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We must look up!

In the past five years, since I moved to the US, many of my congregants have asked me lots of questions about Jewish life in Latin America moved by curiosity and eagerness to learn. Among the frequent questions about being a Jew in places like Argentina or Colombia there is one that seems to be the most frequent. “There is a lot of antisemitism there, right?”

Without pretending that my personal experience can be used as a serious statistic, the majority of American Jews that I have interacted with believe that antisemitism in Latin America is a much more serious problem than antisemitism in the US. And that scares me, it scares me a lot.

Growing up in Argentina, I learned at a very young age that antisemitism was something we must be aware of and stay alert. In my elementary school, we had evacuation drills and a designated home of one of our classmates, where we would walk in case of a bomb threat. I learned the hard way that wearing a kippah on the street involved the risk of being called ‘judio de mierda’ or worse things. I learned that in order to run a Jewish summer camp I needed to have some rudiments on Krav Magah and know how to react in case of an external threat. As a rabbi in Colombia, I was not surprised at all when I was introduced to the armed bodyguards that were going to accompany me on my walk back from shul every shabbat or when I was asked to change the beginning or end time of the service in light of an alert against Jewish communities in the region.

I was born and raised in a city where the Israeli embassy and the headquarters of the Jewish Community were bombed in 1992 and 1994, leaving a total toll of 114 fatal victims. I officiated my first funerals at a cemetery where the desecration of Jewish tombstones is something that happens so often that it doesn’t make the headlines. I know antisemitism because, just like any other Jew in Latin America or Europe, I grew up in cities where that is part of the landscape. I know antisemitism not because I have read about it in books or chronicles from a distant past. I have been called dirty Jew in the streets and in college, I have listened to messages on the synagogue’s voicemail saying that they were going to blow it up. I have left shul in the middle of shabbat services because we were ordered to evacuate due to a serious threat and I got used to seeing soldiers and policemen at the entrance of every Jewish organization.

And then, I moved to the US. A country that, if judged from the perspective of those who narrate the history and the present of the local Jewry, antisemitism was not a significant problem. A country whose leaders were able to stand up against antisemitism elsewhere, outraged by the fact that Jews could still be victims of that evil phenomenon in the 21st century. To my surprise, that same hatred that I have experienced growing up, is alive and dangerously flourishing in the Golden Medinah.

In only half a decade living here, I have seen Jews being killed in synagogues in Pittsburgh and in Poway and held hostage in Colleyville. I have read with pain about Jews shot in Jersey City and stabbed in Monsey. I have watched the video of a kippah-wearing brother being beaten and called a ‘’dirty Jew’’ in Time Square, at the very heart of the free world. I have read how a Congresswoman tweeted about ‘’the Benjamins” while another one said that the wildfires in California were ignited by a space laser controlled by Jews. I have witnessed how flags with swastikas were waived at a rally that according to the President had ‘very fine people’ among its attendees and how people with “Camp Auschwitz” shirts stormed the Capitol.

In sum, I have felt no less antisemitism here in America than in any other country I have ever lived in. But there is a main difference between antisemitism here and elsewhere: denial. There is denial when people ask me about antisemitism in Latin America implying that that problem is one that exists there more than here. There is denial when I read influential thinkers trying to minimize the threat of antisemitism or when I listen to colleagues choosing to preach about almost any other kind of hatred except for the one that is directed against us. There is denial when we don’t learn the difficult dance of denouncing racism, islamophobia, homophobia and any other kind of hatred and violence against minorities while at the same time acknowledging that we continue to be persecuted and discriminated here in this promised land that we call home. There is denial when endless Facebook posts and Twitter threads are trying to find a way to say that an armed man who takes 4 people hostage in a Synagogue during Shabbat services demanding the release of an Al Qaeda terrorist who wants members of her jury DNA tested to make sure they are not Jewish, is not an act of antisemitism.

A large segment of our own Jewish intellectual elite is choosing not to look up as the comet continues to approach. Shielded on sophisticated sociological excuses and scared that if they call things as they are their progressiveness will be diminished, there are many that today choose to ignore a threat that is serious, is real and is growing. And sadly, we know how this may end if we don’t look up. Because we know what happens when we ignore illness or an addiction, we know what happens when we look to the other side in the face of injustice and bigotry, and we know when we Jews decide to ignore the threat of antisemitism.

