Antisemitism, yesterday and today

As far back as I can remember, my mother would always make us aware of antisemitism. Not necessarily from a historic perspective; her admonitions were about what she had seen and experienced in her life. One of the first stories I recall her telling was about a group of boys in her Maine neighborhood, after church let out on Sunday, who would throw snowballs at the Jewish kids, including her brothers, who lived nearby.

Or, she might talk about the German-American Bund, the pro-Nazi organization whose paramilitary-dressed thugs would hold rallies in New York in the 1930s, spouting the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Occasionally, she would tell us about Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin, an early manipulator of the radio airwaves, who held millions in thrall with his raw brand of classic antisemitism, including charges of Jewish control of the banks and for bringing about the Bolshevik Revolution.

And then, there were real-time accounts of a customer who might come into our clothing store who complained about another shop owner who had just “Jewed” her on the price of some purchase. This didn’t happen often, but I heard it enough to be aware that these kinds of tropes were still on the lips of many in the 1950s and 1960s.

I knew, too, when my older sisters were applying to college, that certain schools imposed quotas on Jewish enrollment. Many hotels and resorts made no bones about the fact that they were unwelcoming to Jewish guests. We heard that banks, big insurance companies and other sectors of the economy were largely off-limits when it came to hiring Jews. There were neighborhoods and clubs where it was known Jews were not welcome. Jewish actors and entertainers chose to Anglicize their names so as to make their career paths less obstructed.

I think of all this when I try to comprehend and analyze the explosion of anti-Semitism we have experienced in the United States over the past few weeks. Our focus has been so much on European and Islamic antisemitism, that we may have become inured to it as hiring and other forms of day-to-day discrimination nearly disappeared, and over the past two generations life became immeasurably better for Jews. We concluded that we had entered a circle of acceptance we had never before reached.

When it comes to the rise in European antisemitism we’ve witnessed over the same period, I have often thought that it stems from two sources. One, is that there is a deep-seated resentment of Jews for reminding Europeans that they stood by, or actively participated in, the persecution of its Jewish community. Holocaust remembrance is not only for us, it is for everyone to know exactly how Jews became victims, with few hands to hold and to help during the attempts to exterminate us as a people.  I’m not a psychoanalyst, but my sense is that many otherwise reasonable Europeans see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an opportunity to simply level the playing field. Yes, you were victims, but now you are the victimizer. End of argument.

Connected to this is the other source for so much of the anti-Semitism we’ve seen in Europe and now in the United States. It is the cover that “legitimate criticism of Israel” gives for those who think the creation of Israel was a grave mistake, or which for some reason it shouldn’t be allowed to be stronger than those who wish to destroy it. There is a perniciousness in this patronizing view of the Jewish state and of all the reasons why it came into existence in the first place.

But now, we are way beyond that.

The Jewish connection to Israel (it is, after all the Jewish state) has opened the floodgates of what appears to be bottled up hatred by a dizzying array of accusers that each day brings us new verbal and physical attacks we never thought possible in the United States. Beatings in New York City, the largest Jewish community in the world. Jewish diners being terrorized in laid back Los Angeles, a mob demanding to know which of them were Jewish. Members of Congress, filled with hubris from their-elected positions, lecturing us on dual-loyalty and Israel of being an “apartheid state” and engaging in “state terror.” University chancellors and mayoral candidates who first try to condemn antisemitism, but are later cowed into retracting, clarifying or apologizing for their remarks. So-called “influencers,” many of whom I am certain would have trouble finding Israel on a map of the world, shaping millennial and Generation Z public opinion into a chorus of rabid denigration of Israel and those who support it.

There is a piling on aspect to all this that cannot simply be laid at the feet of the proliferation of social media. I don’t know if it is resentment of what a small, historically persecuted people have been able to do with their lives to make the world a better place. Or, as many have said, it is the product of a progressive worldview on steroids, including intersectionality, which mindlessly, and in an ideologically hollow formula, places Israel in the role of “colonial oppressor.”

I do know this, for sure: we will not emerge from this well, unless respected voices and figures from outside our community, who see what is happening to us and know it is unacceptable, join the fight. What seems to be missing over the past few weeks are more of these folks, whether public officials, faith leaders, top CEOs, heads of leading non-profits and others. We have friends out there, but my sense is there is a strong measure of trepidation when it comes to incurring the wrath of progressives and the woke crowd or, that Jews can take care of this themselves, and don’t need assistance to win the day.

In our own community, we need to reassemble the kind of solidarity American Jewry has demonstrated in the past, but surprisingly seems to be out-of-date or anachronistic to some. Let’s be clear:  the attacks on Jews in America’s cities, the demands by roving mobs to tell them if we are Jewish, and the swastika and graffiti daubers, are not making distinctions about our ideological proclivities, the level of our Zionist inclinations, or our party affiliation. This is everyone’s battle, and those who think they are immune from it, should immediately Google “recent acts of antisemitism.”

My mother would be tremendously disappointed by the anti-Semitism we are seeing today, but not completely surprised by it.  She was brought to America as a child by parents seeking a better life, from a place that was sodden for centuries by antisemitism. They found it here, too, but the promise of a better day — for Jews and everyone else—was just around the corner. She lived to see tremendous advances over the decades, but realized that antisemitism is a virus that takes little to bring to the surface, to burn again, another day.

This is one of those times. Stunned as many are by it, this latest incarnation of the world’s oldest hatred mustn’t be allowed to fester and grow in a cloud of debating points over whether this is “antisemitism or is it just anti-Zionism.” Just ask the folks who were dining out when the passing mob demanded to know if they were Jewish or not.

It is not a cliche to say we need all hands on deck to fight this. We’re not living in 19th century or mid-1930s Europe. But this is a time for friends and allies to join us in calling out and acting against those who are engaging in these daily acts of intimidation and violence. We ourselves are capable of standing up to it, but to really send a message, it is vital that others be roused from complacency, and he heard.

As a community, we have given much to the building of American democracy and civilization. We took the promise of America at its word and have done everything imaginable to have it apply not only to us, but to all who live here. The strength of the Republic has been its diversity, and unlike the world of our forefathers in Europe, being Jewish means not living in fear of who we are and, in the case of the State of Israel, whom we choose to support.

In this hour of challenge, it is not too much to ask friends, neighbors, colleagues and so many others to join us in extinguishing the hatred that has manifested itself so blatantly, and in so many places and so many ways, in our very own country.

About the Author
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International
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