How Skyrocketing Antisemitism Is Changing Cincinnati Jewish Response, Future Outlook

Before Oct. 7, Jews in Cincinnati and across the U.S. had already seen a multi-year rise in antisemitism.

But since Oct. 7, when Hamas – the Iran-backed terrorist organization in Gaza – massacred 1,200 people in Israeli communities, antisemitism in the U.S. has gotten even worse. Antisemitism tends to skyrocket around the world when Israel is at war, as it is now with Hamas.

In Cincinnati alone, antisemitic incidents went from happening roughly once a week, to now happening once a day, according to the Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council. 

Even that is an undercount, said Rabbi Ari Jun, the JCRC’s director.

“There are a lot of things that are serious incidents of antisemitism which don’t get recorded and incorporated into that data,” Jun said. Anecdotally, some Cincinnati Jews have had antisemitic slurs yelled at them from a car, or urine thrown at them on the street. 

Meanwhile, there’s been a wave of online speech too big to track that ranges from criticism of Israel to outright antisemitism.

“At this point, there’s hardly a Jew on social media, I suspect, who hasn’t seen somebody post the language of ‘from the river to sea’ on a status or an Instagram story,” Jun said. 

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a common pro-Palestinian slogan seen by many Jews as antisemitic and erasing Jewish self-determination in Israel. Especially after Oct. 7 – the “river to the sea” language is also used by Hamas – many Jews hear the chant as an open cry for Jewish genocide and the destruction of Israel.

Seeing those kinds of slogans online “affects the well-being of our Jewish community,” Jun said. “But those aren’t even things that we’re tracking as antisemitic incidents at this point, because we wouldn’t have enough time to keep up with it.”

Amid a variety of issues, from swastika graffiti in schools to verbal and physical harassment against Jews of all ages, the JCRC’s capacity to respond is stretched thin.

But that capacity is now getting a boost: Since Oct. 7, Cincinnati Jewish organizations are working more closely than ever to address skyrocketing antisemitism. An informal coalition has the JCRC, the Cincinnati chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center pooling resources and building a more collaborative playbook against antisemitism.

The effort brings some much-needed hope and resilience to the Cincinnati Jewish community, said Justin Kirschner, the director of the Cincinnati AJC.

“While incidents continue to surface at these alarming rates, and everyone is trying their best to collaborate, our resolve really is strong, and we are finding small wins here and there,” Kirschner said. “That passion and grit of our folks really will ensure that we don’t just get through this moment – but that we ultimately come out stronger. And I think that’s really important for us to realize.”

Everyone has a role

Effective collaboration is sometimes about the most basic of tools: The JCRC, AJC, and Holocaust & Humanity Center have a whatsapp group that Kirschner calls a “collective brain trust.”

When an antisemitic incident happens, staff from the organizations can quickly share details, create a management plan, and figure out who is best equipped to respond. Usually, the JCRC handles direct incident response, while the other two organizations serve as educational resources leveraging their own community relationships when necessary.

For Kirschner, that means offering national AJC resources like a glossary of hate terms and phrases, educational material about Jews who fled antisemitism from the Middle East and North Africa, and guides for steps institutions can take to address antisemitism.

“When we’re meeting with leadership, they say, ‘What can we do?’ And these guides offer those practical solutions,” Kirschner said. “It’s a menu of options to consider, from involving the Jewish experience in [diversity, equity, and inclusion] spaces – which, often Jews are excluded from those spaces – to putting new structures and policies in place within their codes of conduct on how to address when people break that line from free speech to hate speech.”

Kirschner also does training about antisemitism and Israel with Cincinnati organizations, having recently done programs at Xavier and Miami University. He sees the work as proactive, trying to tackle issues before they get to the JCRC.

Meanwhile, the Holocaust & Humanity Center, which usually focuses on being similarly proactive with education about antisemitism and advocating for people to be “upstanders” against hate, is taking a more direct approach.

Holocaust survivors “built the center wanting to ensure that what happened to them never happens again,” said Jackie Congedo, the HHC’s chief community engagement & external relations officer.

For the HHC, Oct. 7, as the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust, calls for an immediate response – especially in light of the widespread denialism, downplaying, justifications, celebrations, and gaslighting that Jews and Israelis are facing about the Hamas attack. Those are, unfortunately, familiar themes in the world of Holocaust education and remembrance.

“Dehumanization driven by libelous propaganda is leading to silence, and in some cases, justification, of what happened on October 7,” Congedo said. “Our center has a role to play in sounding the alarm about existential threats to Jewish people, what that has looked like throughout history.”

The HHC is coordinating with the JCRC to help educate people in response to antisemitic incidents, bringing an expertise in age-appropriate education about modern antisemitism that is especially necessary in schools.

“It’s about being a trusted resource with the right credibility…to be able to deliver that education in a way that can create an environment where hopefully, these things don’t happen again,” Congedo said.

Small wins, tough fights

For the JCRC, responding to each antisemitic incident requires a unique approach. Every situation has its own details, and the Jews targeted by antisemitism may want different solutions – or even  to move on from the incident without addressing it.

“One of the things that we’ve always done in responding to antisemitism…is that we try to immediately ensure that we are able to provide support to the affected parties, the victims in particular, and be responsive to what they need,” the JCRC’s Jun said.

If the victims want to try and resolve the situation, the JCRC works with them and the institution where the incident happened to connect to solutions, like education from the AJC or HHC. 

There are many ups and downs. “There are incidents that have taken place over the last couple of months where I wish we could have done more,” Jun said.

