Only eight instances of anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh were reported to monitoring agencies in 2014, which is relatively good news for the local Jewish community in light of last month’s Anti-Defamation League report showing a 21 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents nationwide.
While none of the eight reported local incidents included acts of violence, any anti-Semitic act is a serious issue, cautioned Gregg Roman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
“Any incident of anti-Semitism is a huge problem,” Roman said. “Every incident is unique, and we have to respond to its unique properties.”
There were seven anti-Semitic incidents reported last year to the CRC, which included: anti-Jewish slurs in the classroom that were left unaddressed by the teacher; a teacher in a public school instructing students that Jews killed Jesus, while a Jewish child sat in the classroom; anti-Semitic harassment on social media; and the vandalizing of a car with the words “dirty Jew” written on its exterior. The owner of that car was not Jewish, Roman noted.
When Roman is notified of a perceived anti-Semitic incident that is speech-related and does not involve violence, he contacts the parties involved to try to come to an agreement. If that does not resolve the issue, he contacts the appropriate organizational leadership — such as a school principal — with any necessary follow-up taken to the Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission or to the police.
Last year, each incident reported to the Pittsburgh CRC was resolved, Roman said. And the seven instances reported in 2014 marked a decrease from the 13 incidents that were reported in 2013.
While a total of 912 anti-Semitic incidents were reported from throughout the United States to the ADL during the 2014 calendar year, only one of those occurred in Pittsburgh, according to Anita Gray, regional director of the ADL’s Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia region.
Gray said she received calls about a year ago concerning the appearance of a band called Death in June that was scheduled to perform at the Rex Theater on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Death in June, Gray explained, “trades on Nazi images.”
What the ADL found when it researched the band, however, was that “they were not Nazis,” Gray said. “”They were just trading on Nazism and anti-Semitism.”
The band performed as planned, she said.
While the appearance of Death in June was the sole incident reported from Pittsburgh to the ADL in 2014, Gray believes the actual number of anti-Semitic instances is much higher.
“A lot of people do not know to report anti-Semitic acts to us,” she said. “Pittsburgh is a very tolerant community, but acts of anti-Semitism are underreported.”
Other incidents in Pittsburgh in 2014 that have been branded by some community members as anti-Semitic, but have not been reported officially to a monitoring agency, include an Aug. 7 Rob Rogers’ cartoon appearing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which depicted Gazan Palestinians in a cage. The Jews in the cartoon were drawn with long noses and were reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s.
“That cartoon was extremely offensive to the community,” Roman said. “And there has been a lot of literature circulated on our college campuses that may not be criminal in nature but are incendiary statements that incite hatred and create a climate where Jews don’t feel safe.”
Roman pointed to other problematic incidents last year, including protesters at the University of Pittsburgh shouting down a Jewish speaker
“That’s anti-Jewish, even if it’s under the guise of political protest,” Roman said. “These incidents of hate are unacceptable.”
Not every insensitivity or perceived wrong that is reported to the ADL is deemed anti-Semitic, Gray stressed.
“There was one Jewish Orthodox person in Pittsburgh who was attending a non-Jewish community college and it wouldn’t let her get a holiday off,” Gray said. “I worked for a month with the school. I didn’t count that as anti-Semitic.”
The ADL saw a surge in anti-Semitic activity last summer during Operation Protective Edge, Gray said, including the displaying of signs with swastikas during anti-Israel rallies. When such signage is displayed at a political rally, the incident is categorized by the ADL as anti-Semitic.
Anti-Israel protesters often are motivated by anti-Semitism, although that is not always the case, according to Gray.
In her work with the ADL, she has found that members of the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel often “have ties to basic anti-Semitism,” she said. “Not always, but sometimes. Those individuals are on our radar screen.”
In addition to addressing incidents of anti-Semitism as they occur, the local Jewish community has been proactive in trying to prevent them, Roman said.
He lauded the group Classrooms Without Borders and its director Zipora Gur for their efforts in promoting understanding through educational trips to the European sites of the Holocaust and to Israel for Jewish and non-Jewish educators.
Other proactive measures include the Federation’s installation of a coordinated communication system between community Jewish agencies through which they can share emergency information in real time should anti-Semitic threats arise, Roman said.
Another pre-emptive effort against anti-Semitic acts here is vigilance in monitoring social media for warning signs, according to Roman.
“While the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents remains lower than we have seen historically, the fact remains that 2014 was a particularly violent year for Jews both overseas and in the United States,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director in a prepared statement. “The fatal shootings in Overland Park, Kansas at a Jewish community center building and senior residence by a white supremacist whose goal was to ‘kill Jews’ and other violent episodes were tragic reminders that lethal anti-Semitism continues to pose a threat to American Jews and the larger society as well.”
While the FBI has not released its annual Hate Crime Statistics report for 2014, its 2013 report showed that of the 1,223 victims of anti-religious hate crimes, 60.3 percent were victims of crimes motivated by their offenders’ anti-Jewish bias. In contrast, only 13.7 percent were victims of anti-Islamic or Muslim bias, and 6.1 percent were victims of anti-Catholic bias.
For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
In 2013, the FBI reported no hate crimes in Pittsburgh based on religion.
No hate crimes were prosecuted in Pittsburgh in 2014, according to Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Pennsylvania.
To report an incident of anti-Semitism, contact the Pittsburgh CRC at 412-992-5234 or the ADL at cleveland.adl.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.