by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
As a fifth-generation Jew who grew up in Overland Park, Gavriela Geller has witnessed a rapid rise of antisemitism. As executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee (JCRB/AJC) Kansas City, her focus includes advocacy and education.
“Antisemitism is like a virus,” said Geller. “It never goes away. It lies dormant, then re-emerges when a scapegoat is needed. In times of rapid social change and economic and political uncertainty, Jews have historically become scapegoats.”
Geller describes antisemitism as pervasive today. Citing FBI statistics, she says that while Jews account for 2% of the country’s population, 60% of hate crimes nationwide in 2019 represented acts against Jewish people or their properties.
Incidents tracked nationally by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reflect a 56% increase in assaults against Jewish individuals in 2019 compared to 2018. These numbers could potentially be higher; it is believed that 76% of Jews don’t report the antisemitism they experience.
In tracking hate, extremism, antisemitism and terrorism, ADL reports six antisemitic incidents and 11 cases of distribution of white supremacist propaganda in Kansas (March 2019 through July 2020). The incidents include harassment and vandalism; five of the six occurred in northeast Kansas.
Geller links demonizing rhetoric and divisiveness in the United States with the rise of antisemitism. Antisemitism manifests itself culturally, politically, religiously and racially. It operates on the thesis that Jews are the source of all evil in the world. For example, theories arose that Jews were somehow nefariously involved in the spread of COVID-19 and the California wildfires.
Antisemitism today thrives on what Geller calls “code words and dog whistles” — words, phrases and tropes that subtly but definitely target Jews. In addition, there are incidents of Holocaust denial and distortion, and rhetoric about Israel that denies Jewish people the right to a homeland. Antisemitism’s main sources are the far right, far left and religious extremists, but it also stems from insensitive remarks and negative stereotypes.
Geller acknowledges that social media platforms perpetuate images and tropes targeted against Jews. An article posted to the “Police Chief Online Magazine” cites the role of online platforms in amplifying hateful ideologies and identifies propaganda as a stepping stone to violence.
Chuck Green, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, says that there are individuals who need to believe in something and that often they are very impressionable. The former Secret Service special agent says social media makes it easier to recruit and indoctrinate.
His role as security director is to help Jewish institutions detect threatening behaviors before harm occurs. Green is an alum of Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood.