Were ya’ll sleeping?

During the summer when I was 16 and working for my father, may he rest in peace, at his scrap metal yard in Jacksonville, Florida, a man walked in with a bucket full of metal to sell. I took him to an outside scale and my father came along to double-check that I weighed it correctly. The hulking man with a noticeable limp, a defensive line coach at a large public high school, turned to my father with a sinister smile and blurted out, “Now don’t try and Jew me. You can Jew those niggers but don’t you Jews try and pull one over on me.” I was shocked. This was not the first time I was subject to anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric, nor would it be the last, but the brazenness of the whole affair stung.

Recently, the FBI has reported a noticeable uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. Fingers are pointing to the recent elections and the seeming acceptance by the present American administration, and America for that matter, of Alt-right and neo-Nazi supporters. Not so long ago I challenged the declarations of some friends on Facebook who claimed that before recent events Anti-Semitism had basically disappeared from America. In challenging them, I was told that I was one of the only people they knew who had witnessed incidents. This despite the FBI’s claim that such acts have been and still are the most common form of religious hate crime – almost double the number of attacks on the next religious group — Muslims.

I have to ask in all honesty, were you sleeping?

The first odd incident I recall was in seventh grade when I moved from a Jewish day school to a private school. As we approached the holiday season, the English teacher asked for the Jews in the class to raise their hands so she would know who would be absent on Rosh HaSHana. My friends and I didn’t really think anything of it. But in retrospect, it doesn’t sit so well with me. Maybe that’s because at least one 11-year-old girl quietly went to the teacher after class to tell her she too was Jewish. But this is the “backward” South, right? Not surprising that my “friend” Glenn, an avid Baptist, in 9th grade grabbed me by the throat and shook me when we disagreed on the meaning of prophecies in Isaiah. I wrote about the most traumatic incident elsewhere when a bunch of 8th grade boys drew Swastikas on my body. But one could claim that the several times kids in school called me a “dirty Jew” in jest was because I lived in the South or maybe they didn’t really mean anything by it or maybe I was just an easy target and that was an easy name. Or the time I went shopping in Florsheim Shoes in Orange Park mall with my family and the young shoe seller told my dad that shoes were so expensive because the Jews are trying to make a lot of money, is a regional issue of a bygone time called the 1980’s. But then we would need to explain the following:

  • A group of friends were accosted on the New York subway in 1985 by some kids who called my friend a “Jelly Bean Jew”. Whatever that means. We didn’t report it. Today this makes headlines!
  • That same year, while in New York’s Port Authority, a large person tried to steal my portable radio. I chased him down. The thief handed it back screaming that I was “a cheap Jew.” Not sure what was the connection to my religion, but whatever.
  • I remember taking a walk around the neighborhood when I attended Harvard graduate school in the early 1990s and being startled by the Swastikas painted in various places in the Somerville area.
  • When I worked for a Hillel in Boston in the early 2000s we had a meeting of local Hillel chapters. At that time, we were informed that the Hillel room (they only had a room or something like that) at a small local college had been vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. The Hillel national office didn’t want to let the press know and asked us to hush it up.
  • Who recalls the threats post 9/11 to drive trucks full of explosives into synagogues – at least in the Boston area? At the Young Israel of Brookline they increased security for this very reason.
  • My friend Rabbi David Fine brawled with a Neo-Nazi in 2005.
  • Just a few years ago people made a game of punching Jews in the streets of New York.

I’m sure if we all spent some time on Google or asking friends and family if they remember, we could probably come up with more incidents – like the times I was asked if we really killed Jesus or where our horns can be found. I’m one of 6 million or so American Jews (well I was when I lived in the US). I imagine my experience isn’t unique even if people didn’t talk about it so much. My life in Florida, Boston, and New York from the 1970s through the 2000s turned up plenty of underreported anti-Semitism.

So what? Who cares what was? Now must be different, no? Is this not just a defense of anti-Semitic supporters of the present administration?

Being aware of the past should impact our perspective of the present and prepare us for the future. anti-Semitism wasn’t invented by the Alt-right and the Alt-right wasn’t created this past summer. It really may be more numerous and more dangerous today than in the past; however, I believe that those who have ignored it all this time have done themselves and the Jewish community a grave disservice. Believing the lie that this is a new invention of the Post-Trump world colors the American Jewish community’s self-perception. Reporting anti-Semitism seems to have become more about politics than the true danger it represents. I find this to be both intellectually dishonest and dangerous.

If one only cares about anti-Semitism as a political expedient and only points it out or is even aware when it is convenient, then one’s actions can be perverted. Throngs have come out to support the rallying cry of Linda Sarsour. The Left seem to be following her lead blindly. Yet many question who she really is. Sarsour has been accused of being a Muslim fundamentalist who wants to destroy the State of Israel. What we do know is that she vocally supports BDS, refuses to march with “Zionists”, and actively promotes Sharia as law. For those who mistakenly argue that Muslims following Sharia (of which there are multiple variants) is like Jews wanting to follow Halacha, I would suggest they read about Muslim states where Sharia of one variety or another is the law of the land. While it is incredulous to imagine such a view taking hold in the U.S., promoting this form of legislation coupled with BDS and the goal of overthrowing the State of Israel is a volatile mix. There are three possible outcomes for the Israeli Jews in this worldview: expulsion, death, or the imposition dhimmitude including the payment of a “head tax” or jizya and second class citizenship. Add to this her vile posts about those who oppose Islam, it certainly appears that Sarsour is a Muslim fundamentalist and apologist. Yet, many in the Jewish world are rallying behind her today ignoring her desire to wipe out the State of Israel and replace it with a country under Islamic law.

Some will rightly point out that my personal examples are primarily from classic white supremacist racists and have little to do with anti-Zionist demagogues such as Sarsour. Perhaps that is true; however, intersectionality, a popular buzzword for Sarsour, should give us all pause. Every racist demagogue is a danger. It doesn’t matter their starting point. What counts is their endpoint. Just as I would never rally with David Duke or Richard Spencer, it seems incredible to me that Jews will march with Sarsour. But again, if you only see anti-Semitism when it is promoted by politicians with whom you disagree, then you may be surprised when it’s on your doorstep.

American Jews can be proud of the strides they have made and the ground covered. Jews are represented in every walk of this American life from politics to profession from Hollywood to Wall Street. But no matter what happens over the next four years, American Jews need to be aware that the ugly hydra of Jew hatred can be found both on the right and the left under the spacious skies of America the beautiful.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.