Leaders at Congregation Beth Israel in Northwest Portland reported acts of vandalism on the synagogue’s property on Monday, including remnants of a fire set in front of the building and an antisemitic message painted on an exterior wall.
Rabbi Michael Cahana said the Portland Police Bureau was notified and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is also involved in investigating the attack on the historic congregation, which was established in 1858.
Cahana said the incident comes just days after the synagogue observed Yom HaShoah, a Holocaust remembrance day in which the congregation celebrated six local survivors of the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jewish race.
“The message I’m giving to my community is that I don’t want anyone sitting in fear,” he said. “We don’t believe that this is part of a larger threat, there haven’t been other antisemitic incidents reported around town.”
Cahana said his congregation has seen small fires and graffiti in the past, but nothing as blatant was what was found Monday morning. He said his message to the Portland community at-large is that antisemitism is real.
“It’s happening. Hate speech is real, and happening in our community,” he said. “We all have to be vigilant.”
Hate crimes are on the rise over the past few years, both nationally and in Oregon.
According to data collected by the Oregon Department of Justice, there was a 34% increase in the number of hate crimes reported to the state between 2020 and 2021. A majority of those took place in Multnomah County. So far in 2022, the state has received 270 total reports of hate and bias crimes.
Miri Cypers, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Anti-Defamation League, said that incidents of antisemitic speech and crimes have risen steadily since 2016, and Oregon is reflected in that.
The group’s national chapter put out its annual 2021 audit of antisemitic bias and discrimination incidents just last week. The report shows instances of assault and vandalism reached an all-time high with 2,717 incidents across the country.
The distribution of white supremacist propaganda also remained at a historic high in 2021, including such incidents as hanging banners with white nationalist messages from highway overpasses in Multnomah County.
“Reporting is really important because it’s the main mechanism we as a society use to understand levels of hate, understand what’s transpiring in our communities and how it’s impacting various people,” Cypers said. “It’s also the way we can use the tool of information to come up with short and long-term strategies and solutions.”
The rise in the number of hate and bias incidents tracked, Cypers said, is due in part to the fact they’ve never been easier to report. More agencies are taking notice and have created hotlines or host online forms.
Cypers said that while the rise of hate has been tough to witness for many, the silver lining is that more people are reporting incidents to law enforcement and groups tracking these issues as a means of confronting hate.
“The normalization of everyday acts of violence is what allows hate and bias to grow, fester and become more serious over time,” Cypers said. “It’s important to recognize that people are safe and buildings can be repaired, but also the impact that these acts have on individuals but on an entire community.”
Portland Police Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.