For International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, I joined the Congregation Beth Israel of Merrimack Valley to discuss the book “People Love Dead Jews” by Dara Horn and explore the pervasiveness of antisemitism.
The Anti-Defamation League’s latest report on antisemitism in the United States reports more than 2,000 assaults, harassment and acts of vandalism in 2020, the third highest year on the organization’s record. What is happening in America right now is not just a crisis for Jews. It is a crisis for this nation as a whole; it is an assault on the very thing that makes us all Americans. We don’t often see antisemitism until something awful happens.
In August 2017, at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists threw Nazi salutes, waved swastika flags and shouted, “The Jews will not replace us!”
Last July, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was fighting for his life against a man who attacked him with a knife and a gun outside a Jewish school in Brighton, Massachusetts.
And just last month, a gunman held four hostages at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. It was a targeted act of terrorism, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray stated emphatically.
Antisemitism should be tied to other hate crimes — racism, homophobia and Islamophobia, to name a few — but understood as having a distinct history and motivations. Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of that history.
During the Holocaust, six million Jews were killed. False equivalence and revisionism of that fact are not only hurtful to remaining Holocaust survivors, their families and friends, but also dismissive of the human carnage and crime against humanity.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump’s public statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day intentionally omitted any mention of Judaism, antisemitism or the Nazis’ systematic program exterminating European Jewry. While the president’s generic statement on suffering might have been intended to be an all-inclusive acknowledgment of other groups killed — gays, Gypsies, political dissidents and non-Aryans, to name a few — by the Nazis, it did more harm than help.
At the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995, Elie Wiesel stated it best: “It is true that not all the victims were Jews. But all the Jews were victims.” In other words, eliminating Jews was the central organizing principle for the rise of the Third Reich. The president’s statement acknowledging the Holocaust and not mentioning Jews and antisemitism is similar to making a public statement acknowledging American slavery and not mentioning Blacks and racism. At worst, the statement bolsters an already existing worldwide population of Holocaust deniers and revisionist historians because it erases the unique stories of survival, bravery and resistance.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to address the American Jewish Committee convention in 1958, he noted the significant similarities between Jews and African Americans, who both experienced hatred and prejudice.
“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe,” he said. “Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol Insurrection, history was made in Georgia. Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, a Black man and a Jewish man, respectively, won their Senate seats in the Bible Belt. In the Deep South, Jews could be lynched as Black men were; it was the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915 that made many Jews conscious of the parallels.
However, antisemitism is so pervasive as to be invisible and normalized. One reason is that too often we de-historicize Jewish people from their suffering. For example, I know of Christians who love Jesus but hate Jewish people. I tell them it’s similar to some white Christians revering MLK and former President Barack Obama, but they hate Black men. I remind these same people that Jesus was crucified because he was Jewish, and Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery were killed because they were Black.
Antisemitism has also been fueled by racist Jewish tropes that won’t cease until we confront them head-on. I remember when the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign stopped in New York City. He referred to Jews as “Hymies” and the Big Apple as “Hymietown.” During Trump’s presidential campaign, he was condemned by Jewish leaders for what appeared on his anti-Hillary Clinton poster the Star of David layered over $100 bills. Trump barked back, telling his critics the star was a sheriff’s badge.
In “People Love Dead Jews,” the premise is that there’s too little respect for Jewish lives unfolding in the present.
To stop antisemitism in society, we must stop it in ourselves.