The people trying to make Jewish American life suck

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So I’m sure I will surprise no one when I say it is not a super fun time to be Jewish right now. My child attends a small Jewish community day school in Brighton, NY, which recently held their annual scholarship dinner. Who should greet attendees on their way in, but a crowd of protestors. “F–k the Jews!” they called to parents, Rabbis, and community members on their way to support a small community day school. It’s hard to see how yelling obscenities at a day school scholarship dinner will positively influence events on the other side of the world, but of course they have a first amendment right to do so. There’s a lot that deserves to be said about the motivations of protestors who yell things like “Jews should be shot – I wish they would shoot you!” to community members in a parking lot, as these protestors did, but my purpose here is not to say it. Rather I wanted to focus on the practical impact for Jews of this kind of legal, but terrible behavior.

Our fellow citizens have the power to create a hostile environment for Jews, and they are availing themselves of it. They are waiting outside our synagogues to scream at us, harassing us at kosher restaurants, instructing us not to ride the subway and now, protesting Jewish day school events. While they often do not cross the line into physical violence (though sometimes they do), that possibility is ever present in our minds, both because we are humans who don’t want to die, and because we are one and all the survivors of historical trauma. No matter what the political climate, diaspora Jews tend to keep their passports updated, have a few items of value that can be carried easily, and a Plan B in case their Jewishness becomes a life threatening condition. I think of it as Jewish doomsday prepping, but it is surprisingly common for Jews at all levels of socio-economic life and seeming societal inclusion. We’re just never really sure we are safe.

Add to that a crowd of people screaming at you that “you should be shot,” and well – you get the idea. This kind of behavior has a very clear message for Jews: you are not welcome here. It is every bit as bigoted as the shop window signs advising “NO DOGS OR JEWS” that used to hang in the windows of many establishments around the country through the 1950s. Or for that matter, another familiar rallying cry you may remember, “Jews will not replace us!” This is hardly the first time in even American history that Jews have dealt with this attitude, and frankly its historicity makes it worse, not better. For a long time, the story American Jews told ourselves was that we were on a trajectory from darkness to light – that our inclusion and acceptance in American society would only improve with time. While that narrative had been straining under the weight of contrary evidence for some time, it shattered definitively on October 7, 2023. Our inclusion in American cultural life is revealed to be cyclical, rather than linear.

Oh. Shit.

Other places that enjoyed cycles of Jewish cultural inclusion include Poland, Spain, and Iran. It didn’t – ahem – end well. I make these comparisons not because I believe America is on the verge of mass Jewish expulsions (or worse), but because this is a profound change in American Jewish psychological safety. Rather than living in an enlightened future where we shake our heads at the barbarism of the past, we find ourselves facing the same rising tides that our ancestors have faced throughout history, and engaging in some of the same calculus. When someone enters your subway car and says “Raise your hand if you’re a Zionist… this is your chance to get out…,” what do you do? Raise your hand? Quietly exit the car? Tuck your star of David under your shirt? Something else? If you haven’t asked yourself what you would have done in this situation (assuming for this thought exercise, that you are a Jew who believes in the right of Israel to exist, as an estimated 90% of Jews do), I urge you to do so now. Now ask yourself what would you do if you were there with your kid, knowing they are watching you to learn how to deal with a moment like this. This is really the point. As a society we have the power to do this to each other. We can create an environment where minorities like Jews must choose between our safety and our identity, and increasingly, that’s what we are doing. On college campuses, students are being asked if they are Zionist (read: Jewish) before being permitted to enter parts of campus, or expelled from student groups.

I cannot overstate how much it doesn’t have to be like this. Reflecting on the scholarship dinner at my kid’s school made me want to write this piece, to ask my fellow Americans, can we make a different choice? Can we disagree without intimidation and harassment? Can we stop targeting schools, houses of worship, and restaurants of minority groups? If we want to have a society that isn’t awful, we all have to choose this together. Please?

Lauren Deutsch

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9 thoughts on “The people trying to make Jewish American life suck

  1. Howard Eagle makes a valid point. No American citizen of any race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation should be the victim of hate. Even though we’ve made strides to address systemic racism toward Blacks and other people of color, we still have a long way to go. That said, I’d like to ask Mr. Eagle to consider that throughout the struggle for Black civil rights, Jews were and still are staunchly allied in the fight for equality and justice. I also ask that Mr. Eagle refrain from stereotyping Jews as not being poor. There are still Jewish refugees from conflicts all over the world who came here with only the clothes on their backs and a few dollars in their pockets. Many also have the handicap of not being English speakers.

  2. Let me start by saying that I’m not Jewish. That said, my family, having immigrated from The Netherlands in 1957, have more than enough experience with the horrors of WW II. My father served in the Army till the capitulation. My mothers house was bombed and two of her brothers were killed. That ended the family name. The hatred, the mistreatment, the outright brutality shown toward the Jewish population was indescribable. It bothered my parents till the day they passed. It appears nothing much has changed. That said, remember that this hatred is coming from a relatively few individuals and reported by a media that cannot control itself with the smorgasbord of demonstrations, “great” pictures, misery and humanity acting out at its worst. The media appears to pour gasoline on the flames to keep the situation on the front page. I don’t know whom I deplore more the media or the subject matter. It’s the tail wagging the dog. I will always hope for the best, but that hope, more often than not, seems to loose out to the worst. When are we going to say enough.

