Aaron Weil remembers telling his Jewish father who lived through World War II, anti-Semitism is over. Weil now said he was wrong.
Weil is the Director of Central Florida Hillel Center for Jewish Life. Hate crimes have risen in the U.S. by 21 percent since 2013, according to the FBI. Weil attended the Synagogue that experienced the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation that killed 11 people and injured seven. The mass shooting, Oct. 7 2018, was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
“As a college student in the 80s I told my dad the whole concept of anti-Semitism is over,” Weil said. “That Armageddon that swept across Europe during WWII burns out that kind of small thinking, and people are not cosmopolitan.”
Weil now said he was wrong about anti-Semtism being over.
“My dad said anti-Semitism flows it goes up and it goes down, and it’s going to come back,” Weil said. And look 30 years later it came back.”
Last month on Christmas morning anti-Semitic graffiti was found on campus south of the University and Alafaya intersection.
Nirit Gelfer, an Israel Fellow at the Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCF, said she was surprised to hear the news.
“I was surprised that I saw it on campus because I did not feel any anti-Semitism from the moment I moved here,” Gelfer said. “It is unfortunate for me to know that there is still such hatred in our times. I’m thinking that any hatred directed at a particular group should be condemned.”
According to the FBI There were 973 hate crimes against Jews reported in the U.S. in 2017. Anti-Semitic hate crimes were 58 percent of all hate crimes against a religious group, and 13 percent of all hate crimes in 2017.
Weil said anti-Semitism derives from emotion not reason. Some examples of anti-Semetic ideologies are the Nationalist Socialist, which was the political ideology of Nazi Germany, or the Ku Klux Klan, an American White Supremacy hate group.
The increase in hate crimes against Jews isn’t only in the United States. Hate crimes against Jewish people in Canada grew by 24 percent in the last two reported years. In 2016 178 Jewish hate crimes were reported, compared to 221 crimes in 2017, according to Canadian Hate Crime Stats.
“If someone is filled with hatred, and hates Jews, it doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor, successful or not, alive or dead,” Weil said.
Mark Winton, a UCF criminal justice associate lecturer who researches hate crimes, said hate crimes are transparent and punishable by law. But the complex part is hate speech where individuals can be radicalized online is a big issue, Winton said. The digital age has allowed many individuals to become radicalized online.
“Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment regardless of how radical someone’s speech may be or foreshadowing of hate crimes,” Winton said. “Until an individual or group makes a clear threat, law enforcement is not required to get involved.”
According to Pew Research Center, people of the Jewish faith make up almost 2 percent of the U.S. population as of 2014.
Stephen Holmes, a UCF criminal justice associate professor who researches and studies murderers, said he believes people are increasingly targeting places of worship because attacking a place of worship sends a strong message.
“If you can’t be safe there, you can’t be safe in any public area,” Holmes said. “Places of worship are a rich target area for people who harbor hate because they send a clear message of fear.”
“We’ve had shootings in a lot of places but a church or a synagogue is a place people go to worship,” Holmes said. “A place [where] you should be protected.”
Weil remembered instances of discrimination he said he had faced in his youth where on a rare occasion someone would tell him “Jew you down,” which he described as a negative stereotype of Jewish people’s bargaining habits. Weil also said he had an experience where an individual threw pennies at him. However, Weil stated one memory sticks out to him the most.
Weil said he remembers when he was younger an encounter he had while opposing a Ku Klux Klan rally in Georgia, where he participated as part of a large counter-protest.
Weil ended up in the same restroom as a KKK member, who was dressed in a full robe and Capirote hood, he said.
The KKK member, with his young son by his side, asked Weil how he was doing, Weil said.
Weil said he responded with, “I’m good, how are you?” that he remembers the moment as “normal.”
“I’m thinking to myself, how ironic — here we stand together at the urinal … and he was completely nice to me,” Weil said. “And then after, he turns right and went toward his group, and I went toward my group. And we yelled and they yelled, and I’m thinking, ‘but back in the bathroom … ‘”
Weil said we are living in an extremely polarizing time, and that people are becoming more comfortable to being intolerant or discriminatory again.
“We’re living in very challenging times, where America is ripping itself apart,” Weil said. “We’re seeing it in both political parties, where anti-Semitism has been dormant but has never really gone away.”
Holmes, echoing the sentiment raised by Weil’s father, said that the current amount of hateful speech is a part of unpredictable “waves” within society’s evolution and that it’s normal to see a steep rise and a steep fall in hate crimes as humanity evolves.
Weil said the key to dismantling the mindset of prejudice begins with ending generalizations of other people.
“Hatred begins when you say, ‘those people’ — that’s when you know you are wrong,” Weil said. “Everything that follows after that sentence is wrong. The mere notion of ‘those people’ ignores the human individuality in everyone.”
Weil said he describes himself along with the Jewish population of UCF and Orlando as resilient in the wake of hatred.
“There was a significant amount of fear in the community around the time that this happened,” Weil said. “Since then, the community has been galvanized and together with generous support from other communities. There is a great feeling of optimism over the almost overwhelming outpouring of support for Jewish people in the United States that has really been reassuring.”