This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

Jewish community leaders across the U.S. are speaking out against what they say has been a recent surge in antisemitic attacks.

Local Jewish leaders say they’ve seen an uptick in antisemitic attacks and harassment since early this month.

It comes during a growing global debate, after recent Israeli airstrikes this month killed at least over 240 Palestinians in Gaza, including over 60 children, and Hamas rockets killed a dozen Israelis, including two kids, according to the Washington Post.

The fighting prompted demonstrations across the globe, the U.S. and in Southern California, protesting the forced removal of Palestinian families from their homes and reported human rights abuses

It’s also prompted what Jewish community leaders are calling a surge in antisemitism in the U.S. and the world.

A Thursday virtual rally saw a host of national Jewish advocacy groups, like the Anti-Defamation League talking about the issue and demanding Congress curb the threat of antisemitism through meaningful policy.

Antisemitism isn’t a new issue in Orange County. 

Voice of OC asked several rabbis and Jewish community leaders from around the county about antisemitism, as well as their thoughts on the airstrikes and recent Palestinian demonstrations.

“There’s a long history of antisemitism and all sorts of bigotry in Orange County,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of the University Synagogue in Irvine. 

In Orange County, 52% of reported hate crimes and 65% of hate incidents that were motivated by religion targeted Jewish people, according to the OC Human Relations 2019 hate crime report.

“We’re the perfect demographic for becoming the scapegoat,” said Rabbi Joel Berman of Temple Beth Emett in Anaheim. 

In turn, Lisa Armony of the Jewish Federation of Orange County said her organization and others have seen an uptick in antisemitic incidents and harassment since early May, during the Israeli and Hamas airstrikes.

“What I’m hearing about is incidents about harassment and bullying of students, high school students, college students, which may be verbal and on social media. Really toxic language being used and not just posts, but often directed at Jewish young people,” Armony said.

Rabbi Berman said he wholeheartedly believes in Israel’s right to exist: “I do believe in the Jewish claim to Israel.”

But he also said he understands the Palestinians have their own experiences and perspective living in the region, questioning things like the Israeli government’s removal of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah during Ramadan. 

“I’ll admit that Israel has its faults, has made decisions that are questionable, but Hamas is not exactly an angel here,” Berman said.

Berman said he recognizes Palestinians have their own perspective, and while he thinks it’s flawed, he believes people still have to listen: “We have to pay attention to that narrative.”

He added, “it bothers me that people are not able to make a distinction between policies of the Israeli government and Jewish people.”

“People can certainly voice concern about what is going on in the region without it crossing the line into anti-semitism,” Armony said.

Allison Edwards, CEO of the Orange County Human Relations Council, said for many years the Jewish community is one of the most targeted when it comes to hate crimes and hate incidents.

“Most of the reports are about hate activity targeting the Black community and then the second most reports is hate activity or antisemitic activity targeting the Jewish community,” she said.

Local Communities Weigh in on Israeli Airstrikes in Gaza

Armony, director of the Jewish Federation Orange County, defended Israel’s airstrikes, saying the state faces “a significant moral dilemma” where it’s in a position it feels it cannot tolerate any more rockets fired at its own people. 

“Hamas has chosen to embed its infrastructure into civilian areas. It’s faced with a horrific situation where its own people are being fired on and Hamas is using its own people as shields,” Armony said. 

For many Palestinians, Arabs and some in the international community, Israel’s right to self-defense is not an excuse for the airstrikes that razed civilian buildings, especially with the death toll and the balance of power slanted one way.

“Israel is bombing hospitals, residential homes, bookstores, grocery stores — that is not self defense. They’re completely annihilating people and dismantling whatever’s left of the society in Gaza,” said Zeena Farooq, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement last week.

Local Palestinians and Arab groups organized protests and vigils last week in support of Palestinian liberation and urged people to call their elected representatives and demand they stop U.S. military support of Israel. 

These protests were echoed across the globe and some of the protesters were Jewish themselves.

A protester holds a sign at a march for Palestine in Los Angeles on May 15, 2021. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem — an Israeli human rights group — have said the conditions Palestinians live under are Apartheid. It’s a conclusion the Israeli government rejects, but Palestinians and even some members of Congress agree with.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, said last week the protests are not against Jewish people and not against Israelis, but against the Israeli government.

“This is not anti-semitic or anti anything. This is anti-discrimination. This is anti-bigotry, this is anti-war. Our stance is for human rights for all, whether you’re Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian – it doesn’t matter,” he told the Voice of OC last week.

Some Palestinian organizers have also condemned antisemitism on social media and called out people who perpetuate hate as destructive to the Palestinian cause.

“There have been some Palestinian American leaders and not just Palestinian, but Arab community leaders who have denounced antisemitism and I think there have been Jewish leaders who have condemned anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment,” Rachlis said.

Rabbi Rachlis said he had strong criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“People can be critical of the state of Israel’s politics like they can in our country here, or any country in the world and not have to be tarred with the accusation that they are anti-Zionist or even worse in some ways anti-semitic,” Rachlis said.

OC Jewish Community and County Supervisors Criticize Holocaust Comparisons in COVID Vaccine Discourse

The national rally also comes after scores of people in Orange County have shown up to the board of supervisors meetings in recent weeks comparing the idea of mandatory vaccine passports to facism and the holocaust orchestrated by Nazi Germany.

Protestors gather to protest what they say are vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines on May 11, 2021, before the Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

County officials have repeatedly said they’re not going to force vaccinations or mandate passports on anyone.

Read: OC Supervisors Cancel Digital Coronavirus Vaccine Records, Hundreds of People Rail Against Vaccine Passports

Some have even worn stars — reminiscent of what the Third Reich made Jewish people wear in Germany and its territories — to the meetings. 

Members of the Jewish community in Orange County like Rachlis have condemned the Holocaust comparisons.

Orange County Supervisors Andrew Do, Don Wagner and Katrina Foley have publicly criticized the comparisons.

Jewish leaders said such comparisons make no sense.

“I can’t express in words the complete idiocy of these people and the depth of ugliness in their hearts. First of all, they know nothing about history or reality. They are just bigots,” Rachlis said.  

During Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, Rabbi Richard Steinberg gave the opening invocation and called on the comparisons to stop. 

“Every week I pray the memorial prayer for those who died in the holocaust,” Steinberg said. “I pray and ask that whatever debates take place from this dais and others, that we never use comparisons from the Holocaust to make political points … it is simply wrong.” 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.