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What We All Need to Keep in Mind About Anti-Semitism

As most of us are aware, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have recently, and unfortunately, been on the rise. (While there have also been issues internationally, such as in Canada and France, this piece will mostly focus on the United States.)

As of writing this, since the start of 2017, at least 81 Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) across the country have been targeted with bomb threats. Some JCCs, such as the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Florida, have been targeted more than once. Tombstones have been toppled over at various Jewish cemeteries. Various incidents have occurred on college campuses, often involving hateful rhetoric or swastikas. And to top it all off, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, received a bomb threat at their headquarters in New York.

It should be clear by now, given the frequency and spread of these incidents, that anti-Semitism is a present problem. In addressing these issues, President Donald Trump made a claim in February that “it’s going to stop and has to stop.” Unfortunately, simply stating that a problem will go away does nothing to actually make it go away. In fact, while working on this paragraph, I came across an article stating that a Jewish children’s museum in Brooklyn had received a bomb threat within the last few hours. While I don’t want to get too political, it’s obvious that Trump’s fluffy statements have done nothing to curtail these incidents.

Anti-Semitism is a loaded topic. There’s a lot to keep in mind about it, and if I attempted to cover as much as I could as possible, I could easily turn this into a book. Instead, I’ll focus on a few points that I feel are particularly important right now.

All of us, especially Jews, must continually make it clear that anti-Semitism is a big deal.

I say “especially Jews” because it seems to me like we’re often the first to downplay the issue or make excuses. When an anti-Semitic incident occurs, it’s easy to feel like things are “not that bad” because no one was physically harmed, or because we know other minority groups in the United States are also facing issues. Although Jewish Americans as a group are otherwise generally doing well, we need to remember that “smaller problems” can easily snowball into bigger problems.

The Holocaust didn’t begin with concentration camps and Nazi soldiers — it began with racist propaganda. While it’s very unlikely that we’d have another Holocaust on our hands, we still cannot normalize hatred. Hatred can lead to violence, and any level of violence would be too much. With this in mind, we must always label anti-Semitism for what it is — a form of hatred, and a form of racism.

Having Jewish friends or family members, or attending a school with a prominent Jewish population, will not automatically make you sensitive to issues that impact Jews.

This might sound like it should be obvious, but it’s not. Even Trump claimed to be “the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life,” especially since he has a daughter and a son-in-law who are Jewish. While most people don’t have the chutzpah (audacity) of Trump, it can be harder for a non-Jew to understand why certain statements, symbols or actions might make their Jewish peers feel uncomfortable.

One example of this is sharing posts or articles on social media that paint Jewish practices in a negative light because of missing crucial context. A few weeks ago, a non-Jewish classmate of mine innocently shared to Facebook this graphic news story about a harmful ritual aspect of circumcision being performed in parts of New York City. What she failed to mention, however, is that only a very small minority of Jews perform the ritual in this dangerous way and that most religious rulings provide alternative ways to safely perform it.

While I agreed with my classmate that this story was upsetting, it does not represent the majority of Jews. Without full context, the link can come across as a statement that Judaic religious practice is dangerous and something to seriously “watch out” for. Like Trump, my classmate doesn’t identify as anti-Semitic. However, she didn’t understand the potential harm in her Facebook post, and how easily it could be spun in an anti-Semitic light.

Another example of a lack of sensitivity is the widespread use of symbols and gestures linked to Nazi Germany, particularly the swastika and the Nazi salute. The swastika seems to pop up pretty often in graffiti messages that link to Trump, regardless of whether or not the messages are for or against his presidency. The salute, however, is usually associated with his supporters. Regardless of your feelings about the American government, or about anything else, use of either of these is unacceptable. While some may try to argue that the swastika was once considered a symbol of peace, it is clear that its typical use in the Western world is as a symbol of hatred. Some European countries have outlawed use of Nazi symbols. In Germany, giving the salute can even land you in jail. The American concept of “freedom of speech” is a double-edged sword, and while I appreciate its positives (and that it allows for me to publish an article like this one!), we must all remember to recognize the implications of our statements.

Anti-Zionism might not be the same thing as anti-Semitism, but the two concepts are inherently linked.

A question that’s commonly asked, particularly in the wake of incidents involving certain political groups on college campuses, is whether or not anti-Zionism (being against the state of Israel, especially as being a Jewish state) is the same as anti-Semitism. This is a complicated topic in itself, and I won’t go too far into it. However, there are two key points about anti-Zionism that need to be addressed here, because they inherently link to anti-Semitism.