Advocating for Jews institutionally, like with managers or executives in workplaces or administration in schools, is hit-or-miss. That’s a frustration felt especially in the JCRC’s work with Cincinnati schools, where, like the rest of the country, Jewish students have faced criticism of Israel from peers and teachers alike that often erupts into outright antisemitic harassment

“There are certainly principals and superintendents who have been very, very attentive, and really should be noted for incredible efforts” supporting Jewish students, Jun said. “And there are schools where we will bring serious issues of antisemitism to their attention, and will have to advocate very forcefully to even have a chance of seeing them respond in the way that they ought to.”

That kind of poor response reinforces the Jewish community’s fears about antisemitism.

“I wish I could say that the popular conception – that [antisemitism is] bad in schools right now – is overblown, but it is not,” Jun said. “Certainly not in Cincinnati.”

But Jun continues to stay positive about the Jewish community’s ability to address antisemitism. At the end of the day, every success matters, and every incident is an opportunity to make things better in a time of strife.

“That’s why I find this to be meaningful work,” Jun said. “When we arrive to many of these situations, things are already broken. Something has already gone wrong. And it’s our job to fix it.”

Looking to future, tough conversations and relationship-building needed

Amid worsening antisemitism and an extremely contentious conversation about Israel, the Jewish community is also experiencing a broader sense of isolation. Some local partnerships, including with the Muslim community, have suffered as community leaders find themselves fundamentally at odds over the Israel-Hamas war and the ensuing destruction in Gaza.

“Some relationships with the Muslim community have felt a lot of strain over the last couple of months,” Jun said. “Certainly there are interfaith partners we would have wanted to see stand up…strongly as allies with the Jewish community, who didn’t do so.”

At the same time, Jews have seen more support from Christians about Israel – though the two communities may not see eye-to-eye on domestic issues.

“We don’t always sit in alignment on issues that matter,” Jun said. “But these are folks within the Christian community who have really shown up for us and stood up to help protect our community over the last couple of months.”

These trends have convinced Jewish leaders to throw out a longstanding, if quiet, principle of communal partnerships, interfaith work, and progressive advocacy: Avoid talking about Israel.

“It’s not serving us well, in the long run,” Jun said. “It’s better for us to have those tough conversations when things aren’t so chaotic, when Israel’s not in the midst of a war, than for us to dance around them until we are forced to discuss them in the middle of one…I don’t know where it will lead us, but that’s what our future looks like.”

Talking about Israel has to be core to the “intense genuine person-to-person relationship building” that the Jewish community will have to do after the war, Jun said. And it can’t happen sooner – right now, neither Jews nor Muslims in Cincinnati are ready to talk.

“It’s to my disappointment, but that is what I’ve discovered,” Jun said. “After the dust settles, and this war is over, it’s going to take a little bit of time for us to repair some damage that was made.”

Meanwhile, the Holocaust & Humanity Center – along with the rest of the Holocaust education field – is navigating the tension of responding to antisemitism that is both timeless, and tied so specifically to Israel. They are Holocaust and genocide educators, after all, not experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In the past, Israel “has been a bit adjacent to the Holocaust education space,” Congedo said. There are, of course, connections to Israel with Holocaust survivors, including those in Cincinnati, coming to the U.S. by way of the Jewish state. Israel is also central to conversations about Jewish security globally after the Holocaust.

But Israel also has its own context, politics, and history, with legitimate issues to discuss and understand that are not tied to the Holocaust. 

“There are conversations – I think that are fair conversations – about Israeli policy and actors, and human rights implications,” Congedo said. “In the field of Holocaust, genocide, and human rights, understandably, I think the field has to be judicious about this.”

There’s also a risk that Holocaust educators misstep when teaching about Israel alongside the Holocaust. 

“There’s the concern that somehow, we could inadvertently contribute to the false narrative that Israel was a colonial consolation prize after the Holocaust for Jews – which really undermines the Jewish legitimacy and indigeneity in that land,” Congedo said.

But that doesn’t mean the HHC is shying away from its educational role about modern antisemitism and where hate leads, Congedo said. Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, and what it means for the Jewish people, is impossible for the center to ignore.

Looking to the future, there’s also a deeper internal Jewish conversation to have about the shock of Oct. 7 and rising antisemitism in Cincinnati, said the AJC’s Kirschner. For many Jews, seeing so much antisemitism – particularly from progressive activists about Israel – has been eye-opening.

“A lot of what we’re seeing from this progressive ideological space is actually causing a lot of harm, when in reality, we might look at progressive values as a bastion for what we should aspire to,” Kirschner said. 

Jews in Cincinnati are “being collectively held responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, whether or not we are Zionist, or have a connection [to Israel], or travel there, or don’t see Israel as a part of their Jewish identity,” he said. “That doesn’t matter to the antisemite.”

Jews need to take time to reflect on those dynamics, and what it means for them and the community moving forward, Kirschner said. But that doesn’t mean giving in to fear for Jewish life in the U.S.

“The Jewish American experience within the United States has been a pretty good one, for the most part, and I still do have hope that it can remain” that way, Kirschner said. 

This is also a moment to connect more with Jewish tradition and history, and find the strength to persevere and have joy even in difficult times.

“Our people, and our narrative, is not just one of death and destruction, which is so often what we come to see, or what’s talked about, in general society,” Kirschner said. 

Many Jews right now are “fearful, tired, afraid. Those are emotions that are very okay to be experiencing right now,” he said. “But our people don’t cower. We lean into one another, and we find ways to persist. That’s been what our story is. And I truly believe that’s what our story will continue to be – whatever the future holds for us.”