Anti-Semitism in the United States has reached unprecedented levels. The week after Trump’s elect, swastikas were spraypainted on walls, written on classroom chalkboards, and etched onto cars and doors. In December, neo-Nazis in Whitefish, Montana vowed to hold an armed march to intimidate the town’s small Jewish population. According to the ADL, since the beginning of 2017, there have been 122 bomb threats to 96 Jewish institutions, 12 Jewish days schools, and 2 ADL offices in 36 states. This is not normal.
Trump fueled his campaign with blatant hatred and bigotry. He rallied America’s ‘outsiders,’ white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, emboldening them to make their vitriol public. He offered a lackluster condemnation of the recent anti-Semitic incidents, yet waited until his joint address to do so, nearly 2 months after the waves of threats began. His delay has effectively given a green-light to anti-Semites, and has sent a clear message that the top echelons of American political leadership have no problem standing idly by while hatred and bigotry take the stage. This is not normal.
Several weeks ago, Trump berated and silenced an ultra-Orthodox journalist for asking him how his administration plans to address the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, cutting him off and telling him to “sit down.” Just this past week, he had the audacity to question the authenticity of the recent wave of bomb threats, having suggested the Jewish community might be committing anti-Semitic acts in order to “make others look bad.” This is the President of the United States, don’t forget. The man who has repeatedly claimed he’s the “least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” yet has no problem blaming Jews for threats made to their own community. This is not normal.
Over the past several months, many American Jews have taken to the streets to protest Islamophobia, immigration bans, rollbacks on reproductive rights, and pipeline construction through Native lands. We stand up because Trump’s rhetoric and policies threaten core parts of our personhood — as Jews, we are also women, people of color, queer, or children and grandchildren of immigrants. We resist because we recognize the importance of community strength, and we rebel because bigotry, racism, and xenophobia does not define who we are, or the founding principles of this country. We may show up for others because our Jewish values and teachings tell us to, but we also stand in solidarity because in retrospect, Jews were once victims too. We were targeted, ostracized, shut out, and even denied entry into the United States while fleeing from the Third Reich. We remember, through lived experiences and stories, and we say ‘never again’ because no one deserves hatred, intolerance, or terror here nor anywhere.
And yet, lurking in the shadows of the American political scene, anti-Semitism has largely been absent from discussions. The reasons are mostly three-fold. First, the majority of American Jews largely benefit from white privilege and class-based privilege, which is often met with the eclipse of anti-Semitism in some progressive spaces. Second, we would like to pretend that anti-Semitism in the United States has only been alive and well on the fringes of American life. That those who perpetuate anti-Semitism are only found on the alt-right, and that their virulent language only exists in a vacuum. Lastly, opening up a conversation about anti-Semitism is like reopening a wound. We would like to believe that we are no longer victims, and that we have finally overcome and defied our histories of persecution. These are all valid reasons, but they are also inexcusable. Anti-Semitism today does not preclude other oppressions nor it is a fringe phenomenon. Whether the number of anti-Semites is truly growing, or people are just becoming more aware, many Jews have real lived experiences with anti-Semitism, and it is crucial that we start talking about it now.
Anti-Semitism, including the recent waves of desecrations and bomb threats, thus highlights a bigger elephant in the room, one that is no longer just Trump himself, but is in fact a more dangerous outcome of the administration’s silence and inaction: normalization.
My first reaction to the Philadelphia cemetery’s desecration was that “it was only a matter of time” before something like this happened close to home. When I scrolled through my Facebook Thursday afternoon and saw that a third Jewish cemetary in Rochester, New York had been vandalized, I wasn’t surprised. I was deeply saddened, but not shocked. When I say normalization, I’m also talking about the semi-excuse — and I’ve used it too — that this is “just the political climate we are living in right now.” I’m talking about the fact that anti-Semitism is rarely acknowledged nor engaged with by many of the progressive circles I sit in. Anti-Semitism has become an expectation. This is a problem.
I won’t be the first to say it: anti-Semitism is hard to talk about. It is hard because I have not thought of today’s Jewish community as among the oppressed until these incidents started multiplying across the United States. It is hard because of the complex interplay of oppression, white privilege, and class-based privilege that most American Jews in today’s society benefit from. It is uncomfortable because I have never felt unsafe for walking down the street wearing Hebrew on my shirt, nor for openly talking about my participation in Jewish organizations. It is uncomfortable because my Japanese-American and female identities have been silenced or alienated in my lifetime more often than my Jewish identity.
Yet thinking about the past two-months strikes a raw, fear-ridden shock up my spine. I don’t have to be a victim of any anti-semitic incident to feel disturbed, hurt, and angry when the community I love and have always felt safe in is a target of hate crimes. I shouldn’t ever have to convince others that anti-semitism still exists or that Jews are still hated, blamed, and stereotyped.
So, I’m going to start talking about anti-Semitism. I will say it again, anti-Semitism is not normal — it has never been, and it will never be. Trump, his administration, and his rabid fanbase may try to silence us, but we are resilient. We can resist and rebel against the normalization of anti-Semitism in our communities to still be able to make sense of it. We can challenge our reactionary attitudes and confusion by speaking up whenever and wherever possible, and we can still stand in solidarity with other oppressed groups of people despite our own experiences with oppression.
We must amplify our voices and work together to build a vibrant Jewish community that fosters and inspires growth, tolerance, and inclusivity for everyone. We must demonstrate to our friends and families, and especially to our children, campers, and students, that being Jewish is beautiful. We must teach them that being Jewish is an opportunity to embrace, to explore, to fall in love with, and to be proud of who we are and where we came from. We owe it to them to share our peoples’ many histories, which must include recognition of and resistance against anti-semitism and the forces that normalize it. It is now up to us to be the lighthouses — the brave beacons of light who guide each other and future generations towards a world of justice and collective liberation.