When I awoke this morning and began reading the news, I came upon an article with a picture that showed swastikas drawn on a building. “My God,” I thought. However, upon closer inspection, I realized that the building was the JCC of Northern Virginia, where I am a member and have been for the past year. I felt a shiver run up my spine as the implications of this became real to me. This occurred at a building that I frequent, a building that I could not dismiss as “far away.” Who would do this? I thought. And then the most chilling of all revelations came to me: many people would.
Anti-Semitism is a fraught word, riddled with millennia of implications. It has existed seemingly since the beginning of recorded time. After the Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth century, many scholars believed that anti-Semitism was over, that the twentieth century would be one of peace, in which war would become a thing of the past. Little could they have foreseen what would be the bloodiest century in human history, with the Great War just around the corner.
And then, only a few decades later, the most heinous act of anti-Semitism in human history: the Shoah. From this event, the term “genocide” came into being. Following the economic-based anti-Semitism that allowed Adolf Hitler to scapegoat the Jewish people, using the libelous, fictitious account called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a reference point, which asserts that the Jews are steadily trying to take over the world, anti-Semitism then morphed into the iteration that has existed ever since: anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiments. Anti-Semitism always seems to mutate to fit with the greatest fears of the time.
Prior to the Second World War, the worldwide Great Depression was at its height, and the suggestion that the Jews somehow caused people to lose their wealth was appealing to them. After all, everyone likes a scapegoat. But then, following World War II, the greatest fear of the world turned from one of economic concerns to one of nationalistic concerns. Borders began to represent evil, epitomized in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” At a time when people wanted separations to come down, the Jewish people were creating a state of their own, the realization of two millennia of hopes and vehement prayers.
Today, this form of anti-Semitism remains as potent and as vicious as ever. The virus has infected Europe once again, an eerie reminder of the first half of the twentieth century, and it has come home to roost in the United States of America as well, with the rise of white nationalist groups. I am reminded of a well-known American-born rabbi named Daniel Gordis, who made aliyah in 1998. He has said in numerous interviews that in his neighborhood in Jerusalem, he and his family hear more and more people speaking French. (He then usually quips that the bakeries have gotten much better, in order to lighten the mood of a disturbing reality.)
What I want to say, what must be said, in the wake of such a despicable act of cowardice and overt anti-Semitism , is that we cannot allow the behavior of those who wish us harm to triumph. There is no end to the evil that exists in the world around us; it will exist eternally, and no matter how much this pains us to recognize, we must move past the pain and put plans in place to deal with it. Thankfully, for those of us Jews living in the twenty-first century, we have a benefit that our grandparents did not have. We have a homeland, a state of our own, an oasis in the desert, known as the modern State of Israel. Since its establishment in 1948, the Jewish people have carried themselves differently. We are no longer victims waiting on bated breath for the next outbreak of hatred; we can be proactive, and we can defend ourselves. The Jewish people, in all of our complexity and rich cultural diversity, are here to stay. I will not allow the events that I read in the paper this morning arouse fear in me. I refuse to be afraid. I will go about my day as usual, proud in the notion that I have the privilege of living a life dedicated to the improvement of the world around me. May it be so for all of us.