Antisemitism in Modern-Day America

“I don’t forgive people who are insensitive. And otherwise, I don’t tolerate the insensitive. And I don’t tolerate the people who do not know, because they should know. And, of course, I don’t tolerate people who hurt people.” – Amos Zeichner

On August 11, hundreds of people rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Not only were many of the Charlottesville riot participants racist, but they were also antisemitic. Marchers held swastikas, shouted a Nazi slogan (“blood and soil”), and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

The riot has become famous because of its scale and tragedy, but for Jewish Americans, this violent opposition is nothing new. Before a protest titled ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ last February, somebody drew a swastika on Watkinsville restaurant Taqueria La Parrilla’s ‘closed’ sign. In early 2017, more than 100 Jewish Community Centers nationwide, including many which ran daycares, received bomb threats. On February 14th, 2018, a shooter trained by an antisemitic white supremacist group killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The school’s population was 40 percent Jewish.

Jewish children have always lived in fear of antisemitism, and children in American learn about it from a young age.

Dalty Friedman, a fifth grader who goes to the local reform synagogue Congregation Children of Israel (CCI), says her school taught about the Holocaust in fifth grade. Of course, most American kids don’t experience anything so violent or institutionalized as that, but many Jews have memories of bullying.

Dalty said she was teased for her Judaism at her old school in Jackson County.  

“[Classmates] would make fun of me because I wasn’t the same as them. It’s a big Christian area.”

Hannah Gale, senior at Clarke Central High School and President of CCI’s youth group, has a unique experience with antisemitism.

“I’m Asian, and I was adopted into a Jewish family, so when people look at me they don’t automatically think that I’m Jewish,” said Gale. “I get questioned a lot when I tell them I’m Jewish, or when they find out I’m Jewish. They’re like, ‘How are you Jewish? I thought you can’t be Jewish and Asian. I thought Jewish is a race.’ They just make a lot of assumptions before actually asking a question. Just because someone doesn’t look Jewish doesn’t mean they don’t face discrimination for their religion or their race.”

Many Jewish adults still reflect upon antisemitic bullying they faced in childhood.

“I remember, in middle and high school, occasionally being called Jew-boy and things like that,” said Rabbi Eric Linder of CCI. “People would make quote-unquote ‘jokes’ about the Holocaust in front of me.”

According to Rabbi Linder, jokes about the Holocaust hurt.

“I think people who make them sometimes don’t understand the real kind of discomfort and hurt they can cause someone,” Rabbi Linder said. “When people really understand that 50 years ago, in the lifetimes of many of our parents, and all of our grandparents, six million Jews ー people of your family ー were murdered, that is not something to joke about.”

Gale said, “In my opinion, any joke pertaining to someone’s religion or someone’s race is a gateway. If you brush off someone making a Holocaust joke or someone making a joke about your race or your religion, they can think that’s okay. Then they escalate into even more because no one’s ever stopped them in the past.”

To many modern Jews, Holocaust jokes are an annoyance. To Holocaust survivors like Dot Sparer, they’re a curiosity.

Sparer grew up in Nazi Germany, and in all her years in America, she had never heard a Holocaust joke. She asked for an example and seemed shaken after hearing one.

Laughing, she said, “You’ve got to feel sorry for the person that tells those jokes. They’re … [expletive deleted]. They’re one bulb short. I mean, the best thing you can do is laugh. Laughter means that you’re making fun of somebody, and that usually hurts more than if you get angry.”

Otherwise, Sparer did not seem as alarmed by America’s brand of antisemitism.

“What you heard in Germany was public policy, which is different from individual ignorance or prejudice. It was the law of the land, so to speak. Whereas here, it’s just some people who are not smart enough to understand how other people live. One is government policy; the other is individual ignorance.”

While Sparer grew up with antisemitism in her day-to-day life, Amos Zeichner did not.

Zeichner, now 73, was born in Palestine, four years before it became Israel, and experienced no antisemitism as a child.

