This Holocaust Remembrance Day, the words that were drilled into our 4th grade class at Beth Shalom day school began their annual refrain in my mind: NEVER AGAIN. In years past, it was more of a quiet whisper, a solemn reminder of how recently an unfathomable instance of man’s inhumanity to man had taken place. It was always more of an abstraction — perhaps because it seemed so inconceivable. But this year was different.
Not only has anti-Semitism become more commonplace, it feels as if it’s been normalized to the point where it’s actually culturally acceptable. And it’s coming from all sides.
On the far right it’s overt — khaki clad, tiki torch-baring white men marching though the streets of an American city, shouting “Jews will not replace us.” It’s cemetery desecration, bomb threats to JCC’s, eviction notices on the dorm room doors of Jewish university students and it’s why my daughter’s Jewish pre-school is protected by a team of uniformed, armed guards.
On the left it’s more insidious. On college campuses, it comes in the form of anti-Israel sentiment through organizations like BDS and SJP. The blame is put on politics and policies, but members of these movements/organizations often trumpet old-fashioned anti-Semitism and dress it up as humanitarianism. It’s Israel being disproportionally condemned by the UN. It’s the organizers of the Chicago Dyke March kicking out women carrying a rainbow flag because it had a Star of David on it — which of course makes “people feel unsafe.” It’s academia’s warm embrace of people like Linda Sarsour and it’s Lorde canceling her Tel Aviv concert citing human rights violations but keeping her dates in Russia.
In a climate of intersectionality, in which Black Lives Matter is conflated with the plight of the Palestinians, Jews somehow seem to tick all of the wrong boxes. A minority ourselves, we are nevertheless guilty of enjoying white privilege. Israel — far from perfect, is still a singular oasis of progressive values in a middle east dominated by regimes that are violently oppressive to women and gays– and yet the Jewish state is viewed as the great Satan in the eyes of most of the world.
And it’s not just happening in America. In Europe, Jews are caught between the competing animus of the political left, the far right and an exploding Muslim population. In fact, the day before this year’s HRD, Poland passed a bill that made it illegal to suggest that the country had any culpability for crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany — a move that many view as tantamount to Holocaust denial. Just 73 years since the Holocaust and the lessons of history seem to have been forgotten, as European synagogues require military protection and Jews continue to leave France in record numbers. It’s no wonder why European Jews have begun to question whether there’s still a place for them on the continent.
We Jews need not blindly defend Israel or run around with giant Chai’s around our necks, but we do need to recognize the pattern. When I discuss the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism with many of my Jewish friends, they are often stunned. They’re socially conscious, educated, politically active and yet completely unaware of what’s happening. Busy marching for women, against Trump, for DACA and doing their Facebook check-ins for the Dakota Access Pipeline (all noble causes) — but losing touch with their own identity.
My dad used to tell a story (probably when I was far too young to hear it) about when the Nazis were rounding up Jews to take them to concentration camps. Many who had been decorated soldiers in WWI walked out of their homes wearing their German army uniforms — naively thinking that this show of nationalism would save them. Instead they were loaded onto cattle cars in uniform just like everyone else, because they were Jews first and Germans second. Being the son of immigrant parents who had fled the pogroms in Russia, he wanted us to always to remember that – no matter how safe we felt in our little coastal Jewish bubble, in everyone else’s eyes we were Jews first. And, that lesson seems all the more prescient today.