Growing up, being Jewish was a big part of my identity. I went to Hebrew school, I went to Temple on the high holy days, and I became a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13 and was confirmed like many other Jewish children my age.
But I think the most important part of my Jewish identity was the way in which it brought my family together. The only times I saw all my uncles and cousins and grandparents were on the Jewish Holidays. In Jewish culture – as in other cultures – there is much discussion about famous people like us – like Jerry Seinfeld, for example. We bonded over jokes about our own identity, like our penchants for complaining about things, or the very frank conversation I once had with my uncle in which he explained to me in not-so-uncertain terms that my genetics would likely preclude me from ever making it to the NBA.
One thing I remember about my childhood is something that my grandmother used to say: “Anti-semitism is still alive and well.” It is actually something she still says to this day and something we had started giving her some grief over on one of our more recent family Zoom calls. But now I am not so sure any more that she deserves that grief.
While I realize many smarter people before me have attempted to explain anti-Semitism, I want to try once more, because I am starting to suspect that many people genuinely do not understand what it is, where it comes from, and how they might be inadvertently invoking harmful anti-Semitic tropes.
Let me be clear about one thing: my own personal experience with anti-Semitism is likely not as painful as the overt racism that people of color might face throughout their lives. A fundamental difference between anti-Semitism and other forms of racism is that you often cannot tell just by looking at someone whether or not they are Jewish. Most people who meet me believe I am Irish, and when I tell them that my heritage is Russian and Eastern European, they will shrug their shoulders. The same is true, I think, for my older brother, who is gay. Since he is a public figure, people who know who he is know that he is gay; however, passersby on the street would rarely – if ever – make that assumption about him just by looking at him, and I acknowledge that in some ways there is some small element of privilege in that hate that might otherwise be directed at us for various reasons is not readily apparent to the naked eye.
This does not mean that we have not had very real experiences with anti-Semitism. In fact, not long ago, my brother and his boyfriend were spat on (yes, you read that right) walking down a street in London en route to a friend’s wedding since they were wearing yarmulkes.
My first personal experience with anti-Semitism happened in middle school, when a friend of mine threw a quarter on the ground and asked me if I was going to pick it up. In high school, me and a couple of my classmates were the brunt of Jewish jokes by some of our peers. I think that instances of anti-Semitism were so many in my high school that other Jewish classmates of mine insisted that they were not indeed practicing Jews and tried to distance themselves from their heritage. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the ringleaders of these anti-Semitic jokes are some of the most vocal social justice warriors I know today – at least for causes that do not pertain to Jews. In fact, one of these individuals assured me that there are hundreds of religions and that Jews should not have a right to self-determination in the form of Israel, and yet another told me not to use “the Jewish persecution story” to defend its right to exist, seemingly not understanding what the Holocaust was or how it led to the creation of Israel.
I would be lying to you though if I told you that I am some sort of aggrieved individual on account of my Jewish upbringing. Yes, I have faced some nasty jokes here and there, but to my knowledge, I do not think I have been discriminated against when applying for a job, or in dealing with the police, or even just walking down the street. Ironically, this is what makes anti-Semitism so pernicious: that Jews are perceived as “doing OK” at the expense of others; that they control and manipulate others; and in short, that they are an easy scapegoat for all other groups.
I remember in college that I focused a great deal of my energy studying French attitudes on the Holocaust in cinematic and written expression. Something that was interesting about France is that it had its own unique history in using Jews as a scapegoat, most notably with the Dreyfus Affair. Many historians would argue that France has grave issues with xenophobia at large, and its war with Algeria, its colonialist history, and its present-day stance on Muslim immigration are a testament to a continuation of this phenomenon. But France – like Nazi Germany – turned to one group of people in order to unify its people: the Jews.
Though proud French people will tell you time and time again about the Resistance, most people who study the history of France know the reality that the Resistance was not too much more than a myth. French people were all too happy to hand over their Jews to Nazis if it helped keep them in good standing, and countries all around Europe followed suit, convinced of propaganda that compared Jews to rats, insisting that Jews were not sufficiently “white” and therefore outsiders, and that they were plotting to manipulate and steal from everyone around them.
In many ways, French history with regards to this subject is very much like our own American history. We are seeing today in the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement how offended so many people are to have had a brutal history of slavery and theft downplayed in history books. It is a reckoning that is long overdue in our country. So if it helps to imagine how present-day Israelis or current-day Europeans feel with regards to the Holocaust, look no further than our own country and the way that people are reacting right now. Now sprinkle on top of that the fact that European anti-Semitism is at an all-time postwar high and that people in France, for example, are fleeing for Israel in record numbers since the 1940s, and you can start to imagine how big a problem this really is for some people.
What I think is fairly unique about anti-Semitism in our country is that it comes from all sides. Something that is seemingly overlooked from time to time in the Charlottesville white nationalist rally was that their pamphlets were littered with Jewish propaganda and that they screamed, “Jews will not replace us!” as they walked down the streets. To the alt-right, Jews are not white people: they are something else. This was propaganda fueled by Adolf Hitler himself, who was trying to breed a pure, Aryan race – one which Jews did not belong to.
For that reason, I actually spent most of my childhood feeling like an outsider. I lived in a homogenous town where I was only one of a handful of Jews, so while I could look in the mirror and see that I was white like them, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was part of the same group as most of my friends. I went to a very diverse private school starting in 7th grade. Coming from such a homogenous community beforehand, I am thankful that I had the experience of meeting people who were different than me. Not only did it expose me to people of other races to help form some diversity of economics, thought, and opinion, but it also relieved me of the feeling of being different.
