A woman called me and my family Ugly Jews
One night this week, my family and I were walking down the street when a person walking the other way turned around, snickered, and said, “Hey, you naughty Jews. At no time did we feel physically threatened, but this moment was nonetheless traumatic.
As we continued walking, somewhat shaken by the experience, I thought to myself that the most remarkable part of anti-Semitism was how commonplace it was. The person was not a skinhead covered in swastikas or waving the Nazi flag. She was not at a rally or demonstration. She looked ordinary, benign, and she barely broke her stride to spew her venomous hatred in our direction.
This is the new face of the current wave of anti-Semitism. This doesn’t just take the pernicious form of threats and physical harm, nor is it limited to a violent attack or hostage taking. It also manifests in the flippant way in which someone can comfortably spew hatred against Jews with impunity.
Anti-Semitism manifests itself today in the flippant way in which one can comfortably spew hatred against Jews with impunity.
This week we celebrate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nations around the world are called to remember that hatred led to the extermination of six million innocent people, including one million children. The Holocaust wiped out two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, one-third of the Jewish people on the planet.
According to a pew study less than two years ago, when more than 84% of American Jews said remembering the Holocaust was essential to their Jewish identity, among young respondents (under 30), only 61% were Okay. On the one hand, while it is understandable not to want one’s Jewish identity and meaning to be inextricably linked to genocide and hatred, it is increasingly important not to allow the Holocaust to be forgotten. Indeed, another recent pew study found that while most Americans know the Holocaust was perpetrated against Jews, half don’t know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Although the Holocaust is not the only tragic event in our history, it is by far the most heinous and devastating. But it is much more than that, for it remains the symbol and synonym of anti-Semitism and, in that one word, a warning of how the world’s oldest hatred can drive a democratically elected “civilized” nation to commit genocide. Although Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust, the term should be reserved specifically to invoke hatred directed against the Jewish people.
That’s why it’s so offensive and dangerous when invoked casually and casually and when used in grossly inappropriate contexts. Just this week, at a rally against vaccine mandates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. compared the threat of 5G cell service and vaccine passports to the Third Reich: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you can cross the Alps in Switzerland, you can hide in the attic like Anne Frank did… Today the mechanisms are in place so that none of us can run, none of us can hide.
It wasn’t the first time he’d invoked Holocaust references when speaking about public health policy, but the backlash was so quick and strong that he apologized shortly after, in tweeting: “I apologize for my reference to Anne Frank, especially the families who suffered from the Holocaust. horrors. My intention was to use examples of past barbarism to show the dangers of new technologies of control. To the extent that my remarks hurt, I am truly and deeply sorry. (This was, of course, a classic lack of apology, as he continued to equate the “barbarism” of new technologies with the Holocaust and conditioned his sense of regret over the extent to which his remarks had hurt the instead of saying categorically that they were false.)
We must create a culture in this country of the same intolerance, hypersensitivity and opposition to hatred of Jews as we do to other forms of hatred, bigotry and racism.
We must continue to fight anti-Semitism, and educating the general public about the Holocaust is an essential part of that. We must create a culture in this country of the same intolerance, hypersensitivity and opposition to anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred and Holocaust ownership as we do to other forms of hatred, bigotry and of racism. “Ugly Jew” should be taken as seriously as the N-word: triggering, traumatic, and just plain unacceptable and intolerable. People of good heart – not just Jews – must never allow this country to become a place where Jews cannot comfortably and safely walk around in a visibly identifiable way.
Some argue that Jews must be defended because we are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. When Jews are allowed to be attacked, it is a sign of the breakdown of society. Famous German pastor Martin Niemöller wrote: “First they came looking for the socialists, and I said nothing – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t say anything – because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak – Because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one to speak for me.
In her book “People Love Dead Jews,” Dara Horn argues that we should not be grateful for this quote or this way of thinking, but rather that we should be offended. This sentiment essentially suggests that the only reason to worry when Jews are murdered is because it’s a warning that later, real people could be attacked or killed. We should not accept this argument and certainly not perpetuate it.
But there are two other reasons why Holocaust education is vitally important within our Jewish community. When we talk about the Holocaust, we often refer to the millions of martyrs, the victims who were murdered. But there is another population that should come to mind, perhaps even the first: our Holocaust survivors.
The Holocaust is not just a part of history like the Crusades or the Inquisition. Israel now has 165,800 living survivors, 950 of whom are over 100 years old. By some estimates, America is home to 80,000 survivors. This is perhaps the most heroic population of all time. Their resilience, strength, courage and faith can be unparalleled. There has never been a group more entitled to be bitter, resentful, to feel empowered or to abandon the world and people. But instead, the survivors overwhelmingly rebuilt, they worked hard, they maintained positivity, optimism and hope. Most exude deep faith, determination and a selfless devotion to Jewish continuity, the Jewish community and the Jewish state.
Although we are more prosperous than ever and have more comforts and conveniences than those who came before us, many still struggle to find happiness, hope, meaning and purpose. Find a survivor. To hang up. Tap into their energy, surf on their enthusiasm, let yourself be carried away and uplifted by their heroism. If you struggle with faith, take advantage of their unwavering emuna, be inspired by their dedication to Judaism.
We can learn a lot from the six million martyrs who lost their lives in the Holocaust, but we can learn even more from the 3.5 million who survived and then built a prosperous and rich Jewish life.
Finally, I think we should use Holocaust education and current campaigns against anti-Semitism as opportunities to raise awareness. While the majority of American Jews believe the Holocaust is central to their Jewish identity, only 15% said respecting Jewish law is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish to them personally.
As people increasingly hate us for being Jews, we should double down on Jewish pride, Jewish practice and Jewish continuity.
With anti-Semitism on the rise, the world presents us with an opportunity to remind our fellow Jews why Judaism matters, what it means and why they should care. As people increasingly hate us for being Jews and once again exclude us for being Jews, we should double down on Jewish pride, Jewish practice and Jewish continuity.
At the Passover seder we say: v’hi she’amda la’avoseinu v’lanu, “and this is what represented our ancestors and for us.” What has meant for us? The Netziv, Rav Naftali Tsvi Yehuda Berlin, responds with the following sentence: b’chol dor vader amad aleinu the chaloseinu, that in every generation they have arisen to attack us. While we do not welcome or want anti-Semitism, it often takes our enemies to remind us that we are Jews to inspire us to fight for our people.
A non-practicing Jewess told me that when there was an anti-Semitic event at her son’s college, her son, who previously had little or no interest or investment in his Judaism, put a mezuzah on his door and hung a Magen Dovid around his neck. As we confront and combat anti-Semitism, let us simultaneously use it to remind and inspire our fellow Jews about their Judaism.
The only ugly person there the other night was the person who called us ugly Jews. I am sad that my children were exposed to this, but the stark reminder that the world’s oldest hatred is rekindled even now has motivated us to continue to educate, confront, inspire and reach out.
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