“We’re seeing people being stabbed yesterday in New York City because they were Jewish,” Sanders said, calling the assault part of an alarming rise in anti-Semitism, in the United States and globally.
Sanders added: “If there was ever a time in American history where we say no to religious bigotry, this is the time. If there was ever a time when we say no to divisiveness, this is that moment.”
The bundled-up crowd, gathered around a menorah at Brenton Skating Plaza, listened intently as the 78-year-old son of a Jewish immigrant spoke and cheered when he called for unity.
The latest attack in New York, which officials said began after 10 p.m. Saturday in the suburb of Monsey, was called an act of “domestic terrorism” by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who linked it to the spate of violence against Jewish people.
Sunday’s lighting event was scheduled before the Monsey attack — and it was planned to be a low-key stop following a day of campaigning in two states. But it became a rare charged moment for Sanders, who often resists departing from his core stump speech.
Sanders — who has long noted that the family of his late father, Eli Sanders, was “wiped out” during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II — mentioned his father, who, he said, “came to this country fleeing anti-Semitism and fleeing violence” at age 17.
With his voice hoarse but booming, Sanders said he now worries that the character of the country that beckoned Eli Sanders is at risk, not just by anti-Semitism but by a rampage of violence against people who are being targeted for their race, religion or identity.
“We’re seeing somebody run into a kid here in Des Moines because that child was a Latino. . . . And we are seeing people assaulted because they are Muslim,” Sanders said.
The former was a reference to a Des Moines woman charged this month with attempted murder for intentionally running into a 14-year-old girl because of the teenager’s ethnicity.
“What we are here tonight to say is that in this country, we’re going to bring our people together and not allow ourselves to be divided up,” Sanders said.
Sanders’s remarks also came hours after a gunman opened fire in a church in White Settlement, Tex., on Sunday, killing two parishioners, according to authorities, who said they are trying to determine a motive in the attack.
Sanders wore the kippah, a Jewish prayer cap, as he stood alongside Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, who organized the outdoors menorah lighting ceremony, a few blocks from the state capitol.
Some Jewish attendees Sunday night said they saw Sanders’s decision to wear the kippah as a sign of respect for the rabbi and the lighting ceremony — and a clear, if unspoken, act of defiance against anti-Semitism.
The leader of the Anti-Defamation League said last month that children in Sanders’s hometown of Brooklyn are, regretfully, “taking a risk” when they wear a kippah due to possible violence.
Anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise throughout the country, leaving members of the Jewish community feeling frightened and unsafe. In New York City, anti-Semitic crimes have jumped 21 percent in the past year. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 1,879 incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States in 2018, including more than 1,000 instances of harassment.
Experts say anti-Semitic violence has been rising for years. In 2018, a gunman stormed Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 congregants and wounding six others. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States.
In April, during the observance of Passover, a gunman killed a Jewish worshiper at a Poway, Calif., house of worship and injured three others.
After Sanders finished his speech Sunday, Jacobson handed Sanders a blowtorch to light the menorah, which loomed about a foot above both men.
“Bernie, give us the lights,” Jacobson said.
Sanders joked that he was worried that he would “burn the ice skating rink down.”
Sanders then took the blowtorch, lifting it as the wind whipped up its flame and his hair. He used one hand to hold it and his other to hold down the kippah.
With the menorah lit, Sanders joined a singalong of Hanukkah songs, which were sung in Hebrew. He mouthed along at parts and hummed at others.
As Sanders slowly weaved toward his car following the lighting, he was surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, most of them younger.
A few told him that they, too, are Jewish.
Sanders wrapped his wiry arms around them all, smiling as they took selfies in the cold.
Shayna Jacobs contributed to this report.