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Staff File Photo / Then-Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a prayer vigil at the Jewish Cultural Center in 2018 for the victims of a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

In the minds of some conspiracists across the country, Jews are behind what has now notoriously been called "the great replacement theory."

The term was forcefully launched into wider public domain last weekend when an 18-year-old white New York man opened fire in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store, killing 10, all of them Black. The suspect, Payton Gendron, allegedly left behind a 180-page document filled with rants about race and ties to the "great replacement."

Briefly, "great replacement theory" is the idea that nonwhite people are being brought into the country to join those already here to counter and eventually wipe out the influence of white people.

What political parties believe about what an influx of nonwhite people might bring is one thing. That a cabal is organizing such an influx and setting out to destroy a race in the process is another.

The theory of Jews being behind such a cabal strikes us as the most inconceivable part of the plan. Jews make up 2.4% of the United States population, according to the 2020 census.

Michael Dzik, executive director of Chattanooga's Jewish Cultural Center, struggled for words that would make sense of such a theory.

"Logic does not come into the picture, or facts," he said. "... I don't understand that way of thinking."

Dzik said said he became aware of growing anti-Semitic hate in the U.S. after hearing about the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., "Unite the Right" rally in which a white supremacist driver plowed into a crowd, killing one and injuring 35 others.

One of the chants frequently heard, he said, was "Jews will not replace us."

"It doesn't make sense," Dzik said. "[The Jewish population] is such a nominal amount. Why do people think that way?"

The Jewish Cultural Center exists, he admits, as a gathering spot for the about 1,400 local folks of the Jewish faith, but it also has been a welcoming place for the community at large and as a location for the discussing of subjects common to people of all faiths.

"We do not hide our mission," Dzik said. "We want to connect with the Jewish community. We also want to connect with the general community."

The center does so through visual art, films, music and food, he said. It's a "safe space" for such universal gatherings, he said.

Beyond that, Dzik said, offering hospitality to the wider community is really a commandment — "tikkun olam," literally repair of the world — for Jews.

"It's become a commandment to help others, to help the poor," he said. "We're commanded to make the world a better place."

It's why he sits on various committees across the city, Dzik said. It's why officials from the center are available to talk to community groups and why they welcome community groups to come to the center.

"There is ignorance [of other cultures] out there," he said. "[Others] might have different traditions, different customs. Let's learn about each other. We want to have a strong, united Jewish community and a strong, united Chattanooga community."

Dzik said he is not aware of local Jews, synagogues or the cultural center receiving threats or being threatened by individuals holding ideas like "the great replacement theory."

But, he said, he did have a poster on the center's Facebook site make racist and anti-Semitic remarks about the concerned but in no way inflammatory comments he'd made to WDEF-TV about the shooting in Buffalo.

"I [wasn't] going to sit and argue with him," Dzik said. "I blocked him. Do I feel fearful? I don't. I feel bad for [people like him], who believe their way is right and don't want to listen to anything else."

Nevertheless, with previous incidents like attacks that killed nine Black people at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and 50 people at a mosque in New Zealand in 2019, groups cannot be too careful.

"For the Jewish community, it is scary," Dzik said. "For minority communities, it's scary. But we're all just human beings, all Americans, just trying to make the best of our lives. We just want to go to work, to have friendships. There's no reason for us to separate ourselves out."

He pointed out that not so long ago, everyone knew their neighbors. Today, he said, they don't, and the fact some of them might be Black, Latino, Hindu or Muslim may — but shouldn't — make the introductions more difficult.

"Why are people fearful?" Dzik wondered. "People are proud of their culture, but we should all want to make [our community] a better place, to do things together, to have talks together, as opposed to getting behind our cellphone or computer and posting hateful messages."

Going forward, we hope the only "replacement" that occurs locally is swapping intolerance for understanding.

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