I don’t remember the first time I saw a swastika. It feels like I always knew what it was and the guttural fear of the red, white, and black flag of the Nazis was very real for me. That symbol stood for the systematic destruction of my family in Europe. It was the symbol I saw when people wanted to identify with the ideology that dehumanized me and called for the eradication of me and my people from the planet.
As each passing year of my life flew by I imagined that the vile message of that flag was buried deeper in our history along with the other horrifying parts of our history that included slavery, mass murder of Native Americans, systemic racism, systemic anti-Semitism, systemic anti-LGBT laws. I saw our country moving forward. My high school was racially mixed, I wore a Jewish star around my neck without fear. I celebrated the passing of gay marriage. I was proud that we could look in the rear view mirror and see that we had begun to evolve as a people and had started to learn that these hateful laws and practices were born of ignorance and fear … and then, 2016 happened. Racially tinged rhetoric and calls for returning to a “better time” aroused an underground network of vile hatred to surface. The individuals and groups espousing these ideas felt safe in putting a megaphone to their message calling on our society to return to a time of hatred and ignorance, when what we needed so badly was to continue to grow and develop and fight back against remaining fear-based bigotry.
I was running for office for my first time. Years earlier I had been told that I would have to change my name if I wanted to get elected because no one would vote for someone with a name like mine: too Jewish. To be fair, I was afraid that I might face fear in my community because there are not many Jewish people in my neighborhoods. But you know what I found? I found people who were struggling in their lives and could not have cared less what type of temple I worshipped in; they cared more about how I was going to help them with the very real problems they were facing daily. And yet, a member of my community did suggest I stop wearing the small Jewish star that dangles from my charm bracelet.
And so I struggle when atrocities like Charlottesville take place. The place and “call to action” of this event was intended to decry the removal of a statue of a man who is the very icon of racism in this country. And yet, the chants of the white nationalists instead called for the destruction of the Jews. The flags carried at the rally appeared equally divided between Confederate flags and the very banners of Jewish annihilation, the Nazi Swastika.
The nation, appropriately, decries with outrage the vile message to people of color in our country, but who decries the violent rhetoric lobbed at my family and my faith community? Just as it is important for white people to take a stand for people of color who are targeted with racist acts, it is important for non-Jews to take a stand for Jewish people who are targeted with anti-Semitic acts. If those targeted by supremacists, racists and anti-Semites do not have the support of allies, than what happened in Charlottesville will not be an anomaly. Indeed, it is that lack of allies willing to take a stand and speak out that enabled the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms before it to happen. Abe Foxman, the former ADL National Director, once said, “concentration camps were not built first with bricks; they were built with words.” We have now heard the most ugly and vile words. The question we all must ask is, “What are we willing to do about it?”
During my recent travels I had a discussion with a man of another faith and discovered he had many misconceptions and unanswered questions about Judaism. Through our dialogue we were able to clear up confusions and open an open honest and ongoing dialogue. I believe that bigotry is rooted in a lack of knowledge. As a result, I open my door to you, so that if you have any questions about Judaism, please don’t hesitate to ask. I am happy to answer any questions you may have, including what it means, where it is rooted, how we practice, and how different we are around the globe in race, in observance and in culture. With only about 2% of the population of the United States being Jewish, perhaps you’ve never met a Jew or never had the chance to have your questions answered. Let’s start breaking down some walls of fear. Whatever you want to know, please ask me.
I have spent my life working on building diverse communities. I believe with every fiber of my being that knowing one another, respecting our differences, celebrating each other’s cultures is how we build communities that thrive.
*Author’s Note: This piece is a response to vile racism and hatred from one perspective and is not intended to hold any one group’s pain over another.