika Moritsugu, a deputy assistant to President Biden, who was representing the White House, and was booed. A cluster of supporters of former President Donald Trump shouted during her speech, particularly when she mentioned that President Joe Biden decided to run after the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. Trump equivocated in condemning the marchers, which has become a sore point among his followers.
“Stolen election!” one man shouted. “You pay money to terrorists!” said another. One held up a placard saying “Screw Kristen Clarke.” Ms. Clarke, who leads the civil rights division at the Department of Justice, came under fire during her confirmation hearings for having hosted an anti-Semitic speaker at an event when she was a student at Harvard, decades ago.
Ms. Moritsugu appeared flustered, and others in the crowd shushed the booers. After she finished speaking, Mr. Wiesel stepped in and said, to applause, “I’d like everybody to thank President Biden for the way that the White House stood with Israel during the Gaza war.”
The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness — the public advocacy wing of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church — invoked the Black-Jewish alliance of the civil rights era, to cheers.
“I am here today to express my support for the Jewish community in the face of anti-Semitism, in the face of the shooting deaths and attempted murders in synagogues, stores and homes,” he said. “Now is a time of solidarity. Now there’s a time of unity.”
After the speeches ended, there was time to meet with the speakers and pose for selfies.
When Dr. Kessler went over to talk with Rabbi Noginski, the Lubavitcher asked whether he had put on tefillin that morning. In fact, Dr. Kessler hadn’t — he puts them on during Monday and Thursday Zoom morning services, but not on other days during covid.
“He requested I do so, and I gladly complied,” Dr. Kessler said, noting the rabbi’s bravery.
Ron Kampeas is the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Washington correspondent.