First, it is perfectly okay to be critical of a country’s policies. I’m American, but I definitely don’t agree with everything that everyone in the American government says or does. In fact, even as a Jew, I don’t always agree with everything that the Israeli government says or does, either. This is all okay. However, while we all have the right to be critical, inciting hatred or violence against any group simply because you disagree with their views is not okay.

Second, the majority of Jews feel some sort of connection to Israel. According to a study conducted in 2013 by the Pew Research Center, nearly 70 percent of Jews feel “very” or “somewhat” emotionally attached to Israel. Many of us can even name at least one friend or relative who lives there. So, while not everyone has to agree with the concept of divine providence, it’s important to be sensitive to the fact that anti-Zionism will feel bothersome to most Jews.

Negative statements about Israel can easily transition into negative statements about the Jewish people. Always do your research, keep your language and tone respectful, and remember that there are multiple sides to every story.

Education and awareness are critical.

According to the United States Department of Justice, nearly two-thirds of hate crimes go unreported. With this in mind, we should all understand that what we’re reading and hearing about is only the tip of a larger iceberg. Not every case of anti-Semitism might be worthy of an article or broadcast, but every case is harmful. If your Jewish friends have any personal stories to tell, listen closely.

Additionally, it’s important for Jews and non-Jews alike to be educated on Judaism. In my opinion, non-Jews should be aware of the general stories and customs of the major holidays, common Jewish (and Yiddish) terminology, basic understanding of the kosher dietary laws, and an outline of the history of the state of Israel, among many other things. Passover is coming up soon, and the Rugrats cartoon special is a nice introduction to the holiday. We must all remember that Judaism is about more than bagels and dreidels.

On the other hand, Jewish Americans need to place a stronger emphasis on quality religious education for themselves and for their children. This is mostly a separate topic, but as Jews, we have to understand why Judaism is so important to each of us on a personal level if we want it to survive the anti-Semitism placed against it. While not all Jews need to be religious in practice, I believe that all Jews should have pretty solid knowledge of the Torah and of the rest of Judaism’s history. There are many campus organizations that can help point you in a good direction to learn more. Look out for Hillel, Chabad, and Aish, just to name a few. Figure out what “being Jewish” personally means to you, and embrace the journey.

Writing this piece has been such a pain.

I’m frustrated with the sheer amount of research I’ve had to do to throw this together. Not because it’s hard to do quick Google searches — it’s not — but because I don’t feel like this piece should even have to exist. As an American, I’m mad that this country isn’t actually the pinnacle of equality and freedom I’ve been told it was for practically my whole life. As a Jew, I don’t understand why so many people still haven’t learned to play nice with us. And as a Jewish American, I’m constantly torn between two identities.

Should I “blend in,” as is the American way, and not live a lifestyle that’s radically different from the surrounding culture? Or should I fight against full assimilation, as is the Jewish way, and embrace what makes my background and myself unique? To me, anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and prejudice, especially in the United States and other developed countries, sends this message: “We will not accept you, unless you’re willing to act in the same way as the majority.”

In contrast to this, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has said: “The only sane response to anti-Semitism is to monitor it, fight it, but never let it affect our idea of who we are. Pride is always a healthier response than shame.” Despite all that’s been happening, I choose to remain a proud Jew, and active in the Jewish community as well as in religious and cultural practice. These various threats might be designed to scare us, but I choose to be brave. I choose to be myself.

 

Photo credit:

https://www.everafterguide.com

Valerie Berman graduated from the University of Florida in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Health Education, and continued her academic pursuits as part of the UF College of Nursing's Accelerated BSN program. During her undergraduate years, she was a member of the UF Honors Program, volunteered with Shands Hospital and Alachua County Schools, acted as delegate for the Jewish Student Union's Dance Marathon team, and got involved with the Jewish community on campus as part of the Lubavitch Chabad Student Group. She also traveled to Israel twice, and attended various Judaic study programs. Val's creative pursuits extend beyond writing – she's also dipped her toes into baking, painting, and designing Redbubble stickers. Her current life plan involves furthering her nursing career, settling down in New York or South Florida, and eventually becoming that one Jewish mother everyone knows and loves. For now, though, you can probably find her eating ice cream and plotting how to win her next Pokémon battle!
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