From Pharaoh to Hitler, from Haman to Hamas, antisemites plant a seed trusting that it will grow beyond their control. None of the massacres that evil leaders planned to perpetrate against our people would have succeeded if it wasn’t because of the ignorance of many who followed them. The ideological leader of an antisemitic project probably knows that we don’t control the world, that we don’t have a secret network of bankers or that we don’t own the media. But they trust that if they say it loud and often, someone will buy their lies and act accordingly. Antisemitism is then a ‘system’ that relies on ignorants, lunatics, paranoids and so many others that believe their lies and are willing to take it to the next level. Someone who believes that Jews control the world is not only an idiot, he is also an antisemite. Moreover, he is the proof that antisemitic tropes and ideas have permeated society to a degree that can no longer be controlled. It is the fulfilled dream of those who want to see us gone. Those ‘high level’ maquiavelic thinking antisemites need and rely on the ignorant, the simpleton, the uneducated. And perhaps they also rely on the fact that we don’t look up, that we are in denial, that for Jews in America it is challenging to detect and to denounce antisemitism when it happens in our backyard. Let’s call things by their name, a hostage situation lead by an armed man who demands the freedom of an Islamic terrorist, that takes place at a synagogue during Shabbat services is an act of antisemitism. And the choice not to see antisemitism when it’s happening in our sight, borders complicity.

But why? Why aren’t we capable of calling things by their name? After all, it doesn’t take that much wisdom to see antisemitism in the many things I have described and to see a systemic problem when you add all those events up and look at the big picture. I suspect it is hard for us to clearly see antisemitism because we have always seen it as a problem of the ‘other’. We had no difficulty in seeing antisemitism in communist Russia or in corrupt Argentina. We don’t struggle to see antisemitism in right wing parties in Eastern Europe or in left wing ones in France or Spain. We can spot it elsewhere very easily, except when it happens in our very own home. We disregard it as a non-existing problem even if that implies covering the sun with our hands, because antisemitism in America puts into question some of the foundational assumptions of American Judaism. We choose not to see it because we like to believe that the ‘melting pot’ did its job and we are no longer an ‘other’. Not being an ‘other’ enables us to show solidarity with all ‘others’ and feeling that we are the nicest among the well-established, highly educated segment of white America.

We can see hatred and discrimination against any minority. Rallies against any form of bigotry usually have a disproportionate presence of Jews among the attendees. And that makes me very proud. It means that we have learned the most sacred values of our tradition. However, rallies against antisemitism are usually weaker in proportion. We march with everyone, but we don’t succeed on getting everyone to march with us. Not even our very own seem to be interested in demonstrating when it comes to denouncing antisemitism. We leave that to the exclusive monopoly of those with some particular ideological mindset and allow for it to be transformed into a partisan issue.

We are so proud of how far we have made it in the past hundred years, that we are not ready to accept that we are still (and will always be) an ‘other’. The existence of antisemitism puts into question the idea that we are the embodiment of the American dream, that we are so much part of the established society that we even get to both protect and oppress others forgetting our own history of being ‘strangers’, immigrants, aliens. The illusion that we have lost that sense of otherness makes us stupidly proud, as if we had made it to the pinnacle of our society. Perhaps it is because of that that we march for Jews who are in danger elsewhere and for other minorities who are persecuted in our own country, but we refuse to see the threat that is posed against us in the place we call home.

The unwillingness to recognize and denounce antisemitism, the reluctance to acknowledge the problem, the false feeling of security after so many red flags is part of our pretended sense of ‘assimilation’. In a country whose foundational ethos is one of welcoming the oppressed and the persecuted into a safe haven, we don’t allow ourselves to believe that there may be no fully safe haven for us, not even here. At least not yet. And while we try to contribute our share to the building of a safer, more just and peaceful country for all, we need to stay vigilant, we need to be alert. We must protect our houses of worship and study, knowing that there are people who hate us and are ready to harm us. We need to carefully choose our allies and friends. We must look up and see that Jews here are no safer here than in any other place on earth and that antisemitism is not something of the past, to be discussed over in intellectual circles but rather something of the present, that threatens our existence and has to be combated with resources and strategies.

I have never ever thought, that there will be a day in which my friends and colleagues from Latin America would ask me ‘how are things in the US? There is a lot of antisemitism there, isn’t it?’

Sadly, we have not escaped the fate of our people elsewhere. Perhaps, one day, we will just see it and act accordingly.

About the Author
Guido Cohen is a rabbi in Aventura, Florida. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he worked from a very young age in formal and informal Jewish Education. He served for 4 years as the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Colombia and then moved to the Miami area where he is one of the rabbis at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.
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