Sunday, November 11, 2018

Antisemitism and Me

I’ve seen a few posts on Facebook lately concerning antisemitism. That seems only natural after the horror of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. Some of the posts were written by other Jews, talking about how the shooting affected them, and reflecting on their place in America as a Jew. Some were by people I know that work hard on gun control legislation, despairing on one hand, and vowing on the other hand to redouble their efforts. But there were a few posts that troubled me. One in particular was an article from the  Zionist Organization of America, a conservative pro-Israel organization, explaining how the ADL (Anti Defamation League) has misused statistics to indicate that antisemitic acts have risen dramatically since Trump took office. This was an interesting article, and it had some valid points, at least as far as pointing out some inconsistencies in the ADL’s use of data to point out the dangers for Jews in Trumps’s America.

So where do I stand in all of this? Well, I’ve been reflecting on my parent’s stories and on mine. There are plenty of them, and they make for some interesting reading. 

When I was little, in the early to mid fifties, we lived in University City, a close in suburb of St. Louis. We lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Jewish, mostly German-Jewish, largely refugees and holocaust survivors. World War II and the Nazi’s seemed like ancient history to me, but of course it hadn’t been that long ago. We lived with my grandmother, and every adult in our family was traumatized by what had happened in the 30’s and 40’s.

My dad’s father had emigrated from eastern Europe in the early 20’s. They were very poor, but my dad was very smart. He wanted to be a chemical engineer, but there were quotas for Jews in certain departments at most Universities and his parents told him not to even try. They said he should be a pharmacist instead, which my dad did not want to do at all. He reluctantly took the entrance exam for pharmacy school at St. Louis University, and failed. His parents went to the dean and begged him to let their son in anyway and for whatever reason they did.

My dad hated being a pharmacist. When his father died he lost no time in going back to school. By now, in the late fifties, the quotas were gone and he became an electrical engineer.

My mom’s family came from Trier, Germany. They escaped the Nazi’s at the last minute because her father had two sisters that did not want to leave. He kept putting off going, trying to convince them to come as well, but it was no use. My grandmother came from a large family, many of whom had already emigrated to the US, back in the 20’s. That is why they were able to come here at all. Many other people were not as lucky. My great aunts died in the camps, but my mother, her sister, and her parents were saved.

My Mother's Family, 1930's

My mom had plenty of stories about what it was like to be a little Jewish girl in Nazi Germany. The little girl across the street, who one day couldn’t play with her anymore. Learning to swim in the river, because Jews were not allowed in the public swimming pool. Going to the Jewish school because Jews couldn’t go to the public schools. Going to a scary doctor before they left for America, to get examined before they would be allowed to leave. And on and on.

And she had stories too, about how things were after they arrived n America. There was still antisemitism, but it was more subtle. They lived in Brentwood, another suburb of St. Louis, and there weren’t a lot of other Jews where they lived. One story stood out for me. One evening she was babysitting for some neighborhood kids, and they started rooting around in her hair. They were looking for her horns! In case you’ve never heard this one, it comes from Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, where his halo had been broken off, so it looked like he had horns…yep that’s right.

For the most part, I was sheltered from any outright antisemitism when I was little. But there were confusions in my mind. Sometimes Jehovah Witnesses would come to our neighborhood to proselytize, or the Salvation Army band would come and play on the street corner. My mother would get so upset to find Christian pamphlets on our doorstep, that I had some confusion about the difference between Christians and Nazis. I never said anything but puzzled over it myself. Did Christians want to hurt us? Why was my mom so upset?

And one evening a large group of college age kids, mostly boys it seemed, drove up our street, ran out of their cars and started pounding on our doors. “March of Dimes! March of Dimes!” they shouted. My family turned off all the lights, and terrified, laid down on the floor until they left. When I asked my mother about this years later, she had no memory of it at all. 

When we lived in Washington DC while I was in 5th grade we lived in an apartment complex with a few Jewish families, but not a bunch. There were lots of different types of people there, mostly low to middle class, all striving one way or another to climb the economic ladder. One night we came home to a pile of human shit on the steps leading up to our door. To this day I have no idea if this was an antisemitic act, or some little kid that just had to poop right then and there. My parents knew it was antisemitism, however. It was always there, for them.

One morning, having moved back to St Louis, we woke up to a disturbing sight. There was a synagogue behind our apartment house (Share Emeth). Someone had painted a swastika on the back wall of the synagogue. My parents were horrified and upset. I wanted to believe it was just ignorant kids, but who knows?

