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Milwaukee Responds to the Rising Tide of Hatred

Jewish and Muslim groups continue their work despite threats

Mar. 14, 2017
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Photo credit: Dan Zaitz, JCC

“To be an other can be really challenging,” says Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

She’s speaking in light of the series of bomb threats that forced the evacuation of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center (JCC) during the past month. Anti-Semitism and xenophobia have always formed a contrary stream in the American narrative, never entirely absent but usually quiescent when the national mood is positive and focused on the ideal of unity in diversity.

Lately, however, a spirit of discord had dominated the national conversation. While there is nothing new in vandalism and threats against Jews, Muslims and other minority faiths, the months since Donald Trump’s election have seen a spike in outrageous incidents. Around the U.S. mosques have burned, Jewish graves have been desecrated, Indian Americans have been murdered and more than 80 Jewish centers have received bomb threats.

For Milwaukee Jews and Muslims, however, life has continued unimpeded by such threats. “Did you have a problem finding parking?” Mark Shapiro, the JCC’s president and CEO, pointedly asks me. Indeed, the center’s expansive parking lot is packed as always. “At 5 in the morning our fitness floor is humming as usual,” he adds. “We continue to serve 200 families in our early childhood program.”

Activities also carry on as usual at the city’s largest mosque, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee on Milwaukee’s South Side, and at other Muslim institutions. “We have received Islamophobic letters, but as for active threats, we haven’t gotten that. So far, we’ve been lucky, although representatives of different mosques have met to discuss security,” says Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition. Munjed Ahmad, a member of the Islamic Society’s Shura (Executive Committee), adds that while the mosque “has received several phone calls where callers used discriminatory comments and profanity, fortunately, we have not received any direct threats during those calls.” He is unaware of any direct threats to other mosques in the metro Milwaukee area. 

While life continues as usual, the atmosphere has grown more anxious. “There has definitely been a tremendous rise over the past year in racist remarks in public places—to Muslim females in particular,” Najeeb says. “We are hearing quite a bit about students being harassed in schools, ridiculed and bullied.”

Kahn sees a parallel phenomenon among Jewish secondary students in some school districts. “Children have faced bullying and graffiti on their lockers. I know of three families who removed their children from schools because of anti-Semitic bullying.

As for the causes of the rising threat level, Shapiro says, “It’s hard for me to speculate because my brain doesn’t work the same way as a person who would phone in a bomb threat. In these unusual times, you can spend your time trying to figure out why or you can continue to overcome the hurdles. Our goal has always been for the JCC to be a center of inclusiveness where people who agree or disagree can come together.”

According to Kahn, reported anti-Semitic incidents have risen during most of the past five years, but “last year it went way up. There are multiple factors, but certainly some of it was tied to the political rhetoric heard in 2016. There has been an increase in hatefulness against all minorities.”

Hannah Rosenthal, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, agrees. “The rise in hate in our state, our community and our country is frightening and should cause everyone much alarm. What’s happening today in the U.S. has always been there, but hatred has been unleashed in the political climate we’re in.”


Promoting Fear

“It’s fair to say that one feature of the presidential campaign was promoting a sense of fear, insecurity and competition between groups of people,” Kahn says. Najeeb agrees. “Where previously racist rhetoric was looked down upon and sidelined, we now have an administration that has normalized it. This is very dangerous,” she says.

Ahmad adds: “The number of these hate-filled and ignorant comments and acts have clearly risen as people seem to be emboldened by the current political climate where our nation’s leaders have shown and continue to show an anti-Muslim bias. As long as that Islamophobic attitude continues among our country’s leaders, Muslims here in Wisconsin and throughout the nation will have to maintain a sense of vigilance in order to avoid becoming victims of attacks.”

While Trump specifically directed his rhetoric of national insecurity at Muslims, the flare-up of anti-Semitism under his watch is more puzzling. His son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, is Jewish; his daughter and favorite child, Ivanka, converted to Judaism. “I can’t explain it,” Kahn says. “There is value in the fact that he has relations with Jews whom he loves and respects, but we’re measured by what we say and do. I was struck by his reference to ‘America First’ in his inauguration speech. He had been told that ‘America First’ contains echoes of a time when America abandoned our people [to the Holocaust]. He continued to say it. He insisted on using it. I find that very troubling.”


Good Neighbors in Milwaukee

Several years before anyone imagined a Trump presidency, suburban Milwaukee was the setting for one of the most notorious crimes against a religious minority in recent American history, the 2012 massacre at Oak Creek’s Sikh Temple by a neo-Nazi skinhead. Some Milwaukeeans have said that the sheer repulsiveness of the incident served as a loud wakeup call on the ends to which hatred can lead. Despite the city’s mixed legacy of racism and poor relations with minority groups of all kinds, Milwaukee is proving a supportive place in the face of bomb threats and hate speech. 

Shapiro calls the response by law enforcement to bomb threats at the JCC as “beyond spectacular” and praises politicians from both parties, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Gwen Moore, Gov. Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett, for their show of support. Najeeb, by contrast, finds support “mainly among Democratic leaders. Tom Barrett knows us very well. Gwen Moore is a good friend of the Muslim community and checks in on us quite often.

“We have many friends in Milwaukee and have received an outpouring of support—by phone, by email—saying, ‘We just want you to know we are happy you are here and we stand with you.’ This is very encouraging,” Najeeb says. “A lot of people are extremely upset with what they see happening in this country—it’s not reflective of the America they believe in.”

"Now more than ever, we must wholeheartedly support our Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.  The Milwaukee Police Department will continue to lend all appropriate investigative resources and we as a community need to say yes to the JCC and to unity in this nation," says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

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