Outbursts of Bigotry in 2017

Dialogika Resources

Statement on Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Saint Leo University’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies (CCJS) firmly and resolutely condemns the recent surge of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts targeting Jewish and Muslim houses of worship and institutions in the United States.

Here in Tampa Bay, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents have directly affected Jewish and Muslim friends dear to the CCJS and Saint Leo University. On October 16, 2016, an anti-Semitic message written on an American flag was left in front of Congregation Schaaria Zedek, in Tampa. The message blamed the Jews for what the messenger believed to be “the biased media and a dangerous open-border immigration policy.” On February 24, 2017, the New Tampa Masjid, in Thonotosassa, Florida, suffered damage from an arson attack. Students of Saint Leo University’s World Religions courses frequently visit this mosque, and are always treated with exceptional hospitality. Members of the mosque have participated in interreligious dialogue with our Center and our Saint Leo students. On January 5, 2017, Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation evacuated its north and south campus preschools after receiving a bomb threat.

Hundreds of Jews and Muslims across Florida have been targeted. On Feb. 27, 2017, the Posnack Jewish Day School, in Davie, Florida, evacuated hundreds of children and staff after receiving a bomb threat. Bomb threats have also been called into Florida Jewish Community Centers in Orlando, Palm Beach Gardens, Kendall, Miami Beach, and Pinecrest. On Jan. 3, 2016 someone used a machete to vandalize the Al-Mumin Mosque, in Titusville, Florida, damaging its lights and smashing its windows. In November of 2016, several mosques in Miami Gardens and Broward County, Florida, received letters threatening genocide. In February 2017, swastikas were scratched and painted on several cars in predominately Jewish neighborhoods in South Florida.

The frequency and coordination of incidents at the national level is unprecedented. In 2015 there were 78 attacks on mosques nationwide. Since January of 2017, there have been more than 90 bomb threats against 73 Jewish institutions in 30 states. On Saturday, February 4, 2017, the windows of the Chicago Loop Synagogue were shattered and swastika stickers were placed on its doors. The attack on our friends at the New Tampa Masjid represents the fourth mosque to have been burned in seven weeks. Other mosques include the Islamic Center of Lake Travis, Austin, Texas; the Islamic Center of Eastside, Bellevue, Washington; and the Islamic Center of Victoria, Victoria, Texas. The Feb. 21st desecration of the Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in St. Louis, and the Feb. 26th desecration of the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, left hundreds of headstones overturned. On March 2, headstones were also overturned at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, in Rochester, New York.

We are truly grieved by these horrendous acts of violence against our Jewish and Muslim neighbors. The attacks are an assault on the American tradition of religious freedom and on our shared human dignity.

Catholics must not remain silent in the face of this surge of hate incidents and would do well to recall and share with others that the Church condemns discrimination or harassment of a human person because of their race or religion. Such attitudes and actions are “foreign to the mind of Christ” (Nostra Aetate 5). Furthermore, the Catholic Church “decries...displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews by anyone and at any time (Nostra Aetate 4).” As the Most Rev. Thomas Wenski, Archbishop of Miami, has said, these hateful actions “deserve our deepest concern and unequivocal rejection.” In his February 9, 2017, address to the Anti-Defamation League, Pope Francis stated that the Catholic Church “feels particularly obliged to do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies.” Indeed, anti-Semitism, and all forms of racism, are, according to Saint Pope John Paul II, “sins against God and humanity.” (Address to Representatives of the Jewish Community, August 8 1991). Additionally, the Church teaches that “God holds the Jews most dear” (Nostra Aetate 4) and that the Jewish people “carry to the whole world a witness - often heroic - of fidelity to the one God” (Notes 1985 sec. VI). The Church also regards Muslims “with esteem” since they adore the one God, Creator of heaven and earth. Muslims also revere Jesus as a Prophet; they honor Mary, his virgin Mother, and they model the moral life by their striving in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting (Nostra Aetate 3). The Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies was founded on the teachings of Nostra Aetate, and it strives to repel anti-Semitic tendencies and reproves discrimination based on religion. To our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters: we stand with you in this dark hour and condemn the violence that has been visited upon your communities.

We are encouraged that many Muslim, Jewish, and Christian responses to these reprehensible attacks on human dignity display the presence of a remarkable level of interreligious collaboration. Muslims, Christians, and Jews are standing against this onslaught of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia by repairing damaged or destroyed property and demonstrating hospitality to each other. In doing so they are writing a courageous story of interfaith cooperation before our eyes.

When the Victoria Islamic Center was burned down the last weekend of January 2017, their neighboring synagogue, B’Nai Israel temple, gave the keys to their congregation to their Muslim neighbors and invited them to use the synagogue for their services. Four churches in the same Texas town extended similar invitations to the mosque. The Victoria Islamic Center also received financial support in the form of a public funding page that has raised more than $1 million for reconstruction. Since the attacks on the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Muslims have raised enough money to repair the damaged headstones and to provide increased security at the cemetery. The same Muslim leaders plan to provide funds to help repair the Philadelphia Jewish cemetery. The New Tampa mosque was burned on Friday morning, February 22, around 2 a.m. Due to water damage from its sprinkler system, the mosque was rendered unusable, and members did not have a place for Friday prayers. Later that morning a neighboring evangelical community church invited the New Tampa mosque to have the service inside their church, which they accepted.

Responding to this surge of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the United States will also require identifying political and spiritual causes. “Religions must work together to remove the causes of terrorism and promote friendship among peoples” (Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church 1088). Political division in America has contributed to a climate of hatred that undermines human dignity. The CCJS invites all people: believers and non-believers, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, to come together not only in condemnation of acts of hatred but in standing up for the principles of respect for human dignity, ethnic diversity, and religious freedom in the United States. Since all human persons are created in the image of God, “No foundation...remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned (Nostra Aetate 5).”

In his November 2016 Address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, Pope Francis remarked that one cause of acts of terror is fear: “...[W]hen we see the spread of xenophobia, when we realize that intolerant ideas are gaining ground, behind that burgeoning cruelty is the cold breath of fear. I ask you to pray for all those who are fearful.” The CCJS therefore calls upon Jews, Catholics, and Muslims to build bridges of interreligious collaboration and friendship across the political spectrum, with attention to reaching “those who are fearful.” The CCJS is committed heart and soul to promoting respect, mutual understanding, and cooperation for justice, for the common good, through collaborative dialogue, study, and teaching.