Antisemitism 2.0

When I was a kid, my Dad told us stories about having to fight his way to Hebrew school every week because the kids in his tough Brooklyn neighborhood hated the Jews. I learned about the Shoah in the age-inappropriate way all Gen-X Jews did – through horrifying footage of the camps at way too young an age. But my grandmothers had arrived in the U.S. before the rise of Hitler, and my grandfathers were born here, so I didn’t feel the Holocaust’s sting personally, in my family.

In general, I didn’t really experience any antisemitism at all growing up. I lived in a very WASPy Connecticut town, but I proudly shared my Jewish identity at school holiday functions (who doesn’t love home-made latkes and egg creams?), and my best friend, who was Catholic, would share in both our winter holidays at each other’s family homes.

I went to University of Miami and then seminary, and didn’t feel any antisemitism to speak of. My year in Jerusalem was after the Jordan peace accords, and we could wander every inch of Jerusalem (Jewish and non-Jewish) in safety. Yes, there was violence on a state-level (Hamas bombings and Rabin’s assassination), but I didn’t feel personally targeted as a Jew.

It’s true that, since Charlottesville (which Trump excused) to Pittsburgh (whose attacker spouted anti-immigrant/antisemitic rhetoric embraced by those on the MAGA right), I have felt less safe than ever as a Jew in America. But still, I never felt personally attacked for being Jewish. Until last Wednesday.

I was up in Albany with congregants and other supporters of the National Council of Jewish Women’s lobby day for Reproductive rights. We were finishing up a meaningful, productive day, having met with many of our state representatives and hopefully moved the needle on some important legislative areas that New York could take action on (see more info here!) As dozens of us gathered in the central rotunda and awaited our final meeting with a member of Governor Hochul’s staff, we asked some young folks who were standing nearby if they could take our group’s picture.

I admit, I was completely unprepared for what happened next. The small group of young men and women looked at us with contempt, refused to take our picture, and screamed at us, “What about the women of Gaza?? We’re not taking pictures of Zionists!!” To be clear, no one in our group was wearing a kippah or tallit, our group had no Israeli flags or pins, there was no Hebrew on our signs, and our (pink tie-dyed!) shirts simply said, “Jews for Repro”

But simply seeing the word, “Jew” on our shirts was enough to send these fellow New Yorkers into fits of rage. Never mind that these same young people probably shared in our desire to see safe, affordable reproductive care for every marginalized citizen. When they saw our group, they didn’t see individuals, they certainly didn’t see a group of progressive New Yorkers. They saw what they had been conditioned to see – an enemy.  A monster.

Throughout our history, those who have hate in their hearts (or need a convenient scapegoat as they cling to power) have claimed to know who we Jews truly are – to the pagans, we were puritans. To the Christians, we were godkillers. To the Muslims, we were infidels. To the Soviets, we were capitalists. To the European right, we were communists. To the American far right, we are engineers of the Great Replacement. And in recent days, we have seen on college campuses and in other progressive spaces that all American Jews (except those who atone through their membership in JVP) are colonialists, occupiers, and genocide-supporters. The fact that my first direct experience of antisemitism comes from fellow progressives is painful beyond belief. I still believe that the existential threat American Jews face from immigrant-hating, gun-toting embracers of fascism is FAR greater than the crisis the far-left is undergoing. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less when I experienced first-hand what many of our kids have endured on campus throughout this challenging past year.

Will this experience cause me to drift rightward, in an attempt to find safety among the sudden (and surely not cynical!) offers of support and solidarity on the right? My answer is simple – my values and my hopes for the American and Israeli nations are strong enough that I won’t be bullied into changing my political identity any more than I can be compelled into giving up my Jewish identity. I won’t let hate win, no matter where it rears its ugly head. The way we build community is by joining with those who share our ideals, and strengthening each other as we fight for what we believe in. Sometimes, that fight comes from the outside, and sometimes we must fight the worst impulses in our own spaces. I see this as my mission, and I pray I am up to the task.

Cantor Eric Schulmiller