Talia Schnur, like most freshmen at the University of Miami, had a dry erase board on her dorm room door. This seemingly mundane object was intended for casual use by friends and passersby. She never imagined it would be the manifestation of what every Jew fears. She awoke one morning to find a swastika drawn on her board.
Being Jewish is plagued by historical burden. Embedded deeply in the roots of modern Jewish culture is a rich history of abuse, prejudice and dehumanization. For generations, the Jewish people have been persecuted and marginalized. While anti-Semitism continues to morph and change with the times, much has remained constant in the plight of the Jews.
Xenophobia—the fear, hatred or mistrust of that which is different from you—infests the collective consciousness of the human race. There is, however, a mirror reflection of this fear that comes from the other side. Dealing specifically with the Jewish population, there is a fear constantly lingering in the minds of Jews everywhere.
“I hear a voice deep inside me asking the questions my fellow Jews ask me wherever I go, the one asked by Jews of so many other times and places,” said Bari Weiss, author of the award-winning book How to Fight Antisemitism and a writer for The New York Times. “Could it happen here? Is it happening here?”
This anxiety causes a pipeline of turmoil that feeds both ways. Fear fuels hate and hate fuels fear—it is the perfect, symbiotic storm. The pattern is timeless and placeless. It stems from a primal fear of the unknown.
Though this happens everywhere, there is always a level of shock associated with hate crimes, especially regarding those directly involved. “I was shocked because I lived in a Jewish bubble my whole life,” said Schnur, now a junior at UM. “It made me hyper-aware of the fact that there are ignorant people out there who don’t understand the meaning behind hate symbols.” After the incident, UM conducted a police investigation that was inconclusive.
Part of the problem now is that there is a constant conflation of Zionism, the age-old motion to establish a Jewish state in Israel, and Semitism. This is the primary difference between the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and the anti-Semitism of today. In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism was carefully and intricately woven into policy — it is far more gracefully hidden nowadays.
“In fact, much of the anti-Semitism taking place today emanates from the nation’s universities, where anti-Semitism is fashionably disguised as anti-Zionism,” said Aaron Breitbart, Senior Researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Research. “To claim that one has no problem with Jews but hates Israel is akin to arguing that one has no problem with Swedes but hates Sweden. Now who’s fooling whom?”
It is also interesting to note that historically, anti-Semitism stemmed from the right side of the political spectrum. It is now coming, too, from the left and “is often guised as ‘anti-Zionism,’ which, in most cases, is weasel language for anti-Semitism,” Breitbart said.
While it is true that anti-Semitism now is divergent from that of the 1930s, it never really went away. There was always an undertow of anti-Semitism in Germany — Hitler then used this existing prejudice to build his empire. This is how charismatic and manipulative leaders build mob mentality, according to The Jerusalem Post.
They prey on the already vulnerable parts of their communities and use that vulnerability for their own gain. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he elevated the already hostile perspective of the Jews. Then, “after the Holocaust, people felt bad about what happened to the Jews, and attacking them, either verbally or physically, was considered taboo,” said Breitbart. “Many observers, however, feel that after the passage of time, society has reverted back to business as usual when it comes to Jews.”
American anti-Semitism is not new. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the FBI said in 2019 that the Jewish population in America has been the most likely to be targeted for a hate crime in the United States every year consecutively since 1991.
It has come to the forefront of our national consciousness because of our polarized political climate. The United States is living in a heightened state of awareness sustained by bigotry and fear.
“Bigotry in any form hurts the society in which it occurs,” said Breitbart. “It allows haters to pour out of the woodwork like roaches and encourages fear and mistrust among the public. There is nothing as divisive to a society as hatred. If not successfully fought, it always ends badly. There are no winners.”
The seemingly invisible nature of anti-Semitism is a major contributing factor as to why blatant prejudice and discrimination continue to prevail in modern society. “I have been told on numerous occasions that anti-Semitism is not a real thing,” said Jane Doe, a senior at the University of Miami.
“People find it unfathomable that I could ever experience any kind of discrimination because I am white. When I tried to talk to a professor about a snide anti-Semitic comment directed at me by a fellow student, they told me to ‘get a thicker skin’ and ‘stop whining.’” This is a common problem found amongst Jews in the United States considering that 75% of American Jews are white, according to The Atlantic.
So, if anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world today, the question then becomes: how can we overcome it? For Weiss and Schnur, the answer is clear. In order to combat anti-Semitism, Jews must be proud of their Judaism and claim it as a part of them. This is not to say that every person who identifies as Jewish needs to keep kosher or spend every night in synagogue. Every Jew has the ability to decide what it means to be Jewish, but the pride and power in one’s own Judaism is universal.
“The Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites,” said Weiss. “They sustained it because they knew who they were and why they were.”
*Jane Doe refers to a source that wishes to remain anonymous.
This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2020 print issue.
words & design_gabby rosenbloom