My grandparents were from Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire. To many, that may sound like ancient history, but a large population of Jews in the United States have recent origins in Eastern Europe during Russian rule over 15 republics, including Ukraine. And no different from past centuries when Jews were expelled from European countries, in the early 1900s, my grandparents were forced to flee antisemitic persecution, this time during a pogrom – state-sponsored acts of extreme violence directed toward Jews and other minorities.
This pogrom was one of many over several decades within the empire, resulting in two million Jews migrating to America’s shores by 1924. As thousands of Jews were being massacred in my grandparent’s city – Felshtin – they escaped to Germany and then immigrated to Ellis Island, New York City, where my dad was born.
Driven by his heritage, Dad valued justice, fairness, and honesty above all else; material goods and social status were unimportant. He raised my brother and me to have a political conscience and to be situationally aware of our standing in world affairs. This combination of ethnicity, upbringing and historical context instilled in us an acute awareness of the plight of the Jews and, no less, to that of others who have also been historically marginalized, persecuted and oppressed.
The indignation of racism and persecution
Although we all feel indignation when aspersions are cast against entire groups of people, it seems that many in the US are unaware that Jews have been systematically persecuted and massacred for more than 2,000 years. Historical records through the ages have documented the relentless, widely orchestrated acts of violence, genocide, hate and expulsion that Jews have endured, forcing them to seek refuge in one country after another.
These are not just historical realities to be pondered by scholars. Antisemitism remains alive and well right here on Main Street, USA. Growing up outside Washington, I was bullied, denigrated and rejected by teachers and friends’ parents, and even beaten to the point of unconsciousness on the playground due to my ethnicity.
As a child, I didn’t understand the externalities that give rise to discrimination, so I internalized feelings of inferiority, as do so many other children who have been the targets of racism. And while this particular experience is strictly my own, whether or not those who suffer from racism are “my” people or “other” people – regardless of their ethnicity, heritage, culture, religion, sexual orientation, or other demographic – we all suffer.
Why does all this need to be said in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Because the widespread lack of awareness about the enduring nature of racism, antisemitism, and other forms of hate-driven “isms” enables dictators to lay blame on groups of people for domestic failures and ostensible threats from neighboring nations. Racism is a powerful political tool used by those who seek to marginalize and repress entire groups of people, subjugate others’ land, or even commit genocide to impose their own warped view of the world order.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine exemplifies ways in which dictators can derive power by weaponizing racism. He has masterfully taken advantage of our prejudices by conjuring up an entirely fictional narrative that ignites Russians’ fear of Nazis and prevailing unfavorable attitudes toward Jews.
Putin knew that it was plausible to create a stereotype where there is none to exploit the human tendency toward bias against those perceived to be in some way different or outside of their own social group. Fittingly, Putin claims that the offensive will liberate Ukraine from the Nazi threat when, in reality, white supremacists make up only about 2% of the population, perhaps fewer even than in the US.
Further enabling these actions is that knowledge of US history and where we stand geopolitically is sorely lacking in Americans; history is not always taught accurately or comprehensively in our classrooms. Even more shocking is that there are people in the US – including a few in elected office – who were either not taught, did not absorb or rejected the facts about the Holocaust and the horrific atrocities committed against the Jews. Indeed, the present movement to ban books and ideas contrary to the romanticized construction of American history encourages ignorance about historical facts and may further reinforce racism.
So now, unabated by increasing public tolerance for racism, history is allowed to repeat itself. Putin is taking advantage of the uptick in prejudicial attitudes and actions here in the US where racism is increasingly expressed openly in words, deeds and even legislative acts in some jurisdictions. After 400 years, we have yet to fully reckon with the deeply seated racism toward people of color, with some segments of our society denying or minimizing its existence.
And what is particularly troubling is a growing number of legislators who are leveraging those attitudes to turn back the clock and, in effect, further marginalize people of color. Hatred and discrimination toward any group of people – blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ, Asians, Jews – tears at the very fiber of a society. It threatens our democracy, our national security, and our standing in world affairs.
Before I close, let me be clear about antisemitism in the US relative to other forms of systemic racism. Jewish persecution has never been as widespread or as terrible as the discrimination that people of color and LGBTQ+ have suffered. Jews have certainly faced obstacles and persecution in this country, as well as extreme violence in isolated circumstances, but Jews have not faced systemic barriers to opportunity in this country as have other minorities.
On the other hand, there is a mounting anti-Jewish sentiment here (34% from 2020 to 2021 alone) and throughout the world that poses a silent threat and should concern us all. Despite persistent warnings from our intelligence community, there is inertia in politicians and the public to confront the issue. This lack of action is in stark contrast with the reality that white supremacist groups are fortifying their ranks, calling for the extinction of Jews and people of color.
It is incumbent on all of us to confront head-on the role racism has played in this war as well as other conflicts, and the extent to which it has divided and weakened us over time as a country. Racism against any group is fundamentally destabilizing, and if we do not unreservedly push back against it, waning memories of these historical events leave open the opportunity for history to repeat itself. It has, and it will again.
The writer is a senior scientist in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; part-time research faculty at Penn State University; and president of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives.