The Danger of Casual Antisemitism

Casual racism of any kind becomes an excuse for violent racists to take action.

Photo of a gold Star of David necklace on a blue background by author (Joyce O’Day)

The Great Awakening of Racism

The last five years have witnessed a marked increase in racism of all varieties: Black, Latino, Muslim, Asian, and Antisemitism. The Trump presidency encouraged racists to come out of the closet and show their true colors, often by displaying their symbolic flags. In earlier decades of my boomer lifetime, Americans behaved with greater discretion – for the most part. 

Triggers to Violent Actions

Blatant racism toward Blacks and Latinos has been never-ending in our society. Other waves of racist attacks are spurred on by current events. Following 9/11 and after Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban policy, which he instituted immediately after assuming office, there were countless attacks on Muslim Americans, including verbal assaults and beatings. Women wearing the hijab (religious veil) were an easy target of hate. The emergence of COVID-19, with President Trump labeling it “The China Flu,” brought an escalation of attacks on Asians. Likewise, the Gaza Conflict in May 2021 encouraged an increase in hate crimes against Jewish Americans and their places of worship.

Jewish Stereotypes 

Like every other ethnic or religious group, there are negative and positive Jewish stereotypes. Aside from being labeled as rich and cheap, and the particularly vile accusations of being the killers of Jesus and the consumers of children’s blood during Passover (aka the Blood Libel), Jews are awarded with a host of positive attributes: intelligence, commitment to family, a direct manner of engagement, a love of the arts, and a great sense of humor. Jewish comics are renowned, and yes, Jews are over-represented in Hollywood because it is a creative field. While it is true that Jews as a group have a slightly higher than average income, it is the result of historic conditions. During the Middle Ages, Jews were forbidden from entering the trade guilds, so they turned to the professions and to business ownership. There remains a general expectation for Jewish kids to attend college, which generally results in a higher income. In addition, before the Reformation, the Catholic Church forbid the lending of money with applied interest. Since the only people who will ever lend someone money without interest are family members and very close friends, Christians turned to Jewish moneylenders – hence, the Jewish banker references. In the end, Jews have been perpetually criticized for their financial acumen.

Growing up Jewish

Like discrimination against Blacks and Latinos, antisemitism is always present; I have lived with it my entire life. People don’t initially assume I’m Jewish. I was adopted into a “mixed marriage” family. My mother was a first generation Russian Jew. Her parents emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1911. My father was second generation Polish Catholic, so my last name did not imply “Jewish girl.” However, in the Jewish faith, children take the religion of their mother. If the father is Jewish, but the mother is not, then the child is not Jewish unless the mother converts. Even though our family did not attend temple, all the kids at my school knew I was Jewish. At the annual Christmas assembly at my elementary school, while each grade level had a special Christmas song to perform, EVERY year I danced the Hava Nagila with the other Jewish kids from all the grade-levels combined. I never exactly fit in. Since my family did not attend the local synagogue, I did not have a strong relationship with any of the other Jewish kids at school, and although my neighborhood had a significant Jewish representation – at least a fifth of the families on our street were Jewish, everyone knew my dad was Catholic. We celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, lighting Hanukkah candles, while also putting up a Christmas Tree, hanging stockings, and displaying outside holiday lights. Ironically, most of the guests at our Christmas dinner were Jewish.

Casual and Direct Antisemitism

Children can be cruel. I cannot count the times I was called a “Dirty Jew” or a “Cheap Jew” by my elementary school classmates. At that age they were clearly just parroting the beliefs and language of their parents. Growing up, I became used to kids making the “Jew nose” comments about my mom. My mother told me that the worst thing someone could say was the “K” word, which fortunately I never heard. My mother advised me to ignore the insults, but not to forget them. YOU NEVER FORGET THEM! By junior high, kids were less blatant with their insults; they had clearly learned some discretion. I moved to a different town for high school, where I refrained from mentioning my Jewishness, unless asked. Sure, I occasionally heard the typical antisemitic slurs, but generally did not comment back. During my university days, I also suffered some awkward incidents. That was when I learned that Jewish Americans are often blamed for Israeli governmental policies, specifically relating to the Palestinian crisis. It was hugely disappointing to discover that this flavor of antisemitism often comes from the political left. As I matured into adulthood, I started to hold my ground and confront the insulters. 

Taking a Stand

The first serious sting of anti-Semitism I experienced was when meeting a boyfriend’s parents. What started as a lovely dinner was ruined when his mother bragged about “Jewing down” the salesman when they bought a new car. I stood up and walked out of their house. My boyfriend followed quickly behind after engaging in a brusk conversation with his parents. They seemed truly contrite when they came outside to apologize and beg me to return to dinner.

Years later, I experienced a similar situation while visiting my husband’s aunt. She mentioned how she “Jewed down” the price of a used appliance she bought from a neighbor. My husband, his sister, her husband, and my daughter all looked at me to observe my reaction. I merely shook my head, and to their surprise said nothing. Later I explained that there was no point in schooling an ignorant 80+ year-old woman. I was disappointed, but by that point in my life, I had learned to “choose my battles.” 

About a year earlier, at the first department meeting at the new school where I started teaching, a colleague announced that we should identify all the Jewish teachers at our school after she shared a story about a Jewish English teacher who she had a conflict with. I immediately spoke up that my name needed to be on the list. The colleague quickly apologized and was truly embarrassed and ashamed by her comment. She insisted that she meant nothing of it. I accepted her apology, and we later became friends. Shortly after the incident, a colleague who witnessed the exchange asked me to set her up with a rabbi so she could fulfill her longtime dream of converting to Judaism. Little did they know that Jewish teachers find each other on campus – and in any other workplace – as a form of solidarity.

