For many of Long Island's Jewish faithful, a surge in anti-Semitism rhetoric and violence is tamping down the joy of the coming Passover holiday.
Rabbis point to a rise in white supremacy on the right and comments by a Muslim congresswoman on the left, both against the backdrop of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 worshippers.
Friday at sunset marks the start of Passover, an eight-day commemoration of the Hebrews’ exodus out of slavery in ancient Egypt. This year, the holiday coincides with Good Friday, the day that Christians observe the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
While Passover is a time to celebrate, it is also a time to call for an end of modern-day ills, which Jewish leaders see as particularly germane this year.
“There are forces of anti-Semitism from the right wing, and forces of anti-Semitism from the left wing, and those voices are getting louder and louder,” said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre. “There is a sense today that those who hate feel they have permission to express it.”
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a freshman Democrat, in the past couple of months has used language about Israel that some on both sides of the aisle have perceived as anti-Semitic.
First, Omar tweeted that support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins baby,” a reference to $100 bills that echoes a common anti-Semitic refrain that Jewish money controls foreign policy. A few weeks later, she called out pro-Israel activists “for allegiance to a foreign country,” a phrase that evoked the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.”
The remarks by Omar, who is Muslim, pushed the House to pass a resolution condemning “hateful expressions of intolerance,” including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy.
“It’s painful to hear,” Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel of Lawrence said of Omar's comments. “We never thought we would hear such talk in the halls of Congress.”
Rosenbaum noted that support for Israel in Congress is bipartisan, and that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and the U.S.’s principal ally in the region.
“What Omar is suggesting is something that causes us great concern,” Klein said. “We love the fact we have a homeland called the state of Israel, and that love doesn’t diminish in any way our love for America.”
Because of her words, Omar has received death threats and a poster that linked her to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was displayed in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber.
Islamic leaders on Long Island along with those of other faiths, including rabbis, denounced the threats and the poster.
“There is a rise in Islamophobia, there is a rise in anti-Semitism, which should be an alarm for all of us,” said Dr. Isma Chaudhry of the Islamic Center of Long Island.
Klein pointed out that anti-Jewish bias is surging in many quarters throughout the world.
Part of the Passover Seder ritual involves opening the door of one’s home with the pledge: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
In Europe, though, “Jews are afraid to open the door,” Klein said. “Jews are very, very careful of doing anything in public that identifies them as Jews because there have been vicious attacks and murders of Jews.”
In the United States, the killing of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
For Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, the massacre “darkened not only the Jewish community, it was a stain upon all of America.”
Nationwide, many synagogues increased security. On Long Island, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security trained the members of Temple Beth Torah in Melville how to respond to a shooting, said Rabbi Susie Moskowitz.
“It’s been kind of stressful, a little bit scary, to think that this country that we called home and felt safe in for so long doesn’t feel as safe as it once did,” she said.
The Pittsburgh attack, Klein said, “is really going to be part of the Seder, I think, of every Jewish family in America. That attack made us feel a lot more vulnerable.”
Still, the faithful will pull a positive message out of the Passover celebration.
Buechler called it “a powerful time of renewal, and above all a reminder that no matter how dark the world is, we find a way to create new passages that lead us to better realities.”