When volume of anti-Semitism is high, Jewish identification reduced to a whisper
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
Last month I struck up a conversation with a woman who had recently moved to the tristate area from Paris with her family. Her son, like mine, is in second grade, which is sufficient common ground for a couple of parents to speak for at least three or four hours. After exchanging stories about the most recent times our respective boys had run headfirst into walls, her face grew serious and she mouthed something to me. I didn’t understand. She leaned closer and whispered, “We’re Jewish.”
I laughed, involuntarily, and told her she didn’t need to worry about that sort of thing around here. “Sometimes I feel like the Jews outnumber the non-Jews,” I joked. In retrospect, my reaction was insensitive and flippant in the face of her concerns — muscle memory, I’m sure, for an individual who chose to move her family to another country so they wouldn’t be subjected to constant harassment because of their religion. But as I wear a kipa every day without thinking twice, hiding my Jewish identity seemed downright silly.
If I saw her again I wonder what I would say to her now that two Orthodox men, one in Crown Heights, the other in Borough Park, were randomly attacked on successive days last week because, it would appear, they were Jewish. I wonder what I would say to her after other incidents in October, such as swastikas and anti-Semitic terms drawn on schools in Westfield and Scotch Plains, hate fliers distributed in Watchung, or swastikas painted on the Suffix County home of supporters of Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5).
Go back just a little further, Sept. 16, to be exact, and we can tack on the discovery of a potential explosive device found on a headstone at B’nai Abraham Cemetery at the 30th annual Newark Cemetery Visiting Day. While the alleged perpetrator’s motivation for placing the explosive device, and whether it was racially based, remains unclear, Kevin Lynch, Essex County Sheriff’s Department public information officer, told NJJN at the time that it “very possibly” could have been intended to target, or at least scare, the Jewish community.
There were plenty more incidents that preceded my conversation with this worried mom. Had I stopped for a moment to consider the blatant anti-Semitism that has surfaced amid the rise of nationalism in our country, I might have reassured her that it’s still better here than in Paris, without laughing off her concerns.
For the time being, let’s put aside the political controversy that followed the events in Charlottesville last summer. It’s not to give the president a pass on his inflammatory comments, but in some ways that debate caused us to overlook the violence — that hundreds of racists (not to break my own rule, but none of them fine people) felt comfortable leaving their hoods at home and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and holding signs that read “The Goyim Know” and “The Jewish Media is Going Down.”
NJJN Deputy Managing Editor Lori Silberman Brauner just returned from a Jewish heritage press tour of Portugal (you’ll read about her adventures in the coming weeks) and said that although the country has not always treated its Jewish residents well, that’s not the case today. As opposed to France, London, and several other European countries, “Jews are not only tolerated but appreciated, and it is not uncommon for a Portuguese resident to stop a Jew wearing a kipa on the street and regale them with recollections of his or her own family’s quirky elements of Jewish observance.” Which is to say that Portugal, which at one point forcefully converted, expelled, burned alive, and massacred our people, now WELCOMES us.
Even though the lives of American Jews have improved exponentially in the last 100 years — besides our numerous academic, scientific, and professional successes, the daughter of a former president is married to a Jew, and the current president’s daughter and son-in-law are Jewish — it’s worth wondering if, perhaps, we’ve peaked, and now we’re more vulnerable.
Everyone knows the numbers. According to the ADL’s annual audit of anti-Semitism, there were 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents across the country in 2017, compared to 1,267 over the previous year. Over the same period, New Jersey’s anti-Semitic incidents increased by 32 percent, from 157 to 208. The ADL’s complete 2018 survey is still some months away, but even without the official numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests that 2017 was not an outlier.
Of course the sky is not falling. We’re not close to Jews having to register with the government, wear yellow stars, or bribe officials to secure safe travel out of the country. Thank God, we don’t have to whisper if we want to identify ourselves to fellow landsmen, and I still wear my kipa wherever I go.
But 25 years ago I wore a kipa as I traveled up and down France, never imagining a day would come when covering my head would mark me as a target, rather than as a proud Jew.
“It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis wrote in his prescient 1935 masterpiece. As opposed to the fictitious populace in Lewis’ novel, let’s not fool ourselves into believing all is well when it so clearly is not.