Many of us are terribly distressed by the targeting of Jews in an epidemic of antisemitic incidents world-wide. To witness the United States, the land where I was born and in whose military I served, experiencing public attacks on Jewish individuals and institutions, almost daily, is scary and deeply troubling.
One hundred years ago, my grandparents escaped from antisemitism in the Baltics, Belarus, and Russia to the United States to start a new life. My wife Jeannie’s parents escaped the Nazi horror in Germany and Austria and fled to the United States in the late 30’s. Her ancestors were listed by name with other Jews that were expelled twice from Prague in 1542 and 1561.
But Jews like me who grew up in the United States in the Seventies, have felt that we were freed from this history and these antisemitic experiences, protected by the message of “America as the land of the free” and its embrace of multiculturalism. For an American Jew in our generation, antisemitism seemed to be limited to the past. Who would have imagined that Jewish parents in our generation would be worrying about the physical safety of our children walking on the streets in the United States because they are Jews?
There were two incidents in my life in the United States that I was clearly the target of antisemitism. They were personally transformative moments that deepened my spiritual connection to the antisemitism of the past.
In the early Seventies in Philadelphia, where I was born and raised, saw a white nationalist open a self-proclaimed Nazi headquarters in Kensington, a poor white neighborhood. My brother, my friend Yossi, and I joined with a small group of JDL members to protest. We were met by hundreds of locals supporting the “Nazi”, who were hanging flags adorned with swastikas outside their windows and throwing bottles and bricks at us. Thankfully, the police took us out of there before someone got killed. The police were protecting us because we couldn’t protect ourselves. The next day, justice was served when the event got reported in the newspaper, and the “Nazi” got fired by his Jewish boss and the “headquarters” closed. The scene of Nazi flags hanging out the windows of homes in Kensington, however, was seared in my memory.
In the late Eighties, as a US Navy Reserve Chaplain, (and one of only eleven Rabbis at the time who were serving as Chaplains in the Navy) I was sent to Marine Corps Indoctrination Training in the desert at Camp Pendleton, CA. As the only Rabbi among 60 Christian Chaplains at that training, I was jokingly teased by my fellow Chaplains for carrying “Lankin’s Deli”, my Kosher food provisions, into the desert during the training. One aspect of the training was learning how to deal with a nuclear, biological or chemical attack. We were taught to go into a hut in the distance, breathe in C-2 gas which burned like fire on our sweat, and then run out. The friendly teasing turned antisemitic when our commanding officer, a Chaplain from Denver, yelled into the bleachers while we were waiting for the training to begin, “Hey, Lankin, you can pretend they are showers!” Thankfully, two fellow Chaplains, with whom I was sitting, grabbed me as I was jumping out of my seat in anger. Though I was shot with adrenaline, inside I felt frozen, terrified and very existentially alone.
I wonder why our generation of Jews in the United States imagined that we were separated from the antisemitism expressed in Jewish history? Perhaps these feelings came from witnessing the victories of Israel in the Six-Day War and the fall of the Soviet Union, destroyed, in part, by our movement to free the Jews of Russia. We believed that our trajectory as a people had changed dramatically. The Jewish people are winners! Many Jews, like me, began to wear our kippot publically, expressing to the outside world that we were proud of being Jewish.
However today, those days seem to be ending for many, and it is hard to accept. Both from the white nationalists of the right to the anti-Israel activists from the left, we feel vulnerable and are scrambling to figure out how to protect ourselves. No Jew seems to be exempt; every kind of Jew has been a target as we saw in Poway, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, and Monsey.
Today things are different than other moments of adversity through Jewish history. The police in the diaspora are ready to protect our communities and around 50% of our people live in our homeland protected by a Jewish army. This week, twenty-five thousand Jews and other supporters marched proudly over the Brooklyn Bridge against antisemitism and ninety-thousand in MetLife Stadium publicly celebrated their seven-and-a-half year daily study leading to the completion of the Talmud. These current expressions of antisemitism are not leading us to be frozen, like I felt years ago. We stand tall in the face of these moments of violence, and we are now fighting back on many levels- the vibrancy of our community institutions, exposing and fighting against hatred online, as well as standing up to antisemitic bullies on college and high school campuses. We are keeping our heads erect, powerfully determined and united.
Dr. Eric Lankin is Vice President-Development of StandWithUs and an Adjunct Professor at Hebrew University. Before his family made aliya 2 ½ years ago from the United States, he served for 14 years as a congregational Rabbi and most recently, for eighteen years as Jewish communal professional leader.