  3. To my fellow American and Rochester area citizens, I want to make it as clear as I can that there is a fundamental distinction between being a person who participates in their faith in Judaism and what some citizens of Israel are doing in Gaza.
    Threatening or using violent language against people practicing their faith here is like saying that people who practice some other faith in numerous overseas locations involved in violent conflicts should be attacked here just based on their religious traditions.
    Everyone has the right to worship as they choose, one of America’s most basic rights enshrined in the Constitution and why this nation was founded.
    The distinction between an Israeli citizen and their support of a government in a foreign country has nothing to do with one’s faith. More than half of the people of Israel do not support the actions of the extreme right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the atrocities being carried out in Gaza. {but more than one thousand of their citizens were brutally murdered, while Hamas terrorists took others, and all citizens have a right to self-defense}
    Politics and religion are not interchangeable. Those who conflate the two are un-American. At this moment, this country is fraught with internal tensions between those who are working diligently to make us a Christian nation and those who bravely fight to maintain a bright line separating church and state.
    As the son of a Holocaust survivor, being raised on stories of the complacency of citizens, as well as the zeal of those who genuinely believed that they were part of a “master race,” is a history none of us can be allowed to forget. No citizen can, in good conscience, turn away from the vitriol, hate, and loaded words and actions of a handful of despicable humans who chose to use this opportunity to advance their racist agenda. While we have free speech, also enshrined in the Constitution, those who disagree with what the government of Israel is doing have multiple peaceful and frankly more effective mechanisms to both denounce the decisions made by a foreign government and help the individuals being harmed in Gaza. Make financial contributions to NGOs that are on the ground helping Gazans. Write your elected officials, asking them to put more pressure on both the leaders of Hamas and Israel to stop the bloodshed. But also remember that the hate you spew supports the aims of countries like Iran, which is funding global terrorism and hate. Although unlikely to happen, those who are harassing other citizens practicing their faith should read about the history and founding of the State of Israel after the Second World War and why the US and the UK are such staunch supporters of Israel’s right to exist.
    I wholeheartedly support Ms. Deutsch’s passionate and articulate letter seeking the right to peacefully practice her and her family’s faith while imploring her fellow citizens to embrace dialogue and eschew violent hate speech and actions.

  4. As a non-Jew, I will state that it is the responsibility of all of us to stand up against such bigotry. Jews should not face such evil alone. I hope I would have the courage to say, “My position on Israel is irrelevant. Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists all have the right to be here, as long as they can act peacefully. If the presence of someone of a different persuasion offends you, you’re the one who needs to leave.” Attacks, verbal or physical, on Jews affect all of us, and we must not be bystanders.

    • As a non-Black, will you state that it is the responsibility of all of us to stand up against such ANTI- BLACK bigotry? Do you believe that Blacks should not face such evil alone? I hope you would have the courage to say, “your position on white supremacy is relevant. If the presence of someone of a different persuasion offends you, you’re the one who needs to leave.” Attacks, verbal or physical, on Blacks affect all of us, and we must not be bystanders.

      • Does every topic have to be bent to your particular concerns? For the record, I oppose all bigotry, whatever the source and whatever the target. It’s particularly important (and challenging) to not give a pass to people who are on one’s own “side.” But the issue here is harassment, intimidation, and physical violence against Jews. One’s opinion about the Israeli government is irrelevant.

      • I hear just how bad I am, after all I’m white so I must be a bad person who simply cannot understand the plight of any other race and it appears that doing things right and doing the right thing is simply not in my makeup. That said, for once, just once….I want Howard Eagle to not just make me aware of my sins and have him make a suggestion as to just how we, collectively, can address and move on from here. Just bashing any and all writing associated with black bigotry isn’t getting the job done. It doesn’t move us closer to a solution. Solution-based statements and writing results in progress. But that said, I don’t hear any suggestions. My entire career as a director was based on solution based meetings. Meeting that resulted in resolving issues and moving on. Those solution based meetings made my life easier and more importantly the staff felt involved and participated in the department mission. I also oppose any bigotry, period. Should you respond, read your response and see if it consists of some solutions as opposed to just bashing. Just saying.
        Semper Fi. (A solution based organization)

  5. If you think it “is not a super fun time to be Jewish right now” — you ought to try being African/Black for a few days, espcially if you’re poor, which not that Many U.S. Jews are:

    • Ms. Deutsch eloquently described harassment Jews have faced recently, including an incident in front of a Rochester synagogue in which protestors yelled offensive statements to event attendees, such as “F-k the Jews!” and “Jews should be shot-I wish they would shoot you!” Instead of showing outrage for the hateful language toward this minority group, you minimized Ms. Deutsch’s anxiety by basically telling her to stop complaining, since Africans/Blacks have it worse, especially the poor, “which not Many U.S. Jews are.” Suffering should not be a competition! Africans/Blacks, especially the poor, face inequality and oppression, but that reality does not take away the pain from Jews who have been facing hate just for being Jewish. Can’t you speak out against the oppression of Africans/Blacks and also respond with empathy when a Jewish woman describes antisemitism that Jews have been facing recently?

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