Don’t rest on the laurels of Jews from history

Like most Jewish children, I was taught about the Holocaust at an early age. But I always felt far removed from this part of history. Growing up in the ‘90s and 2000s, the ‘40s felt like ancient history. But, antisemitism is alive and well in North America and cannot be ignored. 

Even as I grapple with the antisemitism in our midst, I must reckon with my own privilege. I am a white, Ashkenazi, middle class Jew. It can be tempting to see the problems facing our community and think they excuse me from speaking out against other global injustices. I find myself capitalising on trauma to demonstrate that I am not a part of the problem, merely a victim of it. When I speak out against antisemitism, I have to make sure I am doing so in order to make the world a safer place for all and not because I think the issues Jews face make me more interesting as a person. I do not seek to equate antisemitism with other forms of racism, but it is an endemic problem in our society that cannot be ignored. Jews should be included in civil rights activism, yet we are often excluded from such circles because of our outward appearance and misconceptions about our community.  

The relationship between Black and Jewish communities during the civil rights movement of the 1960s demonstrates the beauty of allyship. The role of Jews in the movement has always been a source of pride for me. White Jewish activists accounted for a disproportionate number of non-Black people who protested segregation. Jewish philanthropists and executives helped form the NAACP and other civil rights organisations. Rabbi Joshua Heschel famously accompanied Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King on his march from Selma to Montgomery. Jewish civil rights activists knew that the eradication of systemic racism was not only a moral imperative but a Jewish one.

As an Ashkenazi Jew, I will never understand the systemic injustice many communities of colour face. As a kid going to school in Toronto, I thought racism was over. Slavery and segregation were presented as distinctly American problems. Canadians were supposed to be the heroes of these awful chapters of history; the last stop on the Underground Railroad. But Canada, like America, is no utopia. 

In Canada, Black men are gunned down by police, anti-Asian violence is on the rise, and Indigenous communities are being maltreated including thousands of missing and murdered women. Because of this, antisemitism and other forms of racism cannot be compared. Each has their own distinct parameters and contexts. 

That being said, antisemitism is no longer an issue that I, nor the world, can ignore. No longer can we let people define us by Jewish stereotypes that collectively suggest all Jews are too rich, too Zionist, and too white to be deserving of fairness and decency—despite stereotypes to the contrary, the Jewish community is diverse. Between 12 and 15 per cent of Jews in the United States are Jews of colour, an example of Jewish diversity that is mirrored throughout the world. No longer can we tell ourselves that the Holocaust occurred too long ago to bear weight on the future of our people. Antisemitism continues to threaten our community. 

Coming to terms with modern-day antisemitism has been a painful process for me. While I am glad that my childhood was not plagued by fear of religious persecution, it made me naive. Reality can be a hard pill to swallow and I often find myself longing for the bliss of ignorance. 

It dawned on me that another holocaust could happen when former President Donald Trump was sworn into office. Perhaps I should have already been disillusioned by politics. Hitler, after all, was democratically elected and ran on a platform of economic reform that scapegoated minorities. I was shocked that Trump, a person with known ties to the Ku Klux Klan, with his threats against women recorded, and a history of mocking immigrants and the disabled, could be elected leader of the free world. 

Meanwhile, visible minorities knew first-hand the pervasiveness of racism in America. 

Under Trump, violence against Jews rose substantially with the effects seen to this day. The recent hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville Texas was horrifying, as was much of the world’s reaction. FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno denied that the attack was antisemitic, claiming, “the Texas synagogue hostage taker’s demands were specifically focused on issues not connected to the Jewish community.” The mentally unstable perpetrator specifically sought out a Jewish place of worship. After being welcomed with open arms and a hot cup of tea by Rabbi Cytron-Walker, he pointed his gun at the congregation and refused to let them leave for 11 hours, at which point several of these brave congregants took matters into their own hands and fled. Why did this man choose a Jewish space to commit his heinous crime? Antisemitism. Why did he think people he had never met before had the power to cure society of its Islamophobia? Antisemitism. Many Jews see this attack for what it was, antisemitic terrorism. But many outside the community are eager to ignore the anti-Jewish sentiments plaguing the Western world. 

According to B’nai Brith, a record breaking 2,610 antisemitic incidents occurred in Canada last year. In 2019, Canadian Jews reported more hate crimes than any other religious group. 

But a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute, states Jews are the only protected group to experience more hate-motivated property damage than crimes against their person. Most of today’s attacks perpetrated against white Jews do not result in death. The same cannot be said for members of other minority groups.

Sarah Silverman recently gave a monologue on her podcast about what she refers to as “Jew-face”—non-Jews playing Jewish characters in film and television. Nowhere in Silverman’s speech did she voice a longing to see more Black or Asian Jews on the screen, a group who are underrepresented in the media. And at no point during the episode did the comedian acknowledge that she once performed in blackface—a far worse offence given its history of completely dehumanising people of colour. I can relate to Silverman’s desire to amplify her experiences with antisemitism over her own perpetuation of racism. I would rather speak on the antisemitic encounters me and my family have experienced than share that my paternal grandmother took part in minstrel shows. I prefer to recount how my non-Jewish father stopped a gentiles-only tennis club from opening across the street from his Toronto home during the 1970s, rather than admit that one night I crossed the street when I saw a Black teenager, but stayed where I was when I saw a young white man. 

Isaiah 1:17 tells us: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.” As Jews, we must take a stand against all incidences of injustice, not just those that threaten us. We cannot use the valiant efforts of Jews from the past to absolve us of our human obligation to help people of colour currently fighting for their lives. We cannot rest on the laurels of Jews from history. Instead, we must let our ancestors inspire our own fight for equality. 

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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