A few weeks ago, I discovered that two thirds of Americans aged 18 to 39 are “unaware” that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Two thirds!
According to this same study, 23% of young Americans said the Holocaust was “a myth, had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.”
While I live with the assumption that anti-Semitism is a pervasive, global fact of life, these numbers were still shocking. They make me reflect on how I, and many Jews I know, live with the quiet expectation that at any moment the tide could turn against us: that passive, fringe anti-Semitism could spill over into mainstream hatred and state-sanctioned violence against us.
If this sounds like hyperbole, consider this. The week before last, I went with my family to outdoor Shabbat services at our temple. 50 families, mostly in or in front of our cars, spread out across a parking lot while our Rabbi and Cantor each stood on the flatbeds of two Dodge RAM 3500s leading services.
To my surprise, at the start of services I was hit by waves of sadness. Something about sitting in a parking lot, praying, was a reminder of all the things COVID-19 has taken from us, things so essential to our mental health and well-being: handshakes, hugs, togetherness, community.
And yet, as we continued to pray, my perspective shifted. I began to think about the resilience of the Jewish people, about all the times in our history we’ve had to find ways to come together to practice our faith in the face of adversity.
Walking around that parking lot, saying ‘hello’ to fellow congregants, I ran into a friend who I’d not seen for months. When I asked him how he was doing, he was very upbeat. “My children and I were just awarded our German (dual) citizenship yesterday,” he said. I congratulated him, trying to mirror his enthusiasm, and also asked why. Gravely, he looked me in the eye and said, “my parents waited until 1939 in Germany before they starting thinking about how they could get out, and by then it was too late. I promised myself I would never repeat that mistake.”
Consider that for a moment: that some Jews are quietly planning for their escape should things turn more ugly, more armed, and more violent in the United States.
A week later, another Jewish family we ate dinner with brought up their own conversations about what it would take to move to Canada (and not, I might add, because of COVID-19).
This is what it is to be Jewish in the United States in 2020.
This fear is perverse, but it is also quiet. As a white, male, heterosexual Jew, I don’t experience the systemic, daily oppression of white supremacy, misogyny or homophobia. I don’t especially fear the police, and I’ve not taught my kids how to make sure any interaction with the police doesn’t escalate. I’ve never been discriminated against when applying for a mortgage or shopping for a house. I’ve never been denied a job or a place in a school because of my name, my gender, my sexual orientation or the color of my skin. Indeed, I and many American Jews are connected to exceptionally strong networks of social capital that make it easier for us to lead good, comfortable lives. Relatively speaking, we are very, very privileged.
At the same time, we still live with fear.
It’s a fear that the pervasive, but mostly fringe, anti-Semitism that exists everywhere will get more powerful and more mainstream. A fear that mentioning that we are Jewish—on a trip to a new country, in a blog post read by people around the world, in certain parts of the United States—will ignite some backlash of virulence and hatred. A growing fear that the target will be placed on our backs once again as the U.S. gets more divided. It’s a fear fueled by our President’s dog whistles, the complicity of his Republican enablers, and the viciousness of our new State Media (Fox News) defending oppressors and painting them as victims.
So, I wanted to do my small part to speak to the young and not-so-young, ignorant Americans who don’t know about or “believe in” the Holocaust (and who, I assume, also turn a blind eye to the hatred and violence eating away at our country each and every day).
This document is a list of the names of Jews who arrived in Kobe, Japan, as refugees fleeing from the Nazis. Two of the names on this list are my paternal grandparents, Lejb and Chaja Dichter, who fled for their lives. Their son, my father, was born in the Shanghai ghetto in 1945.
What about this document is a myth?
What about them fleeing for their lives makes you unsure?
Why, if the Holocaust is exaggerated, did I never meet the rest of their families?
Why does my father not have any first cousins?
Do you really believe that all of them weren’t killed?
We simply cannot create a better future if we, collectively, fail to learn about, understand, and collectively address the wrongs of our pasts.
The United States is at a breaking point: our democracy, our collective understanding of truth, our basic willingness to see each other’s shared humanity, all hang in the balance.
I have no choice but to be optimistic, but, to be honest, I’m also terrified.