The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga wants Chattanoogans to fight antisemitism, and it's sending the message in part via nine new pink billboards around town.
As anti-Jewish rhetoric and incidents garner attention in Chattanooga and at the national level, the group Monday launched an antisemitism awareness campaign unprecedented in its history.
"We feel this is very bold," said federation Executive Director Michael Dzik by phone, adding the billboards, which will display the messages for eight weeks, are meant to be provocative.
The idea is to spur complacent individuals to call out antisemitic talk when they hear it -- and to proactively work to prevent its spread in their own communities.
"Can a billboard end antisemitism?" reads one set of signs. "No. But you're not a billboard."
"We're just 75 years since the gas chambers," reads another. "So no, a billboard calling out Jew hate isn't an overreaction."
The Jewish Federation also plans to distribute throughout the Chattanooga area thousands of postcards with similar messaging and seeks to coordinate with congregations and other groups to bring in educational speakers and foster discussion.
Dzik said the federation typically works in quiet ways, discussing problems and initiatives with multifaith groups, church ministries and elected officials, while occasionally making public statements.
"We've not ever done anything like this," he said.
Why now? Because antisemitism is on an alarming rise, Dzik said.
Throughout world history, crude stereotypes of an oft-scapegoated Jewish people have been used to justify violence. This history is not foreign to Chattanooga, where a white former Ku Klux Klan member and Nazi sympathizer bombed Chattanooga's Beth Sholom Synagogue in 1977, according to his own confession.
Still, the frank antisemitism modeled lately by anonymous and famous figures alike has left many people bewildered.
In 2020, a vandal spray painted swastikas on the Walnut Street Bridge. In a recent interview, the rapper Kanye West said, "I like Hitler," adding later that, "I love Jewish people, but I also love Nazis."
The Nazis were behind the systematic murder of several million Jews -- the historical backdrop for the "Americans and the Holocaust" exhibit set to show at Chattanooga Public Library early next year.
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Antisemitism can however, be more subtle. Dzik said many people echo antisemitic tropes in everyday conversation, without fully realizing what they are saying. Or in November, for example, several fliers appeared around University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus grossly exaggerating the role of Jews in the trans-Atlantic slave trade -- reflecting a strain of antisemitism scholars trace to the influence of a widely debunked book produced by a Black nationalist group in the 1990s.
In a report, the Anti-Defamation League counted a jump in antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2021, which saw a 34% increase in such incidents from the previous year and the highest number on record since the group began tracking the figure in 1979.
The report noted that in 2021 there were no assaults on the Jewish community in the U.S. that resulted in mass casualties, and the vast majority of attacks that did take place were perpetrated without a deadly weapon.
But with the deadly 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh still on people's minds, and as some of the highest-profile figures in the world associate themselves with plainly antisemitic figures, Jewish leaders fear where unchecked antisemitic rhetoric on social media and beyond could lead.
One of the Jewish Federation's partners in its new campaign is JewBelong, which developed the billboard messaging, and has deployed it in big cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta. In a letter to the community explaining the new campaign, Dzik and local Jewish Federation Chairman Rob Lowe said Chattanooga was the smallest city yet where a group has partnered with the organization.
The 1,500-something Jewish people around Chattanooga will not be able to stop the swell of antisemitism, Dzik said.
"But if thousands and thousands within the community are standing up, and they're calling it out and they're educating others on why this is terrible and wrong and hateful, maybe we can make some changes," he said.
Dzik hopes to see more non-Jewish groups show support. Now and then a religious leader will cold call him to acknowledge that "antisemitism is out there and you're facing it, and we want to stand with you," Dzik said. "It sends chills down my spine. They understand some of the suffering and nervousness and anxiety we have as Jews, just for being Jewish."
Contact Andrew Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6431. Follow him on Twitter @aonSchwartz.