Mountain or molehill? Evaluating everyday indignities facing Jews

There’s a game I play with myself when it comes to the quotidian indignities I experience as a Jew. I call it “Mountain or Molehill?” It’s my attempt to make sense of exactly how offensive any particular slight may be. My professional events and children’s sports practices scheduled on high holy days? Molehill. A friend joking that I was demanding a “pound of flesh” without recognizing the antisemitic roots of the phrase? Molehill. Seeing a Santa Claus float at an otherwise secular Independence Day parade? Molehill. Hearing someone compare calls for mask-wearing to the Holocaust? Mountain! Multiple instances of swastika graffiti at a local high school? Mountain! A candidate for a town office condemning that graffiti while also dismissing it as a “one-off” event? Molehill…I think.

In my accounting, my experiences are mostly molehills — microaggressions, to use a more technical term. I recognize that, as a white-presenting Jewish person who isn’t “visibly Jewish,” my concerns are tempered by a degree of privilege. I don’t fear the taunting inflicted on Hasidic Jews wearing traditional garb. I’m not vulnerable to the racial microaggressions lobbed at Jews of color. They must confront and scale mountains regularly, with a strength and resilience that’s largely not demanded of me.

And yet, here I am, stewing about molehills. When it comes to these little indignities, I’ve found fellow Jews often to be the first to tell me to “just let it go” or assume the offending party’s heart “was in the right place.” Besides, why concentrate on the small stuff when the big, mountain-grade stuff is more pressing and dangerous?

Letting it go would certainly be easier, but it doesn’t sit right with me. Why should I grin and bear it when a little education could go a long way? If most molehills are, indeed, a symptom of ignorance as opposed to being borne of nefarious intent, couldn’t explaining the situation do a world of good? What if more of us said things like:

  • “That seminar was scheduled on Yom Kippur, a major holiday during which observant Jews cannot work. Would you consider adjusting the timing?”
  • “A ‘pound of flesh’ refers to something demanded by a Jewish antagonist in a Shakespearean play that many consider antisemitic. It can be offensive when directed at a Jewish person.”
  • “If a parade is supposed to be patriotic, including a float representing a holiday specific to one religion implies that only that religion is truly patriotic and worthy of recognition.”
  • “There were multiple instances of swastika graffiti at the school over several years, and crimes against Jews constituted 57.5% of all religious bias crimes in the U.S. last year. It’s important to recognize this disturbing pattern.”

In an ideal world, the people at the receiving end of such advice, however unsolicited, would react with gratitude because it could save them from the embarrassment of repeating future mistakes.

In the real world, this isn’t always the case. As British writer David Baddiel notes in his aptly titled book, “Jews Don’t Count,” there’s not “a proper call-out culture” for microaggressions against Jews. I, personally, have found that sometimes, when people are called out for such mistakes, even gently, they deflect, accusing those of us who confront them of being petty, melodramatic, or just plain hostile. They refuse to take our words to heart.

Perhaps I’d “just let it go” if only I could receive assurance that what I’m seeing and hearing isn’t actively paving the way for the further marginalization of Jews. In other words, can someone promise me that these molehills won’t someday coalesce into yet another mountain?

Of course, anyone with even a glancing understanding of history — the centuries of persecution and exclusion — cannot confidently make this promise. But if I’m being honest, I’ll admit that when I call out someone for a microaggression, I’m not usually mulling the slippery slope toward violence and genocide. I’m just thinking about how their words or actions hurt me, personally, as a Jew, and how tired I am of pretending that they don’t.

So I return to my “Mountain or Molehill” game, trying to identify and quantify pain, attempting to determine which offense is worthy of the volume of my voice. And I keep hoping that I can convince the “just let it go” crowd to join me in speaking out. Whether I’m climbing a mountain or hopping over a molehill, I’d rather not do it alone.

About the Author
Alice Gomstyn is a veteran journalist and essayist. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, The New York Daily News and other national outlets.
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