Deborah Gastfreund Schuss
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss
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Will an age-old hatred define a new America?

A family vacationing in Florida. Kids in a schoolyard. Jews from the FSU... With US Jews targeted on pretext of protesting Israel, of course they're edgy
Eric Orgen, with his wife and one of his daughters, on vacation in Florida, when they encountered antisemitism. (via YouTube)
Eric Orgen, with his wife and one of his daughters, on vacation in Florida, when they encountered antisemitism. (via YouTube)

Eric Orgen is losing faith, though not religiously. His Judaism is on proud display as he wears his yarmulke during prayer, while on the go, and even when volunteering as an EMT in his community of Teaneck, New Jersey.

But he is losing faith in the ability of America, which he calls “the greatest country,” to continue protecting his cherished freedom to visibly identify as a Jew without fear of aggression.

It was Orgen’s traditional head covering that made him and his family the target of a startling antisemitic assault on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot in May. Orgen was walking with his wife, teenage daughter and a friend while vacationing in Bal Harbour, Florida, when four men in an SUV yelled at them, “F—you Jews, Die Jews, Free Palestine.” They threw garbage and a water bottle at them and threatened to rape his wife and daughter.

“I’m scared for the Jewish people,” he told me as we spoke about the proliferation of violence against Jews and the factors he believes have contributed to it.

Around the United States and the world, attacks on Jews have skyrocketed alongside vandalism of our synagogues, businesses and religious schools — purportedly triggered by the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. But even before the US- and EU-designated terrorist group launched more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, anti-Jewish animus already had established its firm grip on college campuses, in political discourse, and on social media.

What Orgen and others experienced was monumentally different. It was a mission to hunt down Jews.

In Los Angeles on that same day — which had been designated a “Global Day of Action in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising & general strike” — a caravan of cars displaying Palestinian flags drove through a heavily Jewish neighborhood, with occupants shouting anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slogans, including “Death to Jews,” according to eyewitness reports and video footage.

They demanded to know who among outdoor diners at a sushi restaurant were Jewish and viciously attacked patrons self-identifying as Jews, members of the Iranian-American Jewish community, who no doubt understood that there would be dire consequences for their courage.

It is a tragic repetition of Jewish history, chillingly familiar to me as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Both prior to and during the Shoah, my parents often were subjected to the same kind of abusive interrogation, with Jew-hating inquisitors brutalizing them as they affirmed their faith. There always were pretexts for targeting Jews. Now Israel is that excuse to justify violence, which includes Jewish teenagers reportedly being beaten with baseball bats by a mob that demanded they chant “Free Palestine.”

Jewish Americans — several insisting on anonymity for fear of backlash at their jobs or in their neighborhoods — are shaken by the sheer savagery and brazenness of the recent attacks, with many questioning whether their security in the US is compatible with a tectonic societal shift in which identity politics plays a larger role, law enforcement is being skewered, independent thought has given way to herd mentality, and civility has substantially eroded.

“I think we’re in a very dangerous time,” said Dillon Hosier, chief executive officer of the Israeli-American Civic Action Network, which advocates for the Israeli immigrant community in the US. “We are seeing the movement to boycott Israel — which incites antisemitism, in some cases violent antisemitism — metastasize beyond the college campus into other sectors, whether it’s in elementary through high school, in labor unions, in halls of government, and even in the private sector.”

Facing what they consider an unsettled future here, several are either contemplating or planning a move to Israel. Judith Goldberg and her family had been seriously considering that step, but their decision was reinforced by the most recent surge of anti-Jewish venom — a reminder of her parents’ experiences with antisemitism growing up in Ireland and Morocco, respectively, and their ominous counsel to her. “My parents were of the mentality, ‘Always keep an updated passport. You can’t get comfortable anywhere, you’re a Jew,’ ” Goldberg, who lives in Teaneck, NJ, told me.

Others are pulling their children from America’s public schools, fearing for their physical and emotional safety. Andy Heller of San Francisco describes this decision as “the last straw,” after the United Educators of San Francisco in May became the first American K-12 union of public-school teachers to officially support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. “It’s going to endanger the Jewish children who are in public school, and that is just a horrifying thought for me,” said Heller, who considers himself “a very, very liberal guy.”