On the far left, the narrative for anti-Semitism shares some of the characteristics of the alt-right, but there are some important differences. First and foremost, the left differs in its opinion about how “white” Jews are. Whereas the alt-right considers Jews to be non-white, the far left might argue that Jews are the most privileged or most elite white people. The dangerous rhetoric from this group is that Jews have the most to pay back to others; that they have used cunning and lies to get to where they are and that they have exploited people of color more than other white groups. In short – the far left has a very short memory when it comes to Jews. It ignores the thousands of years of persecution of Jews (they do call it the oldest hate in the world for a reason) and take a snapshot of present day statistics in order to do precisely what Hitler did before marching Jews to their death: use them as a scapegoat and suggest that it is their fault that so many others are suffering.
Because anti-Semitism comes from both sides of the political spectrum, it is particularly dangerous. There is no “home” for Jews today on the political spectrum. There are alt-right shooters killing people in synagogues and hate crime against Jews is at an all-time high in the United States and Europe, mainly perpetrated by the same groups. And then there is the divisive rhetoric of the political left, which, for example, now has woke students putting up posters on college campuses asking why Jews get into elite universities at a much higher clip than the percentage of population they truly represent, scapegoating them no differently than in the past.
Anti-Semitism is also pernicious in that it is often covert, hidden to the naked eye or hiding behind something else. There is much debate about Israel and its actions. And to be sure, there are many people who criticize Israel with legitimately good intentions, who are intellectually consistent people that criticize other nations with alleged human rights abuses.
Then there are those who do a much poorer job of hiding their real intentions. For example, a few years ago, there was an LGBT rally in Chicago called the Chicago Dyke March. In the interest of “intersectionality” – a very popular buzzword for progressives – LGBT Jews showed up with rainbow flags bearing the Star of David. They were asked to leave the rally, since this particular movement is pro-Palestine. Never mind that members of the LGBT community are treated very poorly in Palestine. What those people would tell you about Israel, on the other hand, is that it is only friendly to the LGBT community to garner sympathy from the international community. They call this phenomenon “pinkwashing.” This term is completely made up and there is no evidence to support it. Succinctly, only someone with a Jew-hating agenda could possibly conceive of a notion whereby one supports a country that would have them killed for their identity, while accusing the Jewish country of being friendly in bad faith.
Though this behavior is beyond the pale, there are yet others who state emphatically that Israel should not even exist. On one hand, it is possible that those who makes this argument are ignorant about the history of Israel – that it was British-controlled territory that became a Jewish state after United Nations approval following the Holocaust. One of my social justice warrior friends from high school who used to make anti-Semitic jokes once told me that Jews are but one of dozens of religions, and that it was me who was racist for believing they were entitled to their own state when plenty of religions do not have one. This friend is Christian, and he need not worry about a safe haven for himself if Christians are rounded up someday, and his offensive comment and belief seem to ignore thousands of years of human history and the rationale for why Jews specifically as a target of human hatred actually require a safe haven to evade persecution and suffering.
What prompted me to write this blog is the recent flurry of anti-Semitic comments from prominent athletes and celebrities. There was recently a trending hashtag on Twitter #JewishPrivilege, which was propagated by alt-right groups. Their aim was to use Jews as a scapegoat in the wake of BLM to try to unite with far-left groups upset about racial injustice and to unify against Jews.
Meanwhile, we have seen the rappers Ice Cube and Sean “P Diddy” Combs, athletes DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, and Dwyane Wade, actor Nick Cannon, and radio host Charlamagne The God all come out with virulently anti-Semitic remarks in the last week or so. What I have experienced personally during this time is a ridiculous double standard in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement where it has become evident how capable people are in affecting change through their words and actions.
For example, when Drew Brees made a comment that he does not support kneeling for the national anthem, he was eviscerated on mainstream news outlets and by scores of NFL players. Retired NFL player Malcolm Jenkins tearfully explained in a video why Brees’s comments were so hurtful. Meanwhile, after DeSean Jackson posted anti-Semitic quotes from Louis Farrakhan and Adolf Hitler (which was falsely attributed) – something that was unquestionably worse than what Brees had done – Jenkins said, “Jewish people are not our problem.” I think only three NFL players had something to say about DeSean Jackson, and two of them were Jewish players. In both cases, white NFL players were seemingly and disappointingly silent.
But the trend of being quiet about anti-Semitism is especially true amongst my “woke” group of friends, who have spent the last couple months spreading memes and sharing content designed to speak out against anti-Black racism. I have seen very few of the same friends with anything to say about the overt outpouring of anti-Semitism. This supports my earlier message about the pernicious way in which anti-Semitism is manifesting itself within progressive ranks. Since Jews are deemed to be a privileged class, it is not “cool” to speak out against anti-Semitism. In other words, if your goal is to signal your virtue, you can do it for the topic du jour (BLM), but you risk actual backlash from your “woke” friends if you have anything to say about the privileged Jews.
To give the people I know some credit, many of them have reached out to me privately to encourage me to keep my chin up and to express some support. And yet others have gone out of their way to be quite public about disavowing this form of hatred. I commend and appreciate them. But the people I am watching closely are the ones who always have something to say about aggrievement as it pertains to non-white people or women. Why are they so trigger happy to put content out into the ether to stand up for them, but not for me?
In 1956, the French director Alain Resnais produced what I believe is the best documentary of all-time, “Night and Fog.” Francois Truffaut once called it “the most important movie ever made.” Only about a half hour in length, it shifts between black and white imagery of the Nazi concentration camps to present-day color imagery of the ruins of the camps. The purpose here is to reveal the fragility of human memory, forcing the viewer to imagine that the atrocities in the black and white images of the past could have indeed happened in these beautiful fields. And in doing so, the viewer then realizes that the horrors of the Holocaust could certainly happen again if we repeat the same mistakes, which we seem to be starting to do once more. The last words of the film have stuck with me my entire life and they have never been more true:
“We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.”