“If there were negative attitudes expressed toward me or us as Jews, they would only come from the quote ‘enemy’: the Arabs. And Arabs are Semites too. They cannot really be antisemitic. They can hate Jews for other reasons, but not because of their race. Racism is one thing, and nationalism is not racism,” said Zeichner.

When Zeichner moved to Montreal, Canada to study for his Ph.D., he did not experience antisemitism.

“The whole racial issue was nonexistent, at least in my experience. There was no tension … as there is and was in the States.”

While Zeichner and Sparer differ in background, their experiences once they arrived in Georgia were very similar.

Sparer said, “When we first came to Athens the first thing people would say after ‘Hello’ was ‘What church do you go to?’ I would say, ‘I go to the synagogue,’ and they would say, ‘Oh. Would you like to come to my church?’ They didn’t have any idea what Judaism is, but I don’t think of that as antisemitism.”

A common stereotype about Jewish people is that they are greedy or miserly. Zeichner gave an example of this unfortunate idea.

“When somebody says, in this case, to my wife … He was talking about some money issues, and he turns to my wife and says, ‘Well you know, you people understand that kind of stuff.’ I think it is antisemitism. Is it intended to demean? I don’t think so. I think it is some kind of ignorance.”

However, in Zeichner’s mind, not all antisemitism is created equal.

“There are different layers [of antisemitism],” said Zeichner. “There are those people who know they’re prejudiced against, let’s say, Jews or blacks, for instance. And they are proud of it. I didn’t see that here. Then there’s antisemitism of people who do not know that they are. And that, we saw a bit more.”

Sparer agreed that antisemitism in Georgia was largely based on ignorance.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation, or lack of information, but I don’t think that there’s much prejudice,” said Sparer.

Zeichner said, “If somebody in the neighborhood, in a very friendly manner, says, ‘What does a good Jewish boy like you do in the suburbs?’ Is it antisemitism? How do you know? You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I offended by it? Am I hurt by the fact that he poses this question in such a way?’ Then maybe it is antisemitism. You don’t always know the intention.”

Gale, however, thinks these jokes are antisemitism.

“A lot of times, antisemitism has come across as just jokes: Jewish jokes, or Holocaust jokes, or jokes about Anne Frank,” said Gale. “Usually, when they’re kids my age, they don’t straight-up say, ‘Oh, I love Hitler,’ or ‘Jewish people suck.’ They usually do it in jokes, or they do it in a playful manner, and in my opinion, that still is antisemitism, because they know that what they’re going to say is going to hurt the person they’re talking to. Whether or not the person they’re telling the joke to interprets it as antisemitism, I would say that Jewish jokes are antisemitism.”

Rabbi Linder said, “We need to distinguish between ignorance and antisemitism, and sometimes people blur the two.”

Responding to these comments, whether they are borne of ignorance or of hate, can be difficult. Different people choose to deal with antisemitism in different ways.

“Maybe I would ask [an antisemitic] person some questions to see where they’re coming from or where they got their ideas, and possibly try to tell them where their thinking is not logical, or it’s not true,” said Sparer. “And if they didn’t want to listen, then I’d just forget about it. Walk away, so to speak.”

Rabbi Linder conceded upon the importance of asking questions.

Linder said, “I think, too often, all of usー Jews and non-Jews alikeー are afraid of asking questions, for fear of insulting someone. And in some ways, the reverse is true, because by not asking questions, we just hold on to the biases and assumptions that we already have.”

Dalty, the fifth grader who had been teased in the past, said, “If somebody’s different, you shouldn’t pick on them. If I was mean to somebody I would feel guilty all the time. And if somebody’s being antisemitic, you should tell the person to stop and to just think about what they’re saying.”

No matter how people process it, antisemitism still exists in American life. It has been present in nearly every society throughout history.

“The Jewish people have stuck through the mass murder of millions and we’re still here, so we’re doing something right,” said Gale.

For non-Jews, Rabbi Linder has some advice: “Go to temple once or twice, and understand what Judaism is about. Have Jewish friends. Ask questions.”