BLOG: An American perspective on fighting discrimination

By Emma Jacobs

This spring, the Board of Deputies helped to be one of only 10 Europeans to take part in the ‘First Responders’ programme with the Anti Defamation League and the European Jewish Congress. The two week trip focused on ADL’s dual mission; fighting the defamation of the Jewish people and for all human rights. The aim was to introduce us to methods of fighting discrimination used by Jewish communities in America.

The first week, in New York, offered an insight in to how communities there differ from what we have experienced in Europe. We had the privilege of meeting representatives from Chabad and learning about how chasidim live with hipsters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and how both groups are being affected by gentrification.

We met groups across the religious spectrum and chatted to the students running the J-Soc at Columbia University about their diverse, thriving campus life. The group were all taken aback by the operation being run there in a seven story building, with up to 14 Shabbat dinner-sitings and a plethora of philanthropic and social justice initiatives. Their outreach and inclusion of students who feel isolated and ostracized because of their gender, race, sexuality or political views is an ideal we should strive to achieve in the UK.

Visiting the university also provided a space to hear from the other participants about how different their communities are (in nature and size) and how the issues they face differ greatly. All held leadership roles, representing youth movements with the head of Hashomer Hatzair in Budapest and unions with the chair of the Swedish union of Jewish students. Their methods of bringing about change are different but their goals are similar. Some of them hadn’t encountered BDS on campus while others have been targeted online by the alt-right for speaking out. Half the group were sent on a programme run by the government of Oslo as part of their training to be educators on antisemitism in non-Jewish schools in Norway while the rest of us made up the European Jewish Congress delegation.

Due to our range of experiences and impressions about how our respective countries treat Jews, a particularly educational experience was the ‘Words to Action’ day. The programme is adapted to help teens and young adults educate their peers about intrinsic biases and prejudices they may be unaware of. It equips participants with a toolkit of techniques to react to (sometimes unintentional) incidents. These range in severity from uncomfortable to hate speech with a tangible method of qualifying how inflammatory a statement is and how extreme a response it warrants. They welcomed us to ‘the worst cocktail party ever’ where we had to make read statements to each other and decide which ‘battles to pick’ – a skill every student should be taught.

It was reiterated how nuanced the approach to calling out antisemitism must be. While vigilance is necessary as is a measured response. We spoke a lot about a ‘collective nuanced response’ and how no community is homogenous but divisions in times of crisis can only cause more harm.

Having understood ADL’s missions we soaked up the energy of a Manhattan Shabbat. Families kindly hosted us for meals and at Ramath Orah, an Orthodox synagogue we got to join a halachically kosher women’s service with ladies leining. Re-energised after Shabbat we headed to Washington DC for the National Leadership summit.

As ADL operates on a philosophy that for the protection of Jewish people, all minority rights must be defended – the conference was not solely about antisemitism. Aly Raisman started by talking about the Me Too movement. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke of unity. Wajahat Ali advised that Jews and Muslims, ‘get out of your culturally isolated cocoons and disrupt it’. He warned that ‘tribal absolutism will not work. White supremacy is a drug and it’s coming after all of us.’

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, spoke of ADL’s work in the civil rights movement (such as training law enforcement to be aware of bias and avoid prejudice). Their monitoring of patterns both online (social media , forums) and everyday (bumper stickers) allows them to alert officers of how to notice warning signs.

On the last day of the conference, a lobbying trip to meet with representatives in Congress  was organised. Having heard so much about the work individual activists and organisations in America such as ADL aim to achieve it was fascinating to see what the priorities in the five minute sit-down meetings were.

ADL’s toolkit is based on education. Activists’ battles will not end on Capitol Hill but move in to campuses and schools. Productive conversations and fighting bias and hate are as important, it seems, as passing policy.

Emma Jacobs is a Deputy for the Union of Jewish Students


Photo: Columbia University

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