Some years later, students working on a group project at the beginning of the year created a civilization where the citizens had big noses and other Jewish stereotypes. I immediately told them I was Jewish and that I was offended by the content of their project. I considered referring them to the Dean’s Office, but hesitated knowing that if I reported them there would be little hope in repairing the relationship. I waited to see where it would go, preserving the option of an administrative referral as an avenue of last resort. The students continued to toy with their concept for the remainder of the period, but during the next class they switched to a new idea. I let it go, hoping that a lesson was learned, and I had no problems with any students in that group for the rest of the year. The last day of school, after their final exam, that class serenaded me with the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey; I never experienced anything like that in my entire career. I was truly touched, and I took it as an apology from the young men who started off on a bad note with their ill-conceived civilization project.

Coming Out

Early in every school year, I made it a point to inform my high school students of my Jewish status. When we came to the lesson on the Hebrews, I told them that I was a member of the tribe for two reasons: 1) I did not want them to assume I was Christian and inadvertently make an antisemitic comment, and 2) I wanted to identify as a Jew. In most cases, I was the first Jewish teacher that any of my students ever had – Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) alike. It helped my Jewish students finally feel represented. I made it clear to all that I was a secular Jew from a mixed-marriage family, but thanks to matrilineal descent, I was part of the club. I deferred to more observant Jewish students with regards to any religious questions that arose during the course of the year, and overall, I believe it was a positive learning experience for all. (For those who question the appropriateness of coming out to my students regarding my religious identification, please bare in mind that many Christians announce their religious affiliation by wearing a cross. I rarely don my Star of David unless it is “holiday time” or it particularly goes with the outfit I am wearing.) 

My Worst Antisemitic Experience 

One year I had an Advanced Placement (AP) World Histroy student who made it a point to inform me that his relatives were Nazis that escaped to South America from Germany after the war; he later announced this status to the entire class in the context of a class presentation. At the end of the school year, when I had my students “anonymously” evaluate my class, he expressed a variety of insults including my “dirty attitude,” which I took as a slimy disguised “Dirty Jew” reference given his previous comments. Since I had been reading my students’ handwritten essays all year, no one’s evaluation was anonymous to me. This student went on to post a similar comment on the website “Rate My Teacher.” I was tempted to report the comment as abuse, but I let it go. My previous antisemitic experiences were due largely to ignorance. What made this my worst experience was the hatred this student directed toward me in his language and mannerisms. True hate is palpable.

The Perpetuation of Antisemitism 

In a predominantly Christian nation, Jews will always be outsiders. They inhabit the same realm as immigrants, even when they have been in a nation for generations. And like immigrants, if you don’t know any personally, it is easier to fear and despise them. In Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the rural Germans who were the most antisemitic, as their only encounter with Jews occurred when they took a trip to the city to shop or see a doctor. Urban Germans had Jewish friends, neighbors, colleagues, and often in-laws. So why is antisemitism on the rise in 21st-century America? Like mid-19th century Germany, it is a combination of religious intolerance and cultural inexperience. Modern-day Americans who throw out the term “Dirty Jew” are dangerous haters who should be avoided at all costs. Individuals who continue to use the term “Jew-down” may just be guilty of misplaced ignorance that qualifies as casual antisemitism. 

The Recent Rise in Violent Antisemitism

Words matter. Oddly, many Americans do not seem realize that the term “Jewed down” is offensive and damaging as they offhandedly use it as a verb. Every time an individual uses a casual antisemitic term they are offending all Jews and they are being interpreted as allies of rabid and dangerous antisemites. CBS News noted an increase in antisemitic acts in 2016 following the election of Donald Trump, after a 15-year decline. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) annual audits, the year 2016 saw a 34% increase in violence towards Jews. In 2017, violence increased by 57%, the year that protesters in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Although 2018 saw a slight decline in antisemitic violence from the previous year (-5%), it was the same year as the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 Jews were murdered. In 2019, there was a 12% increase, and in 2020 violence decreased by 4%, despite “2,024 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism” according to the ADL. This trend has chilling implications.

Owning My Jewishness

As an adoptee, I grew up with the realization that I was probably not ethnically Jewish. Still, I always owned my Jewishness, even when I was not publicly announcing it by wearing my Star of David. I completely embraced my Jewish cultural heritage when I was in my twenties after an incident wherein I scolded my young kids for not picking up their toys. In my voice, I heard the voice of my mother and my aunts. It was so impactful that I had to go and sit down to sort it all out. (It was the first time I realized that I had “become my mother.”) Having been raised almost exclusively around the Jewish side of my family, I definitely have Jewish speech patterns combined with a California drawl, which can sound very “Valley Girl” when I am especially tired. My mother’s family grew up with Yiddish as their second language, (it was all their Grandmother spoke), so peppering my speech with Yiddish terms comes naturally. I grew up eating bagels, borscht, brisket, and kugel. Unlike my adopted mother who was unmistakably of Eastern European Jewish decent, when people meet me, they don’t initially assume I am Jewish, but after they are informed, they can “see it” in me. When I ultimately got my DNA tested, I was truly disappointed that I had no Jewish blood. Although I struggled with antisemitic attacks my entire life, I am grateful to have been adopted into the Jewish heritage. It will forever be who I am.

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