The transformation of a place I never knew

This summer, my two and a half year sojourn in the USA came to an end and I returned home to Israel. Upon arriving in the US at the beginning of 2016, I encountered a country that was on the one hand so familiar, due to saturated exposure through popular culture (tv, film, music, art, literature) and from having lived with and interacted with many Americans over the past 20 years.

On the other hand, the American Jewish community was one I knew next to nothing about. However, there was one thing that I did know with absolute certainty. That being a Jew in America was nothing like the European Jewish experience which I had grown up with.

I spent a lot of time listening and learning, thirsty to understand what makes American Jews tick. Asking questions of the young and old alike, religious and secular, (mostly) Democrats and (a few) Republicans.

A few short months after I arrived, Donald J Trump became the presidential candidate for the Republican Party, and I too got caught up in the campaign fever, following polls and watching the debates as avidly as my hosts. Since I was working within the Jewish community, I was determined to keep my senses attuned to any fluctuations and realisations of the implications of what was unfolding for America’s 6 million Jews.

There was something utterly familiar about Trump as a leader – knowing which buttons to press, demagogy, xenophobia and the scapegoating of minorities. He’s certainly not the first to employ these tactics and he probably won’t be the last. But what was interesting to me was the response of the Jewish community, or should I say Jewish communities. Because when I started engaging people about the rise of Trump and the consequences for Jews, I got varying responses depending on who I asked.

What follows are sweeping generalizations based solely on the people that I spoke to, so there is certainly a good possibility that it doesn’t reflect the community as a whole. With that caveat, here is an analysis of different segments of the Jewish American population, here broken down by generation:

Seniors – The best way of describing the seniors that I spoke to is stoical. They certainly have a collective memory of the Jewish immigration of the end of the nineteenth century / beginning of the twentieth century, the hardships, the anti-Semitism and the striving to be accepted into American society. Nevertheless, today they are incredulous at the mere thought that the Jews are anything but a secure fixture on the American landscape. The phrase from Kohelet, that there is nothing new under the sun, springs to mind. They’ve seen these charlatans take centre stage time and again, and maybe they’ll be a little unpleasantness now and then, but as Jews, we’ll outlive them, like we’ve always done.

The middle-aged – This generation were the most concerned about the developing reality pre and post Trump’s inauguration. A small few were renewing their passports ‘just in case’, but many were in shock, tears flowing, watching aghast at the unfolding horror show, wondering what this shift would look like, what living through Trumpism would incorporate. As Jews they were concerned too, and so they got active, coming together as communities to try and shape the new reality, bringing love and strength to the struggle.

Generation Z – Those that I got to know the best were leftists, and they were staunchly dismissive of any attempt to paint the Jewish people as anything but privileged. As Jews, they need to be strong allies of the real minority groups – LBGTQ, African-Americans, women, even if that comes at the expense of downplaying our Jewishness. On the other hand, when you start scratching the surface, this generation have certainly experienced anti-Semitism, but interestingly only see it as individual experiences, and have huge difficulty connecting the dots and seeing it as a trend facing the Jewish people of America.

* * *

On October 19th, 2016, the same evening as the third and final presidential debate between Clinton and Trump, I led a discussion with a group of 18-21 year olds in College Park, Maryland that will stay with me for a long time yet.

The text I chose to spark the discussion was one of the earlier pieces in the American / Jewish press about the rise of anti-Semitism in contemporary (read Trump’s) America. It could have been this: “US election causing uptick in Twitter abuse for Jews and journalists” or “How Trump Took Hate Groups Mainstream” or “Antisemitism: Everything Old is New Again”. In fact, it was this: “Trump Shows How Right-wingers Can Love Israel and Hate the Jews”.

Now the line in the article that reads, “American Jews aren’t panicking, but they are deeply troubled” was something that I really wanted to put to the test, and understand if that really reflected the feelings of Jewish college students I was going to meet, as opposed to another example of scare-mongering and more a reflection of the agenda of the Israeli journalist who wrote the piece. I don’t remember the questions that I prepared for them beforehand, but they certainly included asking them if they felt threatened or uncomfortable as Jews during Trump’s rise to power. I remember expecting their response to be one of denial – denial that there was a creeping problem, that things were changing for American Jews, that they should be concerned. I had predicted this response because I had been living and working with them for past eight months, and this is what they had always exhibited. I doubted their ability to actually see what was going on for what it is – the advance of anti-Semitism in all its ugly manifestations, anti-Semitism that European Jews can smell from a mile and a half away.

I was looking for a question for the climax of the conversation, one which would help them continue mulling over the subject in the following days and weeks. After much deliberation, a healthy dose of self-doubt and a dash of boldness, I scrawled on my discussion sheet the question “What would need to happen for you to accept that you are under threat today as Jews in America and that you need to start being concerned?”

As the actual conversation progressed, I eyed nervously the sheet with the final question that I had prepared. Is it a legitimate question to be asking of these young people? Am I unnecessarily alarming them? As an educator, was I asking them a question or actually making a statement?

When I discovered that the consensus in the room was so overwhelmingly downplaying the rearing of anti-Semitism’s ugly head, I took the opportunity and asked the question. The silence following the question pretty much summed up the feelings in the room. There were certainly some participants that didn’t understand the question at first, and then one by one, there was reluctant agreement that it would take a terror attack against Jews on American soil in order to change their perception of American Jews to be anything but safe and secure.

So what now? Post-Pittsburgh. The simple answer to that question is that I don’t know. I’m not in the USA, and not surrounding myself with young American Jews. I’d love to know if the perception has changed by the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

How do you feel as a Jew in Trump’s America?

My original Facebook post summing up the discussion the morning after
About the Author
Anton Marks is a British-born Israeli and a founder member of the largest urban kibbutz in Israel. He has been an informal educator for the last 25 years, and has recently returned from Shlichut in Maryland for the youth movement Habonim Dror. His passion for Zionist education, Tikkun Olam, Jewish history, identity and culture are a recipe for engaging and challenging articles.
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