How would the Israelites view today’s freedom?

Last weekend, American Jews gathered around a seder table to celebrate Passover’s message of freedom and liberation from slavery and those who made it through the second half of the seder declared, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

And yet, after hearing a presentation by Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League – and a former Valley resident — about “Anti-Semitism Today: Global to Local,” the cynical part of me wondered how the Israelites who left Egypt would have felt about how that “freedom” translates to today.

According to the 2013 Pew Study, only 70 percent of American Jews go to a seder, even though they have the freedom to do so without fear of being punished for observing their religion, as some Jews in other countries have been. Even the president of our country hosts a seder ­– and it’s kosher.

In France, Jewish families are pulling their children out of Jewish day schools and putting them into public schools or Christian day schools because they fear for their children’s safety and French Jews don’t attend synagogue services also because of fear, according to the ADL. But in America, both Jewish day school attendance and synagogue attendance is low – which was the case even before incidence of anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. rose by 21 percent in 2014.

According to Bernstein, the ADL considers anti-Semitism in Europe not as bad as it was during the Holocaust, but as bad as it was right before World War II.

A bright spot in that distressing news, however, is that many European schools offer quality Holocaust education programs and there are several museums devoted to Holocaust remembrance, he said. At a rally in Berlin in September 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that there is no place for anti-Semitism in Germany and that fighting it is every German citizen’s duty. That wouldn’t have happened in Berlin right before the war. “Governments are aware of a problem that needs to be fixed and solved,” Bernstein noted.

In America, now is the best time to be a Jew than anywhere else at any time, he said. Jews are welcome to attend universities, join country clubs and can publicly identify as a Jew – such as by wearing a kippah – and yet, ironically, disengagement among American Jews is higher than it has ever been before.

Although the climate on college campuses regarding Israel is getting worse, one can’t necessary call it anti-Semitism because often Jews are involved in the anti-Zionism and BDS movements, he said. This stems from a lack of Jewish education when it comes to Israel.

“We’ve taken for granted that Zionism would transfer to the next generation,” he said, but it doesn’t happen by osmosis.

If young people aren’t aware of Israel’s history and are not educated about the region’s past, which led to the current conflict, then it’s easy to see how they view Israel as an aggressor rather than a small country trying to defend itself.

Even college students who attended Jewish day schools are affected, he said, because they were not exposed to anti-Israel sentiment while growing up and have no idea how to respond when they are bombarded with it once they are away at college.

One way the ADL has responded to these issues is by developing educational programs. Words to Action helps Jewish students address hostile college environments; A World of Difference Institute offers anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying training; and No Place for Hate provides schools and communities with an organized framework for combating bias, bullying and hatred. The ADL also offers Holocaust education, an anti-bias curriculum and a variety of training programs for pre-K through 12th grade communities that focus on developing an inclusive culture and respectful school climate.

Bernstein emphasized how important it is to educate the next generation – both Jews and non-Jews – about these issues and encouraged the approximately 60 attendees  (mainly older adults) at the discussion – hosted by the Jewish Enrichment Center at Beth Joseph Congregation – to “get engaged in some way.”

“We can’t take it for granted how good American Jews have it,” he said, “and we need to know how bad it is elsewhere.”

For those who don’t remember a world without Israel, it’s easy to take it for granted that it will always exist, but for centuries, our ancestors prayed and longed for a home of their own. During Passover, as we remember those who wandered in the desert for 40 years and all of their descendants, let us do our best to ensure that when we say “Next year in Jerusalem,” it still remains a possibility.

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