Battling anti-Semitism in South Dakota

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — In a release sent out by South Dakota Voices for Peace, it was reported that anti-Semitic stickers had been found recently in Sioux Falls. The stickers were found posted near a fire station in town, one displaying a Nazi swastika; the other baring words related to anti-Semitic conspiracies involving Holocaust denial, the media, banking and COVID-19.

Anti-Semitism is the word describing hostility or prejudice toward the Jewish people.

To better understand the impact that displays of anti-Semitism have on the Jewish community, KELOLAND News met with three members of the Mt. Zion congregation at the Temple in Sioux Falls.

Jen Dreiske is the President of the board of the Mount Zion Congregation and is also a member of South Dakota Voices for Peace.

“In the last week and a half there have been four instances of anti-Semitism being posted throughout our community,” she said, describing the situation with the stickers.

Dreiske says that anti-Semitism evokes a sense of fear within the community, and to understand why, one needs only to look at world history. “It evokes memories of previous instances of anti-Semitism,” she said. “Because the Holocaust is still in our recent memory, it does evoke a sense of dread and concern.”

While the comparison of stickers to the Holocaust may seem extreme to some, it is important to remember how such events began.

“This is nothing different than what the Nazis did,” said Jacob Forstein, Vice President of the board. “They started off with propaganda blaming the Jews for the horrible atrocities in Germany after WWI — it was a lot easier to blame a group of people than it was to admit to your own faults.”

These most recent instances of hate included the spreading of long-held anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracies dealing involving holocaust denial and Jewish control of the media and banking, as well as conspiracies relating to COVID-19.

Tovia Forstein, a member of the congregation’s board, explained the reason that such conspiracies have continued to propagate through the years.

These days, anti-Semitism seems to be appearing more and more in the public eye.

“Anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years,” says Dreiske. “Right now, with COVID-19, people are nonchalantly comparing the wearing of masks with wearing a yellow Star of David as Jews had to during the Holocaust.”

This type of comparison is anti-Semitic, and it has been made many times since the beginning of the pandemic, sprouting from places such as the pages of newspapers and from elected officials ranging from mayors to U.S. Representatives.

It is possible that many people may have made such comments without ever even realizing that they were perpetuating anti-Semitism, but according to Dreiske, that doesn’t fix things.

“[Comparing masks to the star patches] trivializes and minimizes the horrific nature of the Holocaust,” she explained. “With anti-Semitism, we don’t have to worry about the intent. It’s the impact we have to worry about. ‘Maybe I didn’t intend to break the egg, but the egg is broken.’ It’s the same with our words.”

While anti-Semitism may not be in the forefront of many people’s minds, it is still present, and according to data from the FBI, continuing to spread. A release from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) cites data from the FBI’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics Act (HCSA) report, which revealed a nearly 45% increase in reported hate crimes in 2020 compared to 2019 in ADL’s Midwest Region which includes South Dakota.

According to Sioux Falls police, the placement of these anti-Semitic messages does not constitute a hate-crime under South Dakota law.

“The hate crime is actually very specific in state law,” said Sam Clemens, Public Information Officer with the SFPD. “It’s the specific intent to intimidate or harass a person or a group of people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, ancestry or national origin.”

What prevents this instance from being labeled a hate crime, according to Clemens, is the further requirement that the action causes physical injury, defaces personal property, or threatens to do either of those things.

No clear threats were made in this instance, and the stickers were posted on public property. Tovia thinks this was intentional.

“[Police] are very aware of the situation,” he said. “They try to handle it the best they can. They are law enforcement — they have a set of rules they need to go by, and these people of hate try to exploit the law — they will post the stickers of the propaganda on city property, not on local businesses because then it can turn into a specific target which can then be classified as a hate crime — on city property as in a bus stop or something, it’s just vandalism.”

Both Tovia and Jacob expressed that their community has a good relationship with law enforcement, but according to Jacob, that isn’t always enough. “We really rely on our leaders — our governor, our mayor — to really stand up and speak against hate,” he said. “South Dakota does have pretty weak anti-hate laws and, in my opinion, the Governor could do something about that and strengthen the law.”

When it comes to changing the laws, Tovia is hopeful.

“There is always room for improvement — Sioux Falls and South Dakota will always make the right decision, when enough time is given. These people are good; I am these people,” exclaimed Tovia, a life-long Sioux Falls resident.

Laws change over time. I know it always feels that the wheels of justice grind so slow, but it’s called the heartland for a reason! It will come eventually — of trying to stop this hatred. These people are cowards — hopefully they either go away or just stop completely. It’s just part of living through life unfortunately, but there’s always hope and that’s the thing that we want to shine, is the hope.

Tovia Forstein, Mt. Zion board member

The Jewish community in South Dakota is not large, with the Mt. Zion congregation comprising about 100 families across the state. “We are one of the smallest Jewish populations within the United States,” explained Jacob. “But we’ve been here forever, and we’re not going to go anywhere.”

When anti-Semitism is displayed, it is felt deeply. “The first reaction for a majority of our congregation members is going to be thinking back to the Holocaust — of ‘is this the start of something major, or is this just a lone attack?'”

In times of fear, the congregation leans on one another, and on the larger community surrounding them.

“Oh, very supportive,” exclaimed Tovia when asked about the response from the community following acts of anti-Semitism. “People don’t want that hatred — the majority of our neighbors inside the city, inside the state, outside the state — will stand up and say we don’t want this hatred towards the Jewish people, or when it happens to other groups as in Asian-hate, Muslim-hate, any of the LGBTQ-hate.”

Tovia says that the Mt. Zion Temple congregation stands with these other groups.

“It’s not tolerable.”

This theme was also picked up by Dreiske. “Hate is hate. It’s unacceptable. It bleeds into everything. Most people don’t just hate one group — they hate all groups. One of the anti-Semitic symbols was found outside Club David, and we stand with our LGBTQ partners.”

When it comes to facing anti-Semitism, Dreiske emphasized the importance of solidarity. “You stand with the victim,” she said. “That’s where your energy should be; not necessarily going to battle with whoever is saying the anti-Semitic tropes but stand with the Jewish people — stand with the victim. Let us know that you’re with us.”

Tovia and Jacob both pointed to the role of learning in stamping out anti-Semitism. “Education, as always,” said Tovia. “Informing people of the lies and proving those lies with facts.”

In terms of how you become educated, Jacob says it’s simple. “Ask,” he said with a shrug. “Give us a call. We’re more than willing to answer questions and to educate people.”

Despite the reality of hate and anti-Semitism, the Mt. Zion congregation is not going anywhere. This story has been published on the 4th night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

“The darkness will always be there,” said Tovia. “It’s always a constant fight, but that is one of the reasons we celebrate Hanukkah, is to light the candles and show in the darkness that there is light.”

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