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My Mom Warned Me About Anti-Semitism. I Didn’t Fully Understand Until Last Year’s Synagogue Shooting

5 minute read
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive of Central Conference of American Rabbis

When I was young, my mother began teaching me about the Holocaust, and tried to prepare me for the possibility of meeting anti-Semitism face-to-face. Since my mother was a children’s librarian, this meant growing up on a steady diet of Holocaust fiction, so much so that I regularly had dreams about running away from Nazis.

What I experienced was different from what she had prepared me for. To my adolescent self, it felt like a kind of well-mannered anti-Semitism, uncomfortable and kind of embarrassing, but basically harmless — based not on foundational beliefs of race or religion, but on class. Being Jewish was something to be slightly ashamed of because our parents hadn’t gone to the most elite schools and weren’t allowed into the exclusive clubs. There were times, when visiting non-Jewish friends’ country houses in restricted summer communities, or going to visit their grandparents’ homes on sprawling suburban estates, that I was told by my friend’s’ parents to just not tell people I was Jewish. I had blue eyes and straight hair and a non-Jewish name, so no one needed to know.

I determined to not raise my children with the specter of the Holocaust hanging over their heads. I would make sure that they heard the first-person narrative of the one survivor left in our synagogue community and that they knew it is wrong to treat people differently based on their identity, but I didn’t want them to feel that they had to always be on alert, never sure when anti-Semitism was going to rear its ugly head.

My Jewish friends and I always felt that we were Americans, woven into the very fabric of this country. As a rabbi I felt both connected to the long history of Jews throughout the world, but also proud that the route my ancestors took out of oppression had led them to these shores. I had learned that the history of the United States was inseparable from the history of Jews who played important roles in our national story. After all, where would the American Revolution have been without Haym Salomon, the Jewish immigrant who helped finance it? George Washington, in his famous letter to the Jews of Newport in 1790, had written, “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…” That was the America that I believed was my birthright, and that I thought I could bequeath to my children. I wanted them to be secure in their Judaism and in their sense of pride as members of one of the many religious or ethnic or racial minority groups in the beautiful diversity that makes up America.

This vision for my children, now young adults, and for the future was shattered one year ago when a white nationalist gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 and multiple handguns, killing 11 congregants. Suddenly the ugly stench of dangerous, violent anti-Semitism was revealed.

The fears of my parents are now being realized. Jews being gunned down in Pittsburgh and in Poway, California. An old Jewish man beaten with a brick on a Brooklyn street. Swastikas and desecrated gravestones and anti-Semitic graffiti on synagogues and schools and playgrounds and cemeteries. Police and armed guards at the entrances to synagogues and Jewish institutions. All of it is too real. Though they think my concerns are overblown, I fear for my children, with their Jewish names and their loud Jewish identities, in a way that I never could have imagined.

Although anti-Semitism poses a unique threat to Jewish communities, it has also historically gone hand in hand with other kinds of hate, and we see that again today. Islamophobia is on the rise. Immigrants and refugees are targeted with family separation, ICE raids and inhumane detention centers. The rights of LGBTQ individuals are being restricted. White supremacy is being tolerated, even promulgated, by those in the seats of power in this country and abroad. What is happening was unimaginable to my younger, naive self.

One of the ways that demonization works is that it makes people suspect each other and causes rifts between them. But we must resist the urge to close ranks and separate ourselves out of fear. We can’t turn hate or distrust of us into hate or distrust of others. Instead, we have to create alliances across lines of faith and race to fight this growing intolerance and hatred. Imagine the power we could harness if all the disparate groups all under attack – Jewish communities, Muslim communities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, black communities and more – could band together and stand up for tolerance and respect for difference rather than fighting each other. Imagine the strength we could garner if we could show up for each other, defend each other’s institutions and practices and rights, and not let ourselves be divided by those who would far prefer we focus on our differences.

We must mourn those who were killed while at prayer in Pittsburgh and in Poway. We must do all we can to keep synagogues safe and to prevent such attacks from ever happening again. And we must do all that we can to work toward an America in which bigotry and hatred against any group cannot take root and flourish.

In these dark times, this is our responsibility, to keep the light of our highest aspirations for ourselves, our communities and our country shining as bright as possible.


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