Populist Antisemitism is Back

I moved to Europe from NYC during the Golden age of the Obama administration. I never felt scared or concerned to share that I was part Jewish. It is a cultural facet of my life as I am an atheist. My mom rarely celebrated the customs and being Jewish was just something where we ate Ashkenazi food or maybe went to a friend’s house for high holidays or Passover. It was just something part of my life and not really a central identity to who I am.

That changed when I move to the Netherlands. I shared with people that, yeah, I’m part Jewish. And it suddenly became my central identity. I didn’t want it to be. Being Jewish was like being a Polish – part of my cultural background. But, to Europeans I was a Jew first before my other identities. Suddenly my political views were in context of being Jewish, instead of my own opinion. I happen to support the Palestinian cause. And people’s response were shocked, “wow! You’re Jewish and support them?” During my first month in Europe I was at a party, and some discussion came up about Jewish people and it was revealed that I was Jewish. And this person started to shout how Israel is so terrible and he automatically assumed my political position, yelled at me, and  subsequently left. I was bewildered, I hadn’t said anything other than indicating I was part Jewish. Suddenly, that defined me, my opinions, motivations, and who I am.

I decided that I was not going to be ashamed. Europeans tend to be ignorant of other cultural beliefs – and if I can make them a little less ignorant by sharing our customs, maybe they could understand that being Jewish is no different from any being Christian. We celebrate with food and have holidays. That’s the base of any religion. As a result, I hosted parties for the young Jewish population to celebrate with non-Jews. If the customs are no longer a mystery and you meet people of which it turns out you probably have a lot in common, you might see that they are the same as anyone else. At least, that was my hope.

I moved back to the USA during the Trump administration. The safety of expressing my Jewishness vanished over time – even in a place I once thought I could be free to be myself. I thought that when I returned, I’d go back to having the occasional Rosh Hashanah and Judaism being a part of me – not my core identity. Most importantly, I thought that I could freely express my association whenever I wanted. Instead, I became frightened to share my Jewish cultural background. Every week I’d hear about anti-Semitic attacks – and these attacks started to rise in violence. First, it was defacing graveyards, synagogues or breaking the holocaust memorial glass in Boston. Then Harvard professors received hateful notes and threats in their offices. Then it became fires in the homes of rabbis. And now, in my beloved NYC, there are shootings and stabbings in kosher shops and rabbi homes. I don’t feel safe to express my identity anymore, and I attribute this to the culture of hate and fear that Trump propagates. Conflict and fear are strong emotions that get responses, Twitter followers, and reaction. Anger and fear motivate people to the Polls – so Trump encourages it, and the entire republican party condones it.

To break down the cultural barriers – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or any other group – education is the solution. We must unveil ignorance by sharing customs. I grew up learning about many customs in primary school and this left a strong imprint on me. I believe Europeans, and across America, schools should make understanding various cultures a core part of the curriculum. We should learn about what people do on Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Easter, Chinese New Year, and Vesak. We need to insist on a culture of acceptance, not fear. Fear is what will destroy us – anger is what separates us.

I wish I could be an optimist, but I too, am afraid. I’m afraid that in 2 years, when Trump is likely to be reelected, there will come public identification of vulnerable groups. That is when I will have to leave America – history is too close to repeating itself, and it’s never been a good ending for the Jewish people when a culture of fear and hate overcome a population.

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