‘A Conflagration’

Underscoring the gravity of today’s frighteningly inhospitable environment, Karen Stiller of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs the term “conflagration” to describe the confluence of trends conspiring to make Jews — particularly younger ones — more vulnerable today. She notes there now is open use of litmus tests for belonging to certain communities — “you either think like us on all issues, or you’re out” — so Jewish students are being booted out of clubs because of their unwillingness to support BDS and anti-Zionism. Jewish adults face similar threats in “social-justice spaces” that otherwise proudly champion inclusion.

And antisemitism on the left has emerged as a grave and growing concern. “We feel like a truck has run over us now” is the way one person described how he and his circle of liberal Jewish friends are smarting these days from the antisemitism unleashed by the left.

“While our country is quick to, and right to, call out antisemitism coming from the far right — from white nationalism — we’ve seen a great reluctance from those on the political left to acknowledge, much less call out, antisemitism within its own ranks,” notes Stiller, the JCRC’s Middle East project director.

“Antisemitism on the left often comes with the baggage that Jews are seen entirely as part of the white privileged majority and therefore often not included in conversations about DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion), she adds. “There is little knowledge or understanding about the diversity of the Jewish community or about Jewish identity in general and how we continue to experience antisemitism/oppression.”

Reflecting on the anti-Jewish attack he and his family endured in Florida, Orgen tells me he worries the heightened emphasis in the US on categorization by identity is fueling antisemitism by accentuating our immutable differences rather than uniting us with a shared understanding of our uniqueness.

“Now, it’s all about how you identify — what’s your pronoun, what’s your race, what’s your ethnicity. I’m an American, I’m a human being, isn’t that enough?” Orgen asks. “I’ve been an EMT for 26 years, and I’ve never seen anybody bleed another color except red.”

Kids Targeted

There is particular concern among parents and Jewish communal professionals about the consequences for Jewish children who are being targeted at a time in their development when they are desperate to belong. To conceal their Jewishness, several have asked that their parents remove mezuzahs from their homes’ doorposts.

Stiller of the JCRC told me she has had conversations with young teens in the Bay Area struggling with antisemitism from their peers — much of it on social media. And that includes her 14-year-old daughter. By merely identifying as Jewish on TikTok, these teens have been barraged with “Free Palestine” messaging and antisemitic Holocaust jokes.

And some teachers are presenting their personal anti-Israel views in the classrooms and in emails to students, Stiller reports. To parents and others, these are among the most disturbing incidents involving youth because of the inherent imbalance of power in such relationships.

A 13-year-old friend of Heller’s son, also in the San Francisco schools, revealed he already feels unsafe being identified as Jewish in school after a seventh-grade teacher presented a lesson on the Middle East conflict that was entirely anti-Israel and left him feeling intimidated. Heller fears the teachers’ union BDS resolution will give carte blanche to educators aiming to indoctrinate youngsters who lack the capacity to differentiate fact from their teacher’s opinions.

In Los Angeles, there are similar challenges. The United Teachers Los Angeles leadership is scheduled to vote in September on a BDS resolution similar to San Francisco’s. And students at several middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District recently were quizzed on where in Israel “some Palestinians are facing evictions from their homes by Israelis,” raising alarm in the Jewish community that it was a malicious effort to groom young children with an anti-Israel narrative. The legal team of StandWithUs, an international Israel-education organization that fights antisemitism, filed a public-records request to obtain more information on how this seeped into the curriculum but has yet to hear back.

That lessons are being manipulated to fit a particular doctrine strikes many as an abuse of authority by educators tasked with protecting children’s well-being and teaching them to think critically. And with children emerging from the pandemic scarred emotionally and academically, they view the attention to BDS resolutions as a stunning misdirection of resources.

“It is shocking to me that coming off more than a year of my kids being out of school, the focus of the teachers’ union is endorsing BDS when their biggest focus needs to be on helping what will be a generation of children who are so far behind in education that they might never catch up,” said Adam Bergman, a San Francisco father of two children.

