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Antisemitism and The American Jewish Community

After the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, many American Jews are disoriented. How could this happen? It’s not as if it came out of the blue. While some of us felt sick to our stomachs, surprise at these events was not a word I would use. Why? Some of us have noted this rising antisemitism, not over the past two years, rather the past decade or two.

It has been rising, not just among the nationalist right. To be fair, that ugly form has never died. And if you have been attuned to it, you’d know the same exact cartoons that were used one hundred years ago, are circulating at certain sites. They were just colorized. Antisemitism is easy to spot there. Why? It’s where it’s the most obvious.

It has also resurfaced among the more progressive groups who many times use anti-Zionism as code for antisemitism. (And the actions of Israel regarding Palestine do not help.) this has created a milieu where blaming the Jews for the ills of Western society has become chic once again.

One of the usual retorts from progressives is that being critical of Israel is not antisemitism. Granted, when you are calling Israelis on the very poor human rights record, by all means. In fact, let me join you.

You cross into antisemitism is when you claim Jews did not live in Israel for two thousand years. There was a continuous presence, albeit small, since the destruction of the second temple. Some have gotten worse and doubted the existence of the Jewish people. These are echoes of hate-filled speech from the nationalist right. And my all-time favorite, which crosses all political lines, is that Israel controls American politics. Some are more rabid in that belief than others, but it is there.

Then there is the old chestnut that emerged among some progressives after the crash in 2008. Jews control the banks and the media. This is an old favorite. It is so old that where it started is a damn good question.

This talking point is especially strong among other minority groups that have seen Jews try to join them. It is baffling but fits the concept of keeping people divided. Why not? If you can keep all these minorities at each other’s throats…

***

The New York Times had this today.

American Jews were welcome in universities, country clubs and corporate boards that once excluded their grandparents. They married non-Jews, moved into mixed neighborhoods and by 2000, the first Jew ran for vice president on a major party ticket.

So the massacre on Saturday of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, by a man who told the police when he surrendered that he “wanted all Jews to die,” was for many a shocking wake-up call.

“This kind of evil makes me think of the Holocaust and how people can be so cruel, that there is so much evil in the world, still,” said Moshe Taube, 91, a retired cantor from Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh and a survivor of the Holocaust.

The Jewish Community is not beyond fault in an odd way. Like the German Jews of the interwar period, many in the community still believe the United States is exceptional. Jews have served the country loyally, many in the military, in media, as researchers, or doctors. So why pray to tell would things turn ugly?

And here is where my trip to a Jewish museum in Cleveland with my mother, may she rest in peace, is relevant. The exhibit she wanted to see was on the Fiddles of the Holocaust. We were not alone. Among the visitors was a group from a local Jewish school. They were all teenagers, and I presume growing up in a very nice cultural bubble, where they never had to face the ugly outside their school walls.

A couple of the young people, two to three generations removed from the Holocaust, said that nothing like that could ever happen in the United States. The teacher did not correct them. Whether it is because the teacher wanted to shield them, or the teacher believed the same thing is immaterial.

I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, my father. I am aware of the history that led to the Holocaust and the rise of Hitler. Yes, as hard is this to believe, some Jews voted for Hitler too. Most confusing, some Jews who survived Hitler also voted for Donald Trump. Never mind that the language Trump used against Mexicans was not different than what Hitler said about Jews and Gypsies.

There was a denial in Germany that things could get worse. Even after Kristallnacht Jewish Community leaders counseled calm. Whether they knew better, or they realized that panic was not a good response is still a matter discussed among historians. I believe they were in denial.

German Jews were very well integrated into German society. They served in the front lines of World War One. Some were decorated veterans who earned the highest awards for gallantry and bravery. Many worked as lawyers and doctors, a few were intellectuals working in papers and universities. There was a good percentage that was part of the proletariat. In other words, it looked eerily similar to the American Jewish Community of the early 21st century. And yes, some were very religious, still living a quiet life of contemplation, as isolated as they could from secular society. While some were secular, cultural Jews who never attended a temple.

So I confronted those young people. It was obvious that they were not taught that one has to be vigilant since this virus never truly dies. Many of them will be attending colleges and universities where these young people will find propaganda for outfits like Identity Europa. This is a right wing white nationalist group that is recruiting as hard as it can in those same colleges and universities. They would prefer Jews to die, even if they will not openly say it.

They will be confronted by fellow students in class about Israeli activities, which in the course of the conversation will soon be equated to how the Jews control American politics, (that is antisemitism, and a classic in progressive circles. As I said, it is not just your white nationalist peddling this.) Some will even call these young people kike, dirty Jew, and other slurs, not unlike their grandparents and great-grandparents in the old country.

More rarely these young Jews will hear about how Jews killed Christ, and how Christian blood is used to make Matzah. While ridiculous, this one goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. There is a new version of this oldie circulating, claiming a sacrifice has to be done on Yom Kippur. And that sacrifice these days is of a Christian, in case you needed the full image. They will learn that what once was old, is new again. And given some of the present goals of some in the administration (Stephen Miller still confuses the hell out of me, talk about self-hate), perhaps covenant agreements and university quotas will come back. Meaning, yes redlining was a problem that Jews and the Irish also faced, not just blacks.

Which brings me to the shock and surprise for many in the Jewish Community. What happened at Pittsburgh was horrific…but given the current environment it was predictable. Those of us who have been following antisemitic rantings on the internet for over three decades, and in talking with people in real time, know that this is here to stay. At least it will be here for the foreseeable future. It is not going to get better, and it is time to realize that shock and surprise most be followed by self-protection.

The time for fantasy is over. And no, the president is not going to help. He may have a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren, but actions speak louder than anything else. He is back into Twitter Trump and getting viler by the second.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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