Despite the fact that I was a Holocaust baby, antisemitism was never at the center of my identity as a Jew. In fact, I was often impatient with Jews who saw antisemitism lurking in every dark corner of public and private life. Growing up in an almost entirely Jewish world, I was insulated from Christian hostility to my kind, at least until much deeper into my adult years, and those few incidents I did encounter have felt almost too bland to deserve mention – a teaching colleague who described being “jewed down” in some money transaction, and a disparaging remark about a Jewish performer which linked what the speaker found objectionable about her to her Jewish identity. The fact that these incidents stand out in my memory speaks to their rarity.
Ironically, the only overt incident of antisemitism I experienced occurred outside the US in a London Underground station. There were three of us in an elevator descending to one of those impossibly deep stations where you expected a change in air pressure at the bottom. My companions were a young man with a large Star of David dangling from his neck and a middle aged British woman about whom I remember only the remark she made after the young man exited ahead of us. “Those dirty Jews. They’re everywhere these days.” I was quicker to respond than I often am, but the set up was too perfect. “Madam,” I said as I exited,”I’m one too.”
But on my home soil, I felt completely safe. My friends in Zionist youth groups argued that ultimately the facade of safety and acceptance would fall away, just as it had in all the other countries in which Jews sought refuge; the only safe place for Jews was Israel.
I have to admit that my security wall has developed some cracks in recent times, some the result of unfolding public events and some based on recent readings. I’ve finally become more aware of dangers that have been hiding in plain sight all along.
Two moments that stand out are the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which produced the searing image of marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” No innuendo here. This was antisemitism of a kind most of us never imagined could surface on our shores. Then came the murder of 11 Jews who had come to pray at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the kind of deadly violence that is all too familiar to the Black community, but which American Jews have, for the most part, been spared. And, most recently, there’s been the sad spectacle of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving dabbling in the dark world of online antisemitic postings, which could have been dismissed as stupid and ill-informed if not for the vast following each of them has for whom their every word is gospel. It’s their presence in the spotlight that has been the major driver in my desire to write about a subject that, until now, hasn’t been the strongest signal on my radar.
Antisemitism is one of the many prejudices that have emerged into the light since Trump’s ascendance. For a while I was part of the chorus that laid the blame for these base and contemptible prejudices entirely on Trump’s shoulders, but the problem lies deeper than the work of one narcissistic and bigoted man.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading The Last Million by David Nasaw, an account of the fate of the vast numbers of displaced people who could not or would not return to their countries of origin at the end of World War II. A third of that number were Jews liberated from the concentration camps or who weredeparting from the Soviet Union where they had sought shelter from the Nazis intent on exterminating them. The book is worth reading to learn about the fate of the odd assortment of Poles, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, many of whom had collaborated with the Nazi invaders of their countries which were now in Soviet hands to which they could return only at their great peril. Butto follow my current argument, I want to focus only on the Jews among them.
These displaced persons (DPs) were concentrated in camps administered by the UN in the American and British sectors of occupied Germany. Although it was in everyone’s interest to relocate as many of them as quickly as possible, the Jews were a particular problem because they were universally unwanted. In particular, the US, the country which fancied itself a haven for the world’s “tired, weary and poor,” was particularly resistant to admitting any part of this population that had suffered in unimaginable ways at the hands of the Nazis. Instead, the US government directed its efforts to pressuring the British to open the doors to Palestine and creating a homeland there for the Jews.
The opposition to the entry of the Jews was led by southern Democrats in Congress. They justified their shameless antisemitism by equating Jews with Communists, whom we could not admit lest they function as a Fifth Column intent on destroying America. These bigots in Congress were playing to a base of antisemites and Nazi sympathizers who are the subject of Rachel Maddow’s new podcast Ultra. In it she documents the pervasiveness of hatred against Jews in the period immediately before America’s entry into WWII, led by the powerful America First movement, supported by Charles Lindbergh. Notorious Father Coughlin not only spouted reprehensible speech; he also recruited a large pro-Nazi militia intent on bringing the US into alignment with Hitler’s Germany, which presumably would prescribe a fate for America’s Jews like that unfolding in Germany. Much of this story of pervasive antisemitism in the US was also addressed in Ken Burns’ documentary, The US and the Holocaust, which I’ve written about earlier.
Why am I engaging in this history lesson? I’m trying to underscore that what we’ve witnessed during the Trump years in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh is not sui generis. It’s deeply embedded in our country’s DNA, although it has been recessive for a long time so that we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that “it’s not who we are.”
So even though I still don’t feel threatened as a Jew in my daily interactions, I am growing more aware every day that the bubble of safety inside which I’ve imagined myself all my life is an illusion. I’m writing these last words on Election Day and I’m hyper- aware that the outcome of today’s voting could be another step toward bursting that bubble. We need constant reminders that safety and security are exceedingly fragile gifts.
PS. It’s now post-election and as we know, the results were not as dark as many of us anticipated. However, we’re far from being able to sound the all-clear signal yet.