After a Trump rally on Jan. 6, Robert Keith Packer was among the thousands of rioters who swarmed the U.S. Capitol. He sported an unkempt beard and a black hoodie emblazoned with the words “Camp Auschwitz,” the name of the most infamous of the many Nazi concentration camps, where millions of people were murdered during World War II.
Under a skull and crossbones at the bottom of his hoodie was the phrase, “Work brings Freedom,” a loose translation of “arbeit macht frei,” which was inscribed above the main entrance gate at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Photos from Jan. 6 showing Packer, 56, a former welder and pipefitter, were widely circulated on social media and by newspapers, evoking shock and disbelief.
But Packer, of Newport News, Virginia, was not the only anti-Semitic rioter that day, according to a report released by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute. The report identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the failed insurrection.
In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of anti-Semitism in the Ocean State. But that’s nothing new – anti-Semitism has been part of our country since its founding, and, in fact, has existed in western societies for centuries.
The Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Global Index of Anti-Semitism documented this worldwide problem. The survey found that more than 1 billion people around the world – nearly one in eight – harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Carried out by First International Resources and commissioned by the ADL, this landmark survey polled 53,100 adults in 102 countries.
Over 30% of those surveyed said it was “probably true” that Jews have too much control over financial markets; that Jews think they are better than other people; that Jews are disloyal to their country; and that people hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.
Nearly half of those surveyed claimed to have never heard of the Holocaust, and only a third believe that historical accounts of the genocide are accurate.
Gearing up to fight Anti-Semitism
On Jan. 14, the American Jewish Congress, a global Jewish advocacy organization, briefed the FBI on the continuing threats of anti-Semitism to the nation.
“Anti-Semitism fundamentally is not only a Jewish problem; it is a societal one. It is a reflection on the declining health of our society,” Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. director for combating anti-Semitism, told FBI officials during a video-conference briefing.
“Education is essential to clarify what constitutes anti-Semitism, the various sources of this hatred, and what effective tools are available for law enforcement to fight anti-Semitism,” she said.
The AJC’s 2020 report, based on parallel surveys of the American Jewish and general populations, revealed that 88% of Jews consider anti-Semitism a problem today in the U.S.; 37% have personally been victims of anti-Semitism over the past five years; and 31% have taken measures to conceal their Jewishness in public.
In the first-ever survey of the general U.S. population about anti-Semitism, the AJC found a stunning lack of awareness of the problem. Nearly half of all Americans said they had never heard the term “anti-Semitism,” or were familiar with the word but not sure what it meant.
The AJC experts praised the FBI for its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report, which provides vital data on anti-Semitism. The latest report found that 60.2% of religious-bias hate crimes in 2019 targeted Jews.
To improve the monitoring and reporting of hate crimes, the AJC continues to advocate for passage of the Jabara-Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality Act, also called the NO HATE Act. The measure would offer grants to incentivize state and local law-enforcement authorities to improve hate-crime reporting.
In addition, the AJC is asking the FBI to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism as an educational tool. The definition offers a clear and comprehensive description of anti-Semitism in its various forms, including hatred and discrimination against Jews and Holocaust denial.
Keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive is key to fighting anti-Semitism, says Andy Hollinger, director of communications for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“We are seeing a disturbing trend in the rise of anti-Semitism and the open display of neo-Nazi symbols, most recently at the attack on the U.S. Capitol. This is a longtime problem requiring a longtime solution. We must remember. Education is key. We must learn from this history – learn about the dangers of unchecked hatred and anti-Semitism. And we must not be silent,” he said.
Bill Benson, who has interviewed Holocaust survivors before live audiences at the museum for more than two decades, said, “Far too many school systems do not teach about the Holocaust, without which the gulf in knowledge and awareness may only grow as we lose first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust.”
As the number of survivors who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust continues to dwindle, a growing number of states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas, have established commissions to keep this knowledge alive for younger generations through educational programming and community events.
If the Rhode Island General Assembly votes to establish a Rhode Island Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, its motto just might be “Never forgetting” – which will help us keep the promise of “never again.”
Editors note: The act to establish a RI Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission passed the RI House and was introduced in the Senate in April. It has now been indefinitely postponed.
HERB WEISS, of Pawtucket, is a writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He is the author of “Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly,” a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries. He can be reached at herbweiss.com.