Set back from a main street on one side and obscured by trees and shrubs on another, it’s easy to miss Torah V’Emunah, an Orthodox synagogue in a residential North Miami Beach neighborhood.
“We don’t even have a sign in front of the synagogue,” said Miriam Bensinger, the rabbi’s wife. “People in the Jewish community know what it is.”
The inconspicuous synagogue became a center of controversy this week after authorities say vandals spray-painted swastikas and the word “Hamas” in bold red letters on the pillars at the building’s entrance early on the morning of July 28.
The vandalism appears to be part of the protests that have erupted since Israel began its offensive against Hamas in Gaza on July 8. Through this past weekend, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights claims that more than 1,800 Palestinians have died, perhaps 70 percent of them civilians. Israel has suffered 66 casualties, including 64 soldiers and three civilians.
While polls show that Americans generally support Israel’s war against Hamas, there have been more than 200 anti-Israel protests around the country, including in Pittsburgh. Increasingly, demonstrators’ criticism of Israel’s actions has taken on an anti-Semitic tinge, according to Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
“There are Holocaust analogies, apartheid analogies, signs saying, ‘Death to Israel,’ and sometimes they’re replacing ‘Israelis’ with ‘Jews.’”
Still, he said, this activism is nothing like what is happening in Europe, where mobs have burned down Jewish property and threatened worshipers in synagogues.
The graffiti on the Florida synagogue was amateurish, with the arms of the swastikas painted in the wrong direction.
The defacing of the synagogue has been considered “criminal mischief,” according to police reports.
“This is not Europe,” Segal said. “The concern is that as people use this inflammatory rhetoric” it will be translated into intimidation and violence.
So far there has been no violence, with only reports of shoving between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators in Los Angeles and Boston, Segal said. What is changing is that online rhetoric, unrestrained by the anonymity of the person posting it, is “spilling over to the demonstrations,” he said.
Slogans such as “blaming Hamas for rockets is like blaming a woman for punching a rapist” and the hashtag “#HitlerWasRight” have become part of the protestors’ discourse, said Segal. “We’re seeing that on the ground now.”
ADL reports that phrases such as “Jews=Killers” and “Jews are Killing Innocent Children” were found near the entrance to a Jewish summer camp near Malibu, Calif. And leaflets that threatened violence if Israel does not pull out of Gaza were left on cars in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Chicago.
Authorities have not made any arrests in the Miami incidents, but the police have increased area patrols. And leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities are trying to stem any violence by working together behind the scenes, said Syed Faisal, a founding board member of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations.
“We stand together as one when it comes to protecting the places of worship,” Faisal said. “We’re trying to take a more calm stand, a more peaceful stand, because at the end of the day, the violence is not going to help anyone.”
The anti-Jewish activities come after several surveys have shown a decrease in such incidents in the United States. In April, the ADL reported that anti-Semitic acts were down 19 percent in 2013 over the year before, continuing a multiyear trend. And last month, a Pew survey found that Jews were the religious group that Americans felt most warmly about.
“There’s no doubt that the country is the safest place for Jews,” Segal said. “But next year I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers [in the ADL anti-Semitism audit] were up.”
Since the fighting in Gaza broke out, some commentators have noted that the strong identification of Jews with Israel is a double-edged sword: Just as Jews blur the distinction between themselves and Israel with slogans such as, “We stand with Israel,” Israel’s extreme detractors likewise make no distinction between Israel and the Jewish people when they place blame.
Segal rejects the comparison.
“Holding Jews accountable for the perceived actions of Israel when those actions are equated with what the Nazis did is not what any Jew is asking for,” he said. “Demonizing Jews for expressing support for Israel as it defends itself from terrorist attacks is morally bankrupt and potentially dangerous.”
David Holzel is a Washington Jewish Week senior writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. April Simpson is a Miami-based freelance writer.