My 8 year old son came up behind me today while I was on the internet and caught sight of a pretty disturbing antisemitic graphic that was on the screen. It depicted a sinister looking, hooked nosed, hunched over bearded Jew holding a globe. I wish I could have told him that it was from the late 1930s, but unfortunately it was posted just yesterday.
Also just yesterday, a 22 year old Rabbinical student was stabbed while praying in a synagogue in Brooklyn by a man who, according to witnesses, cried “I want to kill the Jews!” While I would like to be able to believe and tell him otherwise, unfortunately, antisemitism is alive and well.
Antisemitism has been referred to as “the world’s oldest hatred”. From biblical times until the present, spanning throughout time and place, morphing in its rhetoric to suit the respective social conventions and context, Jews have been the target of a wide variety of often contradictory and libelous accusations. In current times, this phenomenon extends to Israel, the Jewish state, in the verbal, written, and even legal expressions of gross double standards and outright false accusations that go well beyond healthy criticism and political debate.
The issue I am now grappling with is if and how to talk to my children about antisemitism. Should they be kept naive, believing, as Anne Frank did, that “people are really good at heart”? I want them to be confident in who they are, to trust that as long as they are moral, decent people who work hard, think positively, and treat others with respect, that they will go far in life. I want them to see the world not as a scary place, but as safe and predictable.
However, such a worldview is neither realistic, nor is it entirely beneficial. As with nearly all things, a middle ground is the best approach. I believe most people are genuinely good and are more interested in living their own lives than they are in using their energies towards hating others. At the same time, antisemitism does exist and will not disappear; pretending otherwise leaves us vulnerable to its active resurgence.
As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I was not raised with fear, but with the reality of this unfortunate side of what it means to be a Jew. My siblings and I were involved in the annual Holocaust memorial program that my father continues to chair. I was present when my grandmother was interviewed for the Shoah project, hearing in detail about her life before, during, and after the war. I also visited the concentration camps and stood in front of the bunk where she once slept.
When it comes to teaching our children about antisemitism, as with nearly any other controversial or mature topic, it must be done at their level, clearly and succinctly, and in the right time. When my 8 year old asked me about the image he saw, I reminded him about what we say every year on Passover:
“And it is this [covenant] that has stood for our Forefathers and us. For not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out. But in every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.” (Passover Haggadah)
I told him that there will always be people in the world who do not like us and even seek our destruction, but we do not need to be afraid because Hashem will always save us. Alongside our efforts, Hashem gave us the modern miracle of the State of Israel, the beginning of our redemption, and He is clearly by our side now as He always has been. This answer was satisfying and comforting to my son since my husband and I make an effort to raise our children with strong trust in Hashem and with love and appreciation for Israel.
We also try our best to exemplify and teach the foundational Jewish value of mutual respect for others, as Rabbi Akiva taught, to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. There is no room for hatred or bigotry in Judaism and just as we do not want it directed towards us, we must fight its occurrence against any other group or individual. I hope that other parents teach their children similarly so that my children have a chance of growing up in a world where all people are not only good at heart, but in deed as well.