Stained glass windows illuminate at Temple Beth-El. Photo by Scott Ball.
Stained glass windows illuminate at Temple Beth-El. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Bigotry is bigotry.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow sees hate speech and crime in the same way, no matter the race or religion of the perpetrator or the victim. Speaking to an audience of more than 100 people at Temple Beth-El about what he called a “rising tide of anti-Semitism,” Gutow called on all his listeners to fight bigotry and anti-Semitism.

Disturbing incidents of public vandalism and hate speech graffiti targeting San Antonio’s Jewish community  this summer led the World Affairs Council of San Antonio to invite Rabbi Gutow, a national figure in the interfaith dialogue movement, to the city to speak.

Rabbi Samuel Stahl of Temple Beth-El feels much the same way: “As I reflect upon anti-Semitism, there are no specialists in bigotry. If a person says he or she doesn’t like Jews, almost invariably that person doesn’t like any other minority.”

Gutow has spent the last 10 years as president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). He plans to leave that position at the end of this year so he can focus on interfaith, poverty and environmental issues.

It’s his work with JCPA that has allowed Gutow and his contemporaries to put into perspective the incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of racial or religious hatred. Gutow did reference the anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism found at Congregation Agudas Achim, Congregation Rodfei Shalom and in the Oak Meadow neighborhood in August.

But these domestic forms of anti-Semitism and hatred in the United States are just part of a larger trend of hate that’s particularly blatant and deadly in Europe, Africa and Asia, Gutow said.

The rabbi said Islamophobia is on the rise, as is the violence that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inflicts on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As Gutow noted, radical Islam represents a “tiny, tiny fraction” of Islam itself.

The fight with ISIL and the regional conflicts involving Syria, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Africa, have driven millions of people from their homelands to Europe, triggering the most challenging refugee crisis to hit the continent in decades.

Gutow also acknowledged the struggle that African-Americans and Hispanics communities have experienced, especially in recent months amid a number of police killings of unarmed minorities..

“Clearly, black lives matter,” Gutow said, referencing the signature statement of the national protest movement sparked by the killings.

Rabbi Steve Gutow meets an audience member following his presentation on anti-Semitism at Temple Beth-El on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
Rabbi Steve Gutow meets an audience member following his presentation on anti-Semitism at Temple Beth-El on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

These battles with religion or race-induced hate and misunderstanding are just the tip of the iceberg, Gutow said. Going back to anti-Semitism, Gutow said it’s not only state-backed anti-Semitism, but also a matter of individuals driven to commit acts of hate against Jews. Gutow pointed to men affiliated with al Qaeda who laid siege to a Paris-area kosher market in January following the deadly attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

“Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head in disturbing ways in recent days, weeks and months. The evil in the hearts of men and women can only be moved one prejudice at a time,” Gutow said. “The Paris attack wasn’t an anomaly. It’s part of a worsening trend.”

Gutow explained that three primary factors motivate anti-Semitic acts and speech: a new generation of people with a prejudice against the Jews and their culture and history, a desire to denounce or destroy the state of Israel, and denial of the Holocaust. These factors echo notable Jewish and non-Jewish individuals who claim that anti-Zionism – opposition to Jews and Israel as a movement – has now become a cover for contemporary anti-Semitism.

Gutow noted a finding from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that the total number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 21% in 2014 – a year marked by a shooting attack targeting Jewish community buildings in Kansas and anti-Jewish expressions connected to the war in Gaza.

In the spring of 2014, the ADL released the results of its largest-ever worldwide survey of anti-Semitic attitudes. The survey found that 26% of 1.1 billion adults worldwide hold anti-Semitic views, many based upon established stereotypes, Gutow said.

“While Jews in America don’t live in intense fear for their lives, there’s no reason to think there are no concerns,” he added.

Gutow said such widespread anti-Semitism across the globe is disturbing, given the number of world powers who support Israel.

France, one of the first countries in Europe to emancipate Jews and to promote democracy on the continent, was shocked in the aftermath of the Paris-area attacks by Islamic terrorists in January, among similar acts in recent years. In Germany, Gutow said, reparations were paid to Jews following the Holocaust.

Modern-day Germany, as a whole, remains “traumatized” and sensitive about its role in World War II and with anti-Semitism. But Gutow compared Germany with Hungary, where the current migrant crisis has called into question the handling of the situation by the government and even some civilians.

In spite of hatred directed at Jews, Gutow said he has met many “radically bigoted Jews.”

He posed a rhetorical question, “What can we as concerned Americans do to combat anti-Semitism and hate in general?”

According to Gutow, his organization has encouraged the U.S. government and its leaders to raise awareness with their European counterparts about this resurgence of anti-Semitism. The JCPA encourages European officials to denounce anti-Semitic acts at every turn and to enforce laws against hate speech and to improve education.

“It’s our duty as Americans to fight baseless hate against Jews here and around the world,” Gutow said. He added that all people must stand against “senseless prejudice” and other aspects of hate that have the ability to “destroy the fabric of our society.”

Talking about differences is one thing, Gutow said, but it’s more productive to talk about the things that people of different faiths and races have in common.

“Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hispanic, black, white, we have a duty to not live in fear,” he added. “We have to care about Jews, we have to care about Christians, about Muslims, about Sikhs. We must rise up and do all we can to prevent bigotry from destroying us.”

Gutow reemphasized that point later about the recent anti-Semitic acts on San Antonio’s Northside.
“There are a million things you can do. But city leaders must stand up and tell the world, this is not San Antonio, this is not what we stand for,” he said.

One attendee asked Gutow how people can take a hands-on approach to combatting anti-Semitism in San Antonio.

“The best way to fight anti-Semitism among today’s youth is to teach it. If we want to be a great country, we have to show our youth the evil and let them understand this isn’t the way to run the world,” he added.

Rabbi Steve Gutow gives an anti-Semitism lecture at Temple Beth-El. Courtesy image.
Rabbi Steve Gutow gives an anti-Semitism lecture at Temple Beth-El. Courtesy image.

Rabbi Stahl and Lukin Gilliland, chair-elect of the WACOSA Board of Trustees, applauded the work of Gutow and JCPA to stress commonality and the factors that bring together all people for mutual understanding.

“I commend the World Affairs Council for its work and bringing forth discussions that are important not only to the nation but to the entire world,” Stahl said.

Gilliland said he met Gutow, a Dallas native, when Gutow was a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Steve always managed to hold the respect of both sides of the aisle because he was intellectually honest,” Gilliland said. “(Gutow is) working hard to strengthen the bonds among Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

*Top image: Stained glass windows illuminate at Temple Beth-El.  Photo by Scott Ball.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.