The Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, a new grassroots group founded by Dunwoody-area mothers, drew at least 200 attendees to its invitation-only debut meeting March 30 at Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs. Major topics included a push to enact a state hate crimes law and concern over a wave of anti-Semitic bullying in North Fulton schools.

“Atlanta, you are an amazing example for the rest of the country to follow and I am proud to call you home,” said AIAAS co-founder Danielle Cohen, who broke into tears from the emotion of seeing such a large crowd come to support the group.

An attendee signs a banner for the new Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism at its March 30 debut meeting at Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs. (John Ruch)

In just five weeks, the effort went from outraged Davis Academy moms texting each other to the major forum with representatives from about 150 organizations, including Christian and Muslim groups; such corporations as AT&T and Chick-fil-A; local governments; and such law enforcement officials as the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Cohen, and many attendees, also became emotional when she described the reason AIAAS founders were outraged: a wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats, cemetery vandalism and other incidents that caused her young daughter to say “she believed another Holocaust could happen.”

The bomb threat campaign was personal, with local targets including Dunwoody’s Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and the Southeast regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, which co-sponsored the AIAAS forum. It also shows how complex battling hate and terrorism can be, with an Israeli man presently charged with making the threats.

Lauren Menis, the Dunwoody homemaker and former journalist who first suggested the effort that became AIAAS, told the crowd that people have asked her whether the bomb-threat arrest undermines or lessens the need for the group.

“To this I say a resounding no,” Menis said, noting the many other anti-Semitic incidents around the nation.

Dov Wilker, head of the Atlanta regional office of the American Jewish Committee, another AIAAS co-sponsor, said the bomb-threat case shows how anti-Semitism can arise anywhere, “even within the Jewish community.” He cautioned the crowd “not to leap to conclusions about polarizing politics” and quoted President Donald Trump’s recent denunciation of the anti-Semitic threats and hate as words that should be shared.

Listening to Sandy Springs Police Sgt. Brenda Plympton of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta speak are, from left, John Horn, the US Attorney for the North District of Georgia, and Georgia Bureau of Investigations Director Vernon Keenan. (John Ruch)

Asked whether there is an increase in anti-Semitism or more sensitivity about it, Shelley Rose, senior associate director at the Southeast ADL, said, “Maybe a little of both.” One factor she noted was the recent rise of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement, which got attention for supporting Trump’s campaign, only to have him disavow it.

Jared Powers, the CEO of the MJCCA, said the bomb threats taught him that in such times, the “love and friendship of others begins to shine through.”

During the threat campaign, he said, he received dozens of supportive emails and post cards from around the metro area and the nation. “A local Muslim leader called us and offered to have his [mosque’s members] guard our gates at night,” even though that mosque had received its own threats, Powers said.

That sort of interfaith relationship-making was one goal of the forum and one feature that impressed many attendees, who sat in groups at round tables and shared ideas that they reported back in closing remarks.

“First of all, it’s breathtaking the amount they’ve been able to get done in a short amount of time,” said Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch in an interview before the meeting. “I’m a big believer in building relationships, so if something bad happens, you’re ready to work together.

AIAAS co-founder Danielle Cohen is overcome with emotion while speaking to the crowd. (John Ruch)

AIAAS members say they want to form more tangible goals, which was one reason for the invitation-only forum prior to future public events. The crowd gave many suggestions: lessons in being better role models; similar, localized forums; data-gathering on anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes; a history tour of sites of local anti-Semitic crimes like the 1958 Temple synagogue bombing and the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank; a parade or march; a festival. There was also a request for more clarity about what organization would actually conduct any such event.

One suggestion supported by many attendees is for Georgia to enact a hate crimes law. Rose noted that Georgia is one of only five states to have no form of hate crimes law. Among those expressing agreement was Sonja Brown, deputy chief of the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office.

Anti-Semitic school bullying

The discussion also revealed concern about anti-Semitism in local schools.

“We’ve gotten calls for the past year from a number of Fulton County schools [about] different anti-Semitic incidents,” Rose said in an interview during the meeting.

At North Springs Charter High School in Sandy Springs, a swastika was found on a bathroom wall in November, and in February, some students handed out Valentines with such messages as, “My love for you burns like 6 million Jews,” Rose said.

Fulton County Schools spokesperson Susan Hale confirmed both incidents and said the students involved in the Valentines incident were disciplined.

Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Spike Anderson speaks at his group’s table at the AIAAS forum. (John Ruch)

Rose said North Springs responded well and brought the ADL in to conduct an educational program. She said the incidents appeared to be the product of ignorant bullying rather than part of an organized hate-group campaign. Among the meeting attendees was a North Springs teacher who suggested the state add an anti-hate lesson plan to the curriculum.

Spike Anderson, Temple Emanu-El’s senior rabbi, said in an interview that he has heard of other incidents in “half-a-dozen different schools in the area” with less impressive response.

“Sometimes they’re quite shocking in terms of what kids say to each other,” Anderson said, adding that “kids aren’t saying that in a vacuum. They’re getting it from somewhere.”

“Some of them are superb schools—progressive, superb schools,” the rabbi said, adding that when has asked about the schools’ responses, the answers are often underwhelming or vague. “I haven’t been blown away by the response from any schools.”

Anderson said the response that does impress him is from AIAAS. He was one of several leaders of Jewish organizations in attendance who said they have not heard of any other grassroots movement like it.

“Sometimes it does take hyper-concerned laypeople to make this stuff happen…This is a rallying point,” Anderson said. “This is trailblazing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others do something similar.”

For more information about AIAAS, see StopAntiSemitismATL.org.

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