When we moved from University City to Creve Coeur, farther out in St. Louis County, there were a lot more non-Jewish people where we lived. There were still plenty of Jews but we were no longer the majority. It was the first time that most of my friends weren’t Jewish. 

I don’t remember experiencing outright anti-semitism in high school, or in college, or later on in life. I remember being shocked when my roommate in college told me that her father called University City “Jew City”, and having to gently tell a co-worker that using the term “Jewed them down” when describing a bargain-hunting spree in Mexico was perhaps not the best choice of words. And sometimes I would wonder, did that girl not want to be friends with me because I was Jewish? Did that boy not want to date me for the same reason? When I look back on these instances I’m confident that I was wrong, that it wasn’t my religion. But the fact that I wondered is telling.

My Parent's Wedding Day

There is a great scene in Annie Hall, where Alvy, Woody’s Allen’s character, is walking down a street in New York City with his friend. They pass a couple talking and Alvy says, “Did you hear that? He said, did Jew eat yet! See? SEE!” Its funny and sort of ridiculous. Of course those people weren’t throwing an antisemitic slur at Alvy and his friend, but Alvy THOUGHT they did, and Alvy was upset.

In the article about the ADL and their possible misuse of statistics to bolster their claim that antisemitism has risen since Trump has taken office, I think the writer has really missed the point. He talks about the rash of Jewish Community Center bomb threats back in 2017, that turned out not to be motivated by antisemitism but by one person that was trying to frame his ex-girlfriend, and another in Israel with mental health issues. Yes these acts turned out to not be driven by a hatred of Jews but at the time we sure thought they were. And we made an easy target, didn’t we?  Why didn’t these individuals choose to threaten YMCA’s? Jews will wonder, no matter what the statistics say. He also talks about the Jewish cemetery vandalism that also occurred in 2017. He states that the ADL included one damaged cemetery in their statistics that turned out to be caused by old headstones toppling on their own. But 150 Jewish headstones in St. Louis and another 100 in Philadelphia WERE vandalized. So gee, it was “only” 250 headstones instead of 275? Wow.

 Maybe he’s right, maybe antisemitism isn’t on the rise, or at least not as much as we might think. Maybe Trump has nothing to do with it. BUT, many, if not most Jews I know are afraid. We’re worried not only for ourselves and our families, but for others, Muslims, immigrants, LGBT people. Most of us have experienced very little antisemitism ourselves, but we are our parent’s children, and our parents experienced hell, in one form or another. We were raised to be vigilant, to be cautious, and to never say, “it can’t happen here”. 

Were those college kids soliciting for the March of Dimes out to get the Jews? Of course not, but they terrorized our neighborhood just the same, because of how it looked when they drove up our street and jumped out of their cars, shouting and pounding on our doors. Was that pile of shit on the steps leading up to our apartment antisemitism, or a kid that just had to poop, or someone in the neighborhood that disliked my dad for some reason that had nothing to do with his religion? There is no way to know, but to my parents it was directed right at them and it was because of who they were.

There is a big difference between a prosecutable hate crime, and an act that upsets someone because it FEELS like it is because of their religion. On one hand no one should be prosecuted for a hate crime unless their action can be clearly seen as just that. But feelings are different. No one has the right to tell someone they aren’t justified in feeling how they feel. Jews have been persecuted throughout their history. Some of it dates back centuries; the worst one happened less than 70 years ago. When it comes to how Jews FEEL statistics don’t really matter than much. It might cause us to relax a bit, to think things aren’t as bad as they seem. But we’ll never relax completely. We know only too well how things can change, how the unthinkable can happen anywhere, even here. 

I want to hope for the best, of course. I’d much rather live in a world where people can feel safe and secure, where acts of injustice and horror never happen, to anyone. My little kid and my younger self certainly didn’t want to entertain the thought that my parent’s view of the world was right. And most of the time I’m not looking for antisemitism under every rock. But I’m never that surprised when the inevitable happens. I might be disappointed, but never surprised. And at the same time, I haven’t given up hope.

I’m not a very religious Jew, but the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, resonates with me. If we are on this earth for any reason at all, I believe it is to try at least a little bit to leave it better than we found it. This obligation can take many forms, but one form it must take for most Jews is to be sensitive to injustice whenever it occurs.  And there is something more of course. What happened to our people 70 years ago was horrible, but it left us with a conviction. We say “never again” but we’re not just talking about the Jews. “Never again” means never again for all people, everywhere. And “never again” means we must remain on guard. So when acts of injustice occur you’ll find us there, trying to improve the world in big and small ways, trying to make sure “never again” holds fast.

Family 1999



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