Growing up as a Jewish American, there are certain things that I have become accustomed to. Sometimes these things are relatively harmless, like when I have to explain to teachers and coaches that I will be missing a few days of school for a holiday. Sometimes, the “othering” feels more intense. Like when I feel an entire classroom of eyes pivot in my direction when we talk about the Holocaust in history class, or when friends joke about tricking me into eating pork, or when people come up and pulled at my curly hair without asking permission, or when I’m told that I’m “one of the good ones.” But sometimes, being a Jew in America means genuine, paralyzing fear. Fear that leads me to hide my Star of David necklace when going into an unfamiliar crowd of people. Fear that when I walk into my place of worship, I may never walk out. Fear after my Jewish elementary school received a bomb threat.
I have had classmates tell me that antisemitism is not real, that Jews do not face any discrimination. It is these mindsets that tell us Jews are too loud about their struggles that that make us believe that Jew joke was alright, because the stereotype it alluded to is a positive thing. These ideas are akin to saying that one “doesn’t see race.” In recent weeks, we have seen multiple, high-profile cases of antisemitism on social media – and the silence of the media, general public, and my non-Jewish peers, even those who advocate for social justice – has been deafening. In the midst of a social justice reckoning, many are quick to overlook discrimination against Jewish Americans, believing that antisemitism is not a prevalent social issue. However, as people who care about social justice, it is past time to call out all forms of antisemitism and work to make Jewish individuals feel safe in their communities.
Antisemitism in 2020
When most people think of antisemitism, the image in their mind is of hatred for a religious group, often limited to the time before and during World War Two in Europe. However, antisemitism is an issue that has existed for as long as Jews have existed as an ethno-religious group. Modern antisemitic troupes have their basis in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church systematically discriminated against and spread harmful rumors about Jews, forcing Jewish communities to the outskirts of society. These lies, spread by a multitude of Popes, Kings, and other powerful individuals and institutions, asserted that Jews were money-hungry, responsible for the bubonic plague, and murdered Christian children to use their blood in customary cuisine. In recent weeks, there has been a sharp uptick of antisemitism on social media. While the antisemitic troupes seen in these modern-day posts are not exactly the same as those in the Middle Ages, they reflect the same antisemitism that has existed for hundreds of years.
One recent example was in late July, when Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue ran an ad against his Jewish opponent Jon Ossoff, in which he enlarged Ossoff’s nose alongside the tagline, “Democrats are trying to buy Georgia!” While Perdue has claimed that this was an honest mistake, it cannot be a coincidence when not one, but two prominent antisemitic tropes were employed in the same advertisement. Myths about Jews trying to buy positions of power come straight out of the antisemitism of the Middle Ages, and the image of Jewish men with enlarged noses has long been used as a way to not-so-subtly distinguish who is and is not Jewish – and by proxy, who is and is not a good person.
In another example, rapper and producer Wiley posted multiple antisemitic tweets likening Jews to the Ku Klux Klan. Wiley also stated that “Jewish people are the Law,” once again implying that Jews hold an undue share of power in this country. This comparison of Jews to the KKK ignores the terror that Jews have faced at the hands of the Klan. These statements are plainly false and ignorant, but Wiley’s large following makes it such that his tweets can have wide influence, and his antisemitism can reach the screens of millions.
While these two blatant examples of antisemitism are atrocious, I could not even begin to unpack the hundreds of smaller-scale incidents that take place on a daily basis in this country and around the world. In 2018, Jews made up less than 2% of Americans, yet accounted for nearly 57% of the victims of religiously-motivated hate crimes. While the official statistics for 2019 have not been released, as of November 3rd , 2019, 148 of 364 hate crimes that had taken place throughout 2019 in New York were against Jews. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League reported more hate crimes against Jews than in any year since they started recording. It is clear that in 2020, America has an antisemitism problem.
Reactions to Antisemitic Acts
In short, there has been an utter lack of accountability for the high-profile individuals making these antisemitic statements. While Wiley has been banned from Twitter, a simple search of his name on the social media site will show hundreds of tweets demanding “justice for Wiley” and “free Wiley.” Meanwhile, the same friends of mine who were boldly denouncing systemic racism a few weeks ago are silent. I am in no way trying to take away from the incredible importance of the Black Lives Matter movement or the shows of support towards the movement. Rather, I question why the same people who seemed ready to go to bat for the oppressed in this country refuse to speak out against blatant antisemitism.
The Model Minority Myth
Perhaps the reason that people who consider themselves “woke” feel comfortable making that offensive joke about Jews is that they see it as “punching up.” The Model Minority Myth is often applied to Asian Americans, but is also applicable to Jewish Americans. A “model minority” is defined as a minority group whose members are perceived to achieve higher levels of success than other people. Therefore, the Model Minority Myth is the idea that these minority groups are not oppressed. Because the stereotypes about Asian people and Jews are seen as positive stereotypes (Asians are seen as smart and Jews are seen as powerful or good with money), they are perpetuated and people are more willing to overlook oppression faced by members of these groups. This, however, only serves to lump all members of these minorities into a narrow box, ignore the cultural diversity of these groups, and perpetuate prejudice.
Because of this myth, people do not feel a need to fight for justice for groups such as Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. This is the reason that a classmate once told me that, “Jews aren’t actually oppressed in America anymore.” I believe it is the reason that my usually socially-conscious peers willfully ignore public displays of antisemitism. But this myth is just that: a myth. It is abundantly clear that antisemitism is alive and well, and that those same “positive” stereotypes are the ones fueling hate speech and hate crimes. This myth of power leads to a distaste for Jews in our communities. Jews are still a minority group facing discrimination and are in need of a social justice reckoning.
How Does This Affect Jewish Americans?
Being Jewish in America can feel lonely, especially because of the lack of support from our allies. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Jews are at risk of developing mental health problems resulting from the effects of antisemitism. Some of this is based in intergenerational trauma – the effects of years of discrimination – while much of it is due to the present-day threats of violence against our communities. Many Jewish Americans are forced to fear not just for their lives, but for their ability to outwardly express their culture. By having allies in our corner who are willing to call out antisemitism, we come a step closer to feeling safe in our communities. Your Jewish friends see you sharing posts about every social issue other than antisemitism. Your Jewish friends are learning not to trust you. Your Jewish friends are getting the message that your support is conditional. Silence only serves to perpetuate the hate. Acknowledge the hatred to help end it.
What Can You Do?
The most important thing that non-Jews can do is educate themselves and speak up when they witness antisemitism. Use your platform, however large or small, to call out antisemitism when you see it. Check out this resource for some more information on antisemitism and how to be a better ally. Read here about incidents of antisemitism around the world. See this easily-digestible post for more suggestions. Do not stop here.
I do not want to have to be talking about this. Antisemitism from my own peers and people I have considered friends is not something I want to deal with. But I know that if I do not call out antisemitism, no one else will. This is why being a Jew is scary, and this is why I will continue to speak out. I am not asking for much. I am not asking for anything that any other minority group is not asking for. Believe Jews when they tell you about their experiences. Check in with your Jewish friends. Be open to learning and growing. Acknowledge your past mistakes. And Speak Up.