Adolf Hitler has been dead for almost 77 years, and yet we’re still dealing with people hating on Jewish people. Locally, anti-Semitic leaflets about the “COVID AGENDA” were strewn across Miami Beach and Surfside earlier this month, and a few dozen swastika-sporting, slur-spouting demonstrators descended on the Orlando area this past weekend.
While some local officials were quick to decry the group of neo-Nazis, others asked, “Do we even know they’re Nazis?”
The uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric and hateful demonstrations locally has inspired two groups — JewBelong, a New Jersey-based nonprofit seeking to “rebrand Judaism,” and Florida International University’s (FIU) Jewish student organization, Hillel at FIU — to debut four bright pink billboards calling out “Jew hate” this week across South Florida.
“We’re just 75 years since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling out Jew hate isn’t an overreaction,” reads one of the billboards, which can be seen near Miami International Airport and off I-395 near Biscayne Boulevard.
The other, viewable from I-95 in Miami and Hollywood, reads, “Does your church need armed guards? ‘Cause our synagogue does.”
“It was almost like anti-Semitism was being normalized and blown up in the U.S.,” Archie Gottesman, cofounder of JewBelong, tells New Times. “We’re online a lot and it was insane what we saw.”
JewBelong launched its national anti-anti-Semitism campaign last May, as Israeli forces launched air raids on Gaza and the Hamas militant group barraged Israeli cities with rockets. It seemed as tensions flared in the Middle East, so did anti-Semitism across the U.S.
It was around this time, says Hillel at FIU executive director Jon Warech, that an unknown person intruded on the group’s online freshman orientation program and filled the Zoom chat with hateful messages.
“It wasn’t even a pro-Israel program,” Warech tells New Times, elucidating a crucial distinction between Jews and Israel — a distinction to which many remain oblivious. “But their goal was just to scare our [Jewish] students away.”
Warech says hate for Jewish people is still highly prevalent and normalized on college campuses — including FIU, where inappropriate jokes about Jews are bandied about with regularity.
Within the first few weeks of 2022, worshipers in a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, were held hostage by a gunman and a woman told three children outside a Brooklyn synagogue that “Hitler should have killed you all” and spat on an 8-year-old boy.
The billboards are part of JewBelong’s larger national campaign, and similar billboards have gone up in other parts of the U.S., but Gottesman and Warech say South Florida, home to one of the highest concentrations of Jewish people in the world, is a crucial location for their message.
“Florida is one of the top three states where we receive the most complaints of hate online,” Gottesman notes. “I don’t know what’s going on in Florida, but it’s not good.”
Warech says Gov. Ron DeSantis’ refusal to condemn the neo-Nazis in Orlando this week is a sign of the current political climate in the U.S., where hate has often become political.
“There shouldn’t be sides taken to anti-Semitism, but unfortunately it’s become a question of, ‘What do my voters wanna hear?'” Warech says. “It’s disappointing.”
When Warech was younger, he remembers the Holocaust-related tagline “Never Forget” repeated over and over. But, as this year marks the 77-year anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, he says people seemed to have forgotten.
“The people banning books forgot. The people in Texas forgot. Whoopi Goldberg forgot,” Warech says. “We need something that doesn’t just catch the eye, but something that makes you stop and think.”