An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
The past few years have brought a sharp rise in antisemitic extremism and episodes in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. There is a level of Jew-hatred today not seen since the Nazi regime in Germany.
Community Security Service, founded in 2007, is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “Protecting Jewish Life and Jewish Way of Life.” CSS provides training in professional security techniques to members of the Jewish community who “stand ready as volunteers to protect their own against the increasing atmosphere of violent incidents and terrorism.”
Evan Bernstein recently became CEO of Community Security Service. Previously, he was Vice President, Northeast Division of the Antidefamation League; he also was part of the ADL’s senior national management team. Bernstein often speaks around the United States and abroad on the need to secure Jewish communities due to the dangerous rise in antisemitism.
We spoke with Bernstein about the resurgence of antisemitism and the increased security measures needed to protect Jewish communities and institutions.
You’ve said the Golden Age is over for American Jews. What do you mean by that?
If you look at where we’ve been as an American Jewish community since the Holocaust — the growth of the community and its institutions, the safety we’ve enjoyed — it has been unprecedented.
But if you look at what’s taken place over the last five or six years, it’s clear the American Jewish community needs to examine itself and the situation with a different lens than it did 10, 15, or 20 years ago.
Statistics bear this out: increasing numbers of antisemitic acts, increased ferocity of those acts — going from graffiti to verbal assaults to physical assaults to mass murders. All of this has taken place in a relatively short period of time.
Previously, Jewish institutions didn’t need to think that much about defending themselves. In my view, that has to change as the general climate continues to get worse for the American Jewish population
Has there been a single turning point — the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, for example == or has it been a process?
It’s been a series of events. If you look at Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Muncie — all were very serious incidents. And it’s not just those events. We’ve seen an unprecedented amount of antisemitism in the years ramping up to the events I’ve mentioned.
Whether it was the Jewish cemetery in Rochester that was desecrated, various Holocaust memorials that have been vandalized, colleges and universities defaced with swastikas, Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn being stabbed — all of them and more add up to a very disturbing picture.
If American Jews do not understand that a sea change has been going on — one that will continue to take place — they’re being naïve.
To what do you attribute the sea change?
I blame it mostly on an overall political environment that has eroded the moderate political middle. The political middle is largely gone, and a great many Americans have moved to extremes on both the left and the right.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing bad actors on all sides. That’s very concerning because today antisemitism is not coming just from one place. Now it’s coming from multiple different segments of the population.
Has social media played an important role as well?
Absolutely. Not that long ago, social media was in its infancy. As it has matured and expanded, it has allowed people to stay in their own bubble and only listen to folks they want to listen to. When you’re in an echo chamber, you’re not going to get a very full perspective on what’s going on.
I recently watched a video about antisemitism in France. Armed French soldiers stood at both sides of the door of a Jewish-owned store. In Paris, there were French troops guarding synagogues and Jewish schools. Why isn’t that happening in America?
Well, I think in some ways Europe is further ahead in the game. For one thing, Europe has experienced many more truly horrific terror attacks that resulted in numerous deaths and injuries. Not all of them were against Jews, of course.
Have you seen the European approach to Jewish security first-hand?
A couple of years ago I was in Paris to speak to CRIF, the consortium of all the Jewish organizations in France. One evening my family and I went to have dinner at a kosher restaurant. There were two soldiers outside the restaurant with submachine guns
On the other hand, when we went to the Marais district — which still is a major Jewish area of Paris — there was little security that we could see. When we were in Versailles, we saw a swastika in an elevator — but again, we didn’t see a whole lot of security. The situation seems to vary from place to place.
When I was in Stockholm last year, speaking to Jews who were dealing with what was going on in the south of the country, especially in the city of Malmö, it was eye-opening. I was warned not to wear a yarmulke when I was walking outside. Unfortunately, that’s the reality now in many European cities.
How have European governments responded to the need for enhanced Jewish security?
Overall, the governments have been quite supportive, especially after all the horrible terror attacks that have taken place. Obviously, the Holocaust happened on European soil, so governments are well aware of what Jew-hatred can lead to.
Did the Jewish communities of Europe and the American Jewish community take different approaches after the Holocaust?
In this regard, the Jews of Europe have been very different than the Jews of the United States. Post-Holocaust, Jewish communal groups in Europe did actively take control of their own security.
For example, in France and many other parts of the continent, you had to go through a Jewish communal security force if you wanted to enter a synagogue. You had to show your passport well in advance and get vetted before you were allowed in. The same was true in the UK.
That hasn’t been the case in America. We’ve relied on law enforcement and private security guards. Or we’ve had very little or no security whatsoever for our institutions.
A lot of European Jews who come here are shocked by what they see in America. Many of the volunteers we have at CSS are Europeans who felt the need to get involved because they couldn’t believe how little security there was at their synagogues
Jews in Europe, in South Africa, in Australia, and so forth, have taken the security issue far more seriously for a much longer period of time. Needless to say, the same is true in Israel. America’s Jews are just now starting to come to the realization that this is a vital concern.
At the synagogue I used to attend, there was one security guard on Friday nights and Saturdays. On the High Holidays, there may have been two. Honestly, I’m not even sure if they were armed. How effective can one security guard be in the face of a terror attack?
Listen, any security is better than no security. Each Jewish institution needs to go through its own independent threat assessment to find out what they need and what would work best for them.
Synagogues are different. Each has different entry points, each is in a different type of neighborhood, each has different vulnerabilities, each is facing a different threat level. You have to do the assessment and figure out what would be most appropriate and effective for your situation.
Why does CSS emphasize the importance of having members of a congregation providing security?
We think it is essential to have volunteers from the congregation in front of the synagogue. Why? They know and understand their community better than anyone.
Equally important, if your loved ones are inside the shul and you’re outside working safety and security — a role for which you’ve received training — you’re going to have a different attitude about how to handle situations. A different commitment.
To be clear, I’m not negating the importance of paid private security guards. Nor am I minimizing the importance of having discussions with local law enforcement. Both are important.
But it’s been proven in Jewish communities outside the United States that a key added component is having Jews protecting themselves, their loved ones, and their own institutions. Being empowered and part of the process.
What do you mean when you talk about empowerment?
That’s a term I use often because I think the concept is very important. A lot of times Jews — especially Jews in America — don’t feel empowered. They feel powerless. They feel they have to outsource their security to others.
But if we can empower ourselves to be part of the solution, it makes us and our communities stronger. It’s not only the actual practice of providing safety; it’s also the emotional, the psychological, component. I believe that’s essential.
For centuries, Jews had virtually no possibility of defending themselves. They were viewed as intellectuals and scholars, not as fighters. Of course, Israel has changed the stereotype considerably. Still, is that cultural heritage a hinderance to Jewish empowerment?
Yes, but it is possible to change. If you look at the Jews involved in security in Europe these days, they’re mostly 18-year-olds to 25-year-olds. They become engaged with security at a very early age.
When they’re older, they understand the importance of security and they’ve already been trained in it. You don’t have to convince them about it. That’s a big part of the culture that needs to shift in America.
American Jews have to develop an understanding that we can’t be shrinking violets. We have to take more control over our own destiny. Again, outsourcing is fine. Bringing in experts is exactly what we need to do. But we must not do those things exclusively.
Some of it means assuming part of the burden — actually standing out in front of a synagogue and protecting it. Or at least becoming educated enough to know what needs to happen in case there’s a shooter or some other dangerous emergency situation.
That concludes Part One of our in-depth interview with Evan Bernstein. Part Two will appear on AntisemitismExposed.org next month. Look for it!
Photo:The Times of Israel
An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor