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Antisemitic flyers and rising threats against Jews prompt safety concerns in Wausau congregation

Leaders at Mount Sinai Congregation are in close contact with police, FBI as the potential for violence mounts

Jewish Star Of David Rabbi Faith Religion
Antonio Calanni/AP Photo

Amid a backdrop of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and rising antisemitic sentiment, Wausau is among the many Wisconsin communities in which flyers that denigrate Jews are being circulated, prompting members of one Jewish synagogue to explore ways to keep their congregation safe.  

Advocacy groups say antisemitic incidents ranging from violent online messages to physical assaults, bomb threats and vandalism have increased exponentially since October, when war broke out in the Middle East. The most recent spike far exceeded any other tally in the past 45 years, according to the Anti-Defamation League.  

Because of the potential for violence, leaders at Mount Sinai Congregation have been in close contact with the police and FBI agents who monitor social media to scan for red flags. Ed Miller, a retired political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, is part of the congregation at Mount Sinai, which serves the Jewish population in Wausau and surrounding communities.  

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“The FBI has been involved in relaying information to the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office, anything they hear about concerns or problems that could occur,” Miller said in a conversation with WPR’s Shereen Siewert. “It has been a problem and is of great concern to the congregation.”  

The flyers distributed in Wausau bear Jewish hate speech and falsely claim the public health response to COVID-19 is being orchestrated by a “Jewish agenda.”

Today, some Mount Sinai Congregation members are hesitant to put their Jewish faith on display, no longer placing menorahs in their windows during Hanukkah or wearing traditional clothing in public. 

“In previous times that was a good thing, an interaction with the community,” Miller said. “Some people are now saying they don’t want to make it clear that they are Jewish.”  

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.  

Shereen Siewert: Ed, tell me, what has the reaction been by members of your congregation to these leaflets being distributed throughout the Wausau area in recent months?  

Ed Miller: I think there’s been great concern about this. I mean, the Jewish population in Wausau and in central Wisconsin is relatively small. It’s a small group, and to see this hate being spewed out not only in Wausau but also in a couple of other communities, most notably Marshfield, is a great, great concern. And there’s also a concern for safety.   

SS: What kinds of conversations are you hearing in your congregation about safety and how to protect members?  

EM: Well, they’re concerned about safety and the extent to which we would need private security guards. In addition to that, some changes have been made to the building itself to make it safer, though some of that was done before the most recent incidents.

You cannot get into the building like you used to. In the old days, we welcomed anybody into the building, not only Jewish people but other people who wanted to see the synagogue. Now to get in, you need to have a key fob. If you don’t have that, you can ring the secretary. There are cameras. There have been discussions with the police both in Wausau and Marathon County, and the FBI. The police patrol more frequently.

SS: As a former professor and as a Jewish person, how do you feel about the pro-Palestinian protests in communities and on college campuses throughout the country and right here in central Wisconsin?  

EM: Yes, well, that gets very complicated. Quite clearly, Jewish people have different opinions on the situation. Many of them do not like what Israel is doing in Gaza.

They may like the country and think the country should exist, but they may not like what is going on in Gaza. They may not like the current government. To support what Israel is doing now does not equate with being Jewish in this country because there are all kinds of views.  

SS: How much does what’s happening today have to do with what happened many, many years ago?  

EM: Well, antisemitism goes back centuries. It came to a head with the Holocaust in Germany. And following the Holocaust, there was a decline in antisemitism. If you look at some of the surveys that have been done, antisemitism actually has declined over time, but beginning during the Trump administration we saw the rise of antisemitism.

We saw this in that march in Virginia, the chants that “Jews would not replace us.” That kind of thing occurred before anything in the most recent situation now in terms of colleges and universities. 

A lot of what we see on campus is really against the war and the situation in Gaza, and they may not be antisemitic, but the main conflict really is of the West Bank territory that was captured. The question is, should they give it back?

Some people think they should, and that’s the two-state solution. Some people think no. Many of the cities there have religious significance to it, and that’s a particular concern and problem. When you deal with the problem of the Middle East situation, it’s a very complicated problem. It’s not easy.

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