© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Central Standard

Anti-Semitic Incidents Raise Alarm In Missouri And Kansas

Laura Ziegler

Nearly a year ago, three people were shot and killed outside the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kan. The only suspect, former Ku Klux Klan member Frazier Glenn Cross, was known by authorities to harbor anti-Semitic beliefs. 

And just a week ago, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich committed suicide. He was reportedly furious over a political "whisper campaign" in which the chair of the state Republican party incorrectly said Schweich was Jewish.

Both these events raise the question: is anti-Semitism on the rise in Kansas and Missouri?

Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League responds to reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Missouri and Illinois. Her office dealt with two cases in 2013 and 11 cases in 2014.

"Clearly the JCC shooting [was a big incident], but we had a series of incidents that were all kind of different," Aroesty said in conversation with Central Standard's Gina Kaufmann. "I'm not sure exactly what the jump in numbers means, but I think more people are aware, more people are reporting issues and more folks are sensitive to the issues." 

Aroesty says that, while there are some clear cases of malicious anti-Semitism, most are simply misunderstandings borne out of ignorance.

"We had a school situation where a school faculty member was a Vietnam veteran and put a bumper sticker in his room that said, 'I'll forgive Jane Fonda when the Jews forgive Hitler,'" Aroesty said. "What we did was talk to him and say, 'Can you understand why folks in the Jewish community particularly right now consider that problematic?' and the bumper sticker disappeared."

Congregation Kol Ami rabbi Doug Alpert agreed with Aroesty that most occurrences of anti-Semitism are simply mistakes. But Alpert is deeply troubled by recent events.

"At first, my inclination was to separate the two, but they’re not that far apart," Alpert said. "The notion that being a Jew would be a liability to running for political office in Missouri still feeds a sense of demonizing the 'other.'"

Jeanne Snodgrass is director of the University of Missouri’s Hillel House, a place where Jewish students can come to connect with other Jewish students. She says her own experiences as a Jewish woman have been similar to what Aroesty has seen.

"For some people, [my Jewish heritage] was almost exciting or exotic, and sometimes the questions I’d get asked were things that should’ve been offensive," Snodgrass said. "But I think they came not from a bad place, but a place of wanting to know about the culture."

Still, even innocent mistakes and curiosity can cross a line. Mizzou student Thalia Sass says small slips of the tongue can still unintentionally hurt.

"A lot of the Jewish students here experience microaggressions," Sass said. "You hear a lot of expressions like, 'They tried to Jew me down on the price,' or odd questions about the Israel-Palestinian conflict."

Aroesty says when dealing with anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist remarks, calm confidence is often the best way to let someone know they are being offensive without escalating the situation.

"The most effective kind of conversation is where you can say to someone, 'What you just said is offensive to me and here’s why,'" Aroesty said. "Then you can get the other person to the point where they get it. They might not agree with it, but they'll understand." 

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.