Nathan Englander writes that he remembers every penny thrown at him. He recalls a number of childhood instances of anti-Semitism, and speaks with pride about how this has all changed and anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, with kosher food served at ball games, and overtly Jewish kids not remotely worried about being harassed, even when rooting for the wrong team. He then laments that the events in Charlottesville have, in one fell swoop, erased the progress made in tolerance for Jews.
And, I have to say… huh? Not only did anti-Semitism never disappear, but it’s morphed into something far more insidious and thus dangerous.
My dad punched a kid who called him a Jew-boy back in the ‘50s. My neighbor called me a “Jew bagel” when I was about 9 or so (the ’80s). In high school, a kid in his third repeat of senior year added a bonus item to the school scavenger hunt, namely: the sidecurl of a Jew. Reporting him to the principal led to his threat that he’d knife me, and he was suspended for that threat.
Other people I know have had pennies thrown at them, been called “kike,” “Jesus-killer.” Many of us have been asked to show our horns. It’s part of being a Jew in a Christian world. But for the most part, I went through childhood feeling like a normal kid, with just a little more baggage than my Italian, Puerto Rican and Irish friends, and a bit more in common with my black friends (it wasn’t “African American” then), who knew about shared history and being different.
In fact, we actually talked about these things. The things that made us different. I recall a raging argument in history class with a black classmate who felt that she shouldn’t have to learn American history as it wasn’t the history of her people. There was arguing back and forth and the teacher let it go on. Eventually, I turned to her and said, “It isn’t the history of my people either — my people were put in ovens in Europe, My mom wasn’t even born here, but it’s the history of the country we live in; until we choose not be, we are both Americans.”
Sure, we had differences, but we were better off for listening to one another’s grievances. My non-Jewish friends were fascinated when I declined to go out with them on Friday nights — and offered to drive so I wouldn’t have to. They knew I couldn’t share their food, but they hung out at my house and I at theirs. My Jewishness was part of me and it was not a barrier to our friendships or an impediment in my life overall. And their knowing a real live Jew helped counter their learned biases.
Admittedly, the March of the Living had an impact on my sanguinity. Even being close with my Survivor grandparents, who didn’t go a day without crying, who stared into their hot water with lemon, sucking on sugar cubes, reliving the nightmares that fueled the need for cash in their mattresses and pockets full of food, did not prepare me for standing in the ashes of Auschwitz. It was there that I realized that no matter how comfortable we feel, there is only one place where Jews truly belong.
Still, back in Jersey, I felt safe. I completed high school and then college, where campus was… a college campus, an eclectic group of people who couldn’t believe that I ate the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner every Friday night.
And I never, ever had to deal with what Jewish students have encountered on campuses this past decade.
Anti-Israel groups make hostile claims that the Jewish state is apartheid and colonialist and every Jew is complicit unless he or she denounces Israel. Students are bewitched by today’s siren calls to protect the underdog, allowing anti-Semites to thinly veil their deep hatred in self righteousness.
Some student groups have prevented Jewish students from being on their boards outright, claiming that the Judaism inherently biases them.
Young Jewish women were alienated from the largest American demonstration of women against misogyny and racism because they support the Jewish state.
Gay rights and slutwalks refuse to have proud Jews at their marches. Stars of David are verboten and Zionists are equated to Nazis.
Today, when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, nothing can counter it because it is disguised as concern for human rights.
Anti-Semitism is alive and well, shifting form and gaining strength in a culture where overtly hating people based on their race became unacceptable. Anti-Zionism has replaced the classic anti-Semitism and I dare say it is stronger and bolder, for being dressed up as justice.
True, the David Dukes and the Ku Klux Klans always existed, but they were always marginal, and it was generally agreed that they were crazy. Now, however, this population feels empowered. They publicly display Nazi flags and yell Nazi mottoes while brandishing assault rifles, their numbers swelled by angry white men who join the Klan they once mocked, to protest what they see as the erasure of their culture.
And now, we Jews are stuck. We cannot turn left, for there, we’d have to renounce our heritage and love for the Jewish state. We cannot turn right, for there, we are viewed as money-grubbing, media-controlling — back to the ovens with you, Jew bagels.
What happened in Charlottesville wasn’t a rebirth, it was a dusting off of the good old Jew-hatred, combined with racism and white supremacy, all puffed up and strengthened by a president who stokes these sentiments with bigoted speech, sweeping allegations, and fear-mongering. His talk of “enemies” of “evil” of “forces that seek to harm,” his constant references to “inner cities” and “making America great again” feed those who fear the “other,” and who fear losing control.
What happened in Charlottesville is the combination of the old ugly anti-Semitism that never went away fed by a progressive society that has lost the art of communication, the ability to think critically, to analyze and reach nuanced conclusions. This culture that boils everything down to good or evil, oppressor and oppressed, with us or against us, leaves no room for humanity to see the other, neither left nor right.