Anti-Semitism is at historic levels in the United States, where Jews have been murdered and attacked most notably in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City and Monsey for no other reason than being Jews. While we have been fortunate to not have any reported physical violence against our Tampa Jewish community, non-violent acts of anti-Semitism have unfortunately become part of life in Tampa with swastikas painted on various buildings, including Coleman Middle School and, most recently, a South Tampa coffee shop last Wednesday.
Consequently, we were extremely disappointed when Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes used the phrase “we’re getting Jewed” Wednesday evening to express frustration with the city’s costs to build a new East Tampa community center.
The phrase “we’re getting Jewed,” and similar phrases, are examples of the oldest and most pernicious anti-Semitic tropes that trade on centuries-old stereotypes painting Jews as money hoarders and controllers of the financial system.
On Thursday, I invited Councilman Gudes to lunch to discuss the problematic nature of his comments. In my invitation, I was clear that, while there was no question the comment he uttered was anti-Semitic, because I did not know him, I wanted to discuss this unfortunate event with the hope that we could turn it into a teachable moment for our entire Tampa community.
Councilman Gudes graciously accepted and we met for lunch on Friday along with Rabbi Joel Simon of Congregation Schaarai Zedek. We had a thoughtful dialogue about how anti-Semitic language, and the normalization and ignorance of it, only further institutionalizes anti-Semitism in our society and leads to more egregious acts against our Jewish community.
Our message was clear — words matter. These phrases have no place in our community or our common speech. Councilman Gudes was receptive to our message and it became clear that he genuinely cares about everyone in the Tampa community.
Our Jewish Torah teaches that you shall love your neighbor as yourself — but, as we shared with Councilman Gudes, to love your neighbor is to know your neighbor. As a community, we need to take this opportunity to advance awareness of anti-Semitism and all forms of hate. The most effective way to combat hate is to build bridges within our greater Tampa community, especially between the Jewish and African American communities, through dialogue and education. The more we know and understand about each other and our histories, the less likely vitriolic rhetoric will be tolerated.
We recently honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who warned us of the perils of silence, and we were reminded last Monday of the cost of silence as we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps where 6 million Jews were murdered. Hate has no place in our community, and we cannot allow anti-Semitism to weave its way into the fabric of who we are.
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The Tampa Jewish community looks forward to working with Councilman Gudes to purge the destructive role of stereotypes in our community through a dialogue of tolerance, education and cooperation.
Joseph A. Probasco is president of the board of directors of the Tampa Jewish Community Centers & Federation.