I grew up in the small Midwestern town of Elgin, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. Although only an hour’s drive from Chicago, Elgin might as well have been on the moon. We had one synagogue – sort of Conservative – and a small Jewish congregation. I was always the only Jewish child in my public school classes K through 12.
Recently my sister was in Elgin and stopped to see the family home we lived in for many years as it was for sale. The current owner – three owners after my parents – said to my sister, “The neighbors told me about your family. You’re Jews – you didn’t have a Christmas tree.”
In actuality, I learned only as an adult that my parents shielded me and my three younger siblings from the antisemitism they experienced. And although a few close school friends knew I was Jewish, most didn’t.
Thus it was a large shock for me when, in 10th grade geometry class, the boy in front of me turned around to tell me a joke. “Do you know why Jews have big noses?” I shook my head. “Because the air is free.” And that’s when I told him I was Jewish.
In fairness to the boy, he probably didn’t know anyone Jewish and he also may not have known the meaning of the joke or that it was antisemitic. At that time I didn’t understand the joke nor know it was antisemitic.
Now – so many years later – this is what we continue to be up against. The twin issues of 1) the ignorance of people who are not intentionally being antisemitic and 2) the malice of those who are.
Because of my personal interests in Holocaust education, I believe in starting with the first issue – educating people who do not realize they are perpetuating antisemitic tropes and images.
And this effort starts with first realizing what is antisemitic, which is more nuanced than this non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
Would what my 10th-grade geometry classmate said to me be considered antisemitism according to the above definition? I don’t think so. Yet it is the kind of casual statement that can lead to perpetrating negative stereotypes of Jews that can then lead to orchestrated hate propaganda against Jews, such as the Nazis depicting hook-nosed bearded Jewish men clutching bags of money.
It is the thin edge of the wedge, as the British expression goes, that then grows wider and wider until it is too late to turn back. (THIN EDGE OF THE WEDGE is the title of my free nonfiction Holocaust theater project as a cautionary statement of what can happen if we don’t pay attention to the “small” things and let these grow into “big” things.)
Let me be clear. I am NOT asking you to go around being overly sensitive to possible slights. I am asking you to be aware of when something said to you or in front of you could be interpreted as an antisemitic trope. And that is when you should speak up in an educational – not confrontational – tone to explain that this statement could be considered offensive and why.
To further consider this topic, check out the above 36-minute Episode 13 of the NEVER AGAIN IS NOW podcast about antisemitism featuring David Drimer, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County, New York, and the co-founder of the nonprofit National Holocaust Awareness Initiative. As Drimer says, education is the answer to antisemitism.