Columnist Sara Weinberger: The cyclical pattern of anti-Semitism

  • Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, places a stone on the Star of David for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Greenblatt flew in for the funerals of victims of Saturday's mass shooting at Tree of Life, which left 11 dead and six injured. He said President Trump was right to call the massacre an act of anti-Semitism, but he said Trump's words and actions in coming weeks and months will be the test of his sincerity. AP File

Published: 4/14/2019 6:00:16 PM

The privileges I enjoy as a white, educated, heterosexual woman have not shielded me from anti-Semitism. I was born to Holocaust survivors, never knowing how the Nazis murdered my grandparents.

Most likely, they, along with most of my extended family, were gassed in the death camps of Auschwitz or Belzec. Hitler labeled Jews as an inferior race, not a religion. His obsession with maintaining Aryan racial purity justified his “final solution” of eliminating world Jewry.

Just as I continue to be affected by my deceased parents’ trauma, white supremacists continue to promote Nazi ideology. The racist demonstrators in Charlottesville chanting, “The Jews will not replace us,” were a chilling reminder that the war for racial domination continues, fueled by a president who labels them as “very fine people.”

Monica was a childhood friend. A metal fence separated our families’ backyards. Although she attended Catholic school, we remained playmates, until the day she announced she could no longer play with me because I was Jewish and the Jews killed Christ. The myth of Jews murdering the Son of God has fueled anti-Semitism for centuries, resulting in repeated efforts to ethnically cleanse Jews in Europe.

Several years ago, on a walking tour of Madrid, our guide attempted to minimize the Spanish inquisition, emphasizing that “only about 20,000 Jews were murdered.” There was no mention of the thousands of Jews forcibly converted or those who went into hiding to practice their religion.

After my visit to Spain, our guide in Prague identified a large carved figure on Prague’s huge clock tower as a Jew, because he was carrying bags of money. I kept waiting for her to condemn the stereotype to our group, to explain that Jews had become money-lenders in Europe, because they weren’t permitted to own land or access other forms of employment. Instead, we moved on to the next tourist attraction, cementing the trope of Jews controlling the world’s wealth.

I spent my college years in the 1970s as a commuter student at Cleveland State University. The college friends I made lived on the West side of Cleveland, an area mostly devoid of Jews. One of these friends, named Dolly, trying to offer a compliment, told me that I was the first Jew she had met, proclaiming, “You’re not at all what I thought Jews were like!”

I wondered, did she think I was a Christ killer, a practitioner of blood libel? Had she assumed my parents were wealthy? That my relatives were bankers? Did she think my “people” controlled the media and Hollywood? Instead, I laughed it off. Like many Jews, I responded with silence to statements tinged with anti-Semitism, even though I was an outspoken advocate for other marginalized groups.

There is a cyclical pattern to anti-Semitism. In many places, Jews have felt safe and accepted by their non-Jewish neighbors, but it’s tenuous. This was evident in Germany, where Hitler masterfully scapegoated Jews for Germany’s economic woes, eventually expelling them from the country they called home.

The image of the wandering Jew, driven from home, is a powerful theme in Judaism. I have Jewish friends who keep enough money with them in case they need to escape. After the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, I thought about which friends might hide me if I was driven from my home.

I felt, however, relatively safe in the United States, until the 2016 election. Having Jewish family members and cozying up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to gain Jewish votes, do not mask Trump’s disdain for Jewry. He has viciously attacked financier and philanthropist George Soros. A 2016 campaign ad blamed America’s problems on three Jews — Soros, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankenfeld — as well as Hillary Clinton.

In 2017, he made no mention of Jews while noting Holocaust Remembrance Day. White supremacists have played key roles in his administration, and he retweeted an image of Clinton with a backdrop of dollar signs and what appeared to be a Jewish Star of David. He refuses to condemn white supremacists. In a recent speech to Jewish Republicans, he referred to Netanyahu as “ ... your prime minister,” invoking the trope of Jewish loyalty to a foreign country, for which he vilified Ilhan Omar.

Trump recently told the Republican Jewish Coalition that, “Democrats are advancing by far the most extreme, anti-Semitic agenda in history,” an effort to drive a wedge between Jews and the Left. Progressives are increasingly pairing criticism of Israeli policy with familiar anti-Semitic tropes, and it’s frightening.

The Netanyahu government deserves harsh criticism for its treatment of non-Jews within Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, but denying Israel’s right to exist crosses a line, especially when there is little outcry about the crimes against humanity committed by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia.

An April 4 New York Times headline proclaimed, “Anti-Semitism Is Back, from the Left, Right and Islamist Extremes.” History repeats itself. All marginalized groups and their allies need to act in solidarity to resist hate.

As Rabbi Sharon Brouse said, “You can’t fight racism but excuse anti-Semitism, just as you cannot fight anti-Semitism while excusing and justifying racism and Islamaphobia.”

Sara Weinberger, of Easthampton, is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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