How the resurgence of anti-Semitism made me confront my complicated history with Judaism.
For most of my life, if you asked me what I was, I wouldn't say Jewish. I tried my best not to consider my Jewishness, that Jewishness was something I even had. When I was a kid, I denied it. I'd tell anyone who asked I was an atheist. "But what are you really?" other children would probe.
"I mean, my grandparents are Jewish," I'd admit. "But I barely know them."
That is the truth—my parents are atheists, too. But being Jewish goes beyond adhering to the law of the Torah. It's an ethnic and cultural identity rooted in millennia of oppression, an oppression I admit I was free to ignore. I grew up in New York City, home to the largest Jewish community in the world after Israel, where about an eighth of the population is Jewish. I didn't feel discriminated against. I didn't feel different—and I didn't want to be.
I was mostly raised by my mother, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Berlin and Vienna who were lucky enough to escape safely to Australia in the 1930s. My grandmother was traumatized by the Holocaust, but as my mother recently explained to me, "As a child, I had no understanding of how being Jewish impacted someone's life, and my mother had no ability to convey it to me." My mother raised my sister and me in a very secular environment. "The things that mattered to me were to teach my kids kindness, generosity, self-awareness, and compassion," she said. "Those are the qualities that matter to me." When my sister went through a phase where she rebelliously proclaimed herself Catholic, my mother laughed it off. (Around the same time, my sister also briefly declared herself a Republican, something my parents took much greater issue with.)
We knew we were Jews all the same, and while I didn't dislike that fact of my life, exactly, I also didn't like it. I hated my Jewish hair in particular: I spent hours dutifully ironing out the horrifying frizzy curls that sprouted wildly from my head, and I felt humiliated when that thick, dark hair began growing out of other parts of my body. I wanted thin, straight Anglo hair, the blonder the better. I yearned for blue eyes, a certain type of whiteness that would never quite be available to me.
Most of what I understood about Jewish culture came from my classmates' lavish bar and bat mitzvahs—which likely cost more than my mother's annual salary—and learning about the Holocaust in history class. I couldn't connect the oppression and my own experience. Anti-Semitism, I reckoned, was a thing of the past.
At Oberlin College, an extremely progressive liberal arts school with a large of number of Jewish students, I continued to pay no attention to my ethnic background. I thought Jewishness and wealth were inextricably tied, and was anxious that my peers would interpret "Jewish" as code for rich and privileged. I was at private school for the first (and only) time in my life and desperately wanted to assert that unlike my spoiled peers (past and present), I did not grow up with money. In the social justice activism circles I was involved in, too much Jewish pride could be interpreted as siding with privileged oppressors and champions of Zionism. I do not support Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, and I didn't want anyone to mistake me for an ally of the Israeli army. It was simpler if I ignored my ethnicity. Which I happily and thoughtlessly did.
That is, until Donald Trump.
Running on a fiercely xenophobic platform, Trump inspired and threatened violent racism from the inception of his campaign to his presidency. Many of his positions throughout the election—specifically the threats he made against Muslims—made nods to nativists and white supremacists, and racists from David Duke to Richard Spencer supported him. As Trump's candidacy went from long shot to reality, he found his most fervent supporters in the alt-right, a growing niche of brutally misogynistic, racist, and transphobic internet trolls who are also openly anti-Semitic in a way that only actual Nazis are. Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term "alt-right," mused about the Jewish people in November: "One wonders if these are people at all or instead soulless golem?"
The VICE News interview with Richard Spencer:
Trump himself avoided accusations of anti-Semitism. After all, his son-in-law Jared Kushner was Jewish, and Ivanka had converted when she married him. Then in July, Trump retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton next to a Star of David and text that read "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!" Trump claimed it was a sheriff's star; others saw an insidious subtext, a historically loaded conflation of Jews with corruption. (The Clinton campaign joined the chorus calling it anti-Semitic.) I didn't see what the big deal was. Trump had suggested undocumented Mexican immigrants were rapists and wanted to ban Muslims from entering the US; a vaguely anti-Semitic manual retweet felt like small potatoes to me. It seemed like white people were rallying around a careless tweet without recognizing the more obvious signs of Trump's prejudice, and I said as much on Twitter.
Since then, things have changed. Trump's victory was coupled with a rise of anti-Semitic incidents—not just social media harassment but actual crimes. Jewish community centers have received an alarming number of bomb threats; our cemeteries have been vandalized. In response, the president reportedly speculated it might be the work of "the reverse" trying to "make others look bad." Trump can't seem to bring himself to fully condemn anti-Semitism. During the campaign, when his supporters tweeted vitriolic images and threats at Jewish reporter Julia Ioffe in response to an article she wrote about his wife, Melania, Trump refused to admonish them, just as he initially refused to disavow David Duke's support. When asked about the rise it anti-Semitic incidents, Trump has responded with gibberish; at one press conference, a journalist from an Orthodox Jewish publication tried to ask him a "friendly" question about fighting anti-Semitism, and Trump responded by attacking the reporter.
It seems clear Trump's equivocations are egging on anti-Semites. A study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in October found a significant increase in the number of anti-Semitic tweets from January to July 2016, as coverage of the 2016 election ramped up. The hateful accounts, the ADL reported, "are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the 'alt-right,' a loosely connected group of extremists, some of whom are white supremacists."
I know about this because I received some of this hate myself. I might have not wanted to think about my Jewishness, but now I had to:
On a recent sunny afternoon, my best friend Beck (a fellow secular New York City Jew, and college classmate) and I went for a walk to a Jewish cemetery near my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. The grid of tombstones and mausoleums engraved with Jewish names—the sort of place that has been vandalized recently—got us talking about why it took so long for us to feel OK with (or even proud of) our heritage.
Both of us had felt the same shame at times, heard the same things. Beck remembered a time in Oberlin when a leftist activist remarked on her big, Jewish nose—a shockingly casual bit of bigotry given how "woke" our little bubble was. We had both seen a Facebook post from a former classmate of ours who quoted a pamphlet called "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere," a 32-page guide for leftist activists on how to incorporate fighting anti-Semitism within their movement. In explaining how anti-Semitism functions and differs from other forms of racism, the zine perfectly addressed the complicated identity of white Jews, like myself:
Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise 'at the bottom.' Anti-Jewish oppression doesn't depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been 'optional' features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target of people's rage.
It also notes that part of the reason we're so willing to dismiss anti-Semitism is because it moves in cycles—in the aftermath of oppression, Jews are often allowed to blend in again—and atrocities like the Holocaust seem like ancient history.
Beck and I talked about this, and how there was this stigma attached to our Judaism, and how angry we were about the way some people equated our heritage with the support of Israel, with being rich. About the new cycle of anti-Semitism emerging in America, both online and off. How afraid we should feel, knowing this new current of white nationalism is infinitely worse for people of color.
But we eventually transitioned into talking about our favorite parts of being Jewish—the latkes and bagels with cream cheese and lox, our overbearing moms, the great works of Hannah Arendt and Philip Roth and Sigmund Freud and Anne Frank and Karl fucking Marx, our culture's penchant for comedy and charity. We talked about how long it took us to realize we could delight in our culture without sacrificing our anti-Zionist beliefs.
For the first time ever, I see my Jewishness as part of who I fundamentally am. It has to do with Trump, with being deemed a Jew bitch over and over again. It also has to do with getting older, liberating myself from that adolescent attitude that makes you despise any kind of authority or tradition. The rise of American anti-Semitism has taught me something important—there's nothing wrong with being a Jew.
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