He told me that with his kids learning remotely, he was able to observe what was being taught to his third- and sixth-grade children this past year. The curriculum centered on diversity and inclusion, but Jews were not among the groups discussed in those lessons. The hypocrisy of the educators’ union pouring energy into an exclusionary resolution while diversity and inclusion are prevailing classroom themes is not lost on him, he says.

“The worst thing that could happen in our schools is to push a BDS movement that could lead to discrimination against one group of people when the focus of the schools for the past year has been on diversity and inclusion,” Bergman told me.

Soviet Redux for Russian Jews

All this has a disquieting familiarity for Jews from the former Soviet Union, who sought refuge in America to escape the antisemitism and absence of freedom of expression. With teachers-turned-activists spewing the same anti-Israel and anti-American vitriol in class that Alex Koifman heard growing up in what is now Belarus, the computer engineer describes US education, in contrast to his own, as “indoctrination minus the sciences.” He, at least, had studied the sciences.

In the Soviet Union, youth not attending Komsomol meetings, which extolled the virtues of the country while also railing against Israel and the US, were barred from college or good jobs. “You had to walk the party line,” he recalled of his experiences. Today, he speaks with Americans who are fearful of reprisal if they voice any opinions that challenge material presented in required workplace seminars.

Bullied for being Jewish in the Soviet Union, Koifman came to America when he was 19 with no money, no education, and little knowledge of English. Now he works as a consultant in suburban Boston and also is president of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, a US charitable organization that helps Russian emigres, their descendants, and others sympathetic to the group’s stand against antisemitism and support for Israel.

His leadership allows him to take the pulse of this immigrant community, which he estimates at 1 million across America. Koifman told me they are “very, very upset.” Through their traumatic past, and patterns in Jewish history, they recognize the surge of antisemitism in this country as a sign of societal upheaval and impending doom if there is no change.

“The greatest country on the planet that gave us opportunities, equal opportunities to succeed, and we really succeeded in this country,” Koifman said. “I received every opportunity that anyone in this country would get… I went to college, I got a good profession and I have enjoyed living in this country, have enjoyed the freedom of speech, freedom of movement… We are afraid, we see that it all may come to an end.”

Sweeping Leadership Failure

Any course correction would require introspection from the top, but many are skeptical of that prospect. There is a pervasive feeling that the spike in antisemitism is a natural outcome of a profound failure in all spheres of leadership, which has overseen and enabled the erosion of meaningful accountability.

For example: When US Representative Ilhan Omar trafficked in antisemitic tropes, a House resolution did not condemn her by name and morphed into a denunciation of many prejudices, they say.

For example: When Google’s diversity chief was found to have written in a blog post that Jews have an “insatiable appetite for war,” he was reassigned within the organization, not fired.

And for example: When a Johns Hopkins University teaching assistant tweeted out a poll asking whether “Zionist students’ exams” should be awarded “all their points,” the administration told concerned JHU parents Seth Lipschitz and his wife that the outcome of its investigation would not be released because of student-privacy laws. Nor did the school address a list of recommendations from StandWithUs to help heighten sensitivity to antisemitism, the organization said.

The message to us Jews is “end of subject,” the very words voiced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tried to contain the fallout from Rep. Omar’s recent incendiary tweet grouping the US and Israel with Hamas and the Taliban. We conclude that unlike the pain of others, ours has an instantaneous expiration date and is easily jettisoned by political expediency.

My parents knew all too well what the normalization of antisemitism can bring. As they approached New York Harbor in 1949, after having barely survived unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis, they were overcome with emotion at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. This country provided hope and a safe haven to rebuild their shattered lives, making them feel profoundly grateful and blessed to be here. Only seven decades later, Jews feel unsafe in our streets and schools.

As the core values threaded through our country are rewoven, Jewish Americans find themselves grappling with an inescapable question: Has that refuge run its course?

About the Author
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss is an award-winning reporter and the recipient of a journalism fellowship that supported her graduate education at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe for six years, reported for The Associated Press, and worked for other news organizations as a writer and editor. She also has been published in The Wall Street Journal and on foxnews.com, and blogged for The Jerusalem Post.
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