Fighting antisemitism: We can’t win this battle without friends

One common thread that has emerged from my recollections of personal experiences with antisemitism is that there are good people who stand up for what is right.

(From right to left) Congressman Gregory Meeks; Governor Andrew Cuomo, UJA CEO Eric Goldstein; Senator Chuck Schumer; Mayor Bill DeBlasio; US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; JCRC CEO Michael Miller; and New York State Attorney General Letitia James march against antisemitism across the Brooklyn Bridge. (photo credit: COURTESY JAKE ASNER - UJA-FEDERATION OF NEW YORK)
(From right to left) Congressman Gregory Meeks; Governor Andrew Cuomo, UJA CEO Eric Goldstein; Senator Chuck Schumer; Mayor Bill DeBlasio; US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; JCRC CEO Michael Miller; and New York State Attorney General Letitia James march against antisemitism across the Brooklyn Bridge.
As we are experiencing antisemitism at levels we had hoped were a plague of the past, I have thought back to my earliest recollection of antisemitism in the United States: Hearing my mother talking about the Holocaust, not even 10 years after the great tragedy that befell European Jewry. As I look back, I see that was something that preyed on her mind for the rest of her life. She had lost family members in the round-ups and mass shootings in Lithuania, and I know not being able to bring them over to the United States before the abyss of barbarity that befell them troubled her greatly.
One common thread that has emerged from my recollections of personal experiences with antisemitism is that there are good people who stand up for what is right. It was true back then and it needs to be true today.
My mother would also talk about the American antisemites that prospered in the years leading up to our entry into World War II, like Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith. In our bookcase at home was a copy of Under Cover by John Roy Carlson, who had infiltrated pro-Nazi and far right organizations like the German American Bund, the Gray Shirts, American Patriots and others over a four-year period.
Carlson – a pen name for Arthur Derounian, an Armenian immigrant brought to the United States in the 1920s – dove deep into an underworld populated by antisemites and Nazi sympathizers who attracted a following throughout the country.
My mother often referenced the book, and I would take it off the shelf from time to time, open it randomly, and read about one or another of the organizations profiled by Derounian. As a teenager, I wrote a letter to the ADL office in Boston (we lived in New Hampshire) referencing the book and expressing my concern about antisemitism that I sensed was out there, but really had few details about.
Growing up in small-town New England had many benefits, but as Jews we were the tiniest minority. There were about 25 Jewish families in a 25-mile radius of where we lived. In my town there were just four families, and for a time, I was the only Jewish student in the school district. I occasionally experienced some antisemitism from some schoolmates on the playground or in the hallways right through middle school. This usually came in the form of taunts; two of the most frequently used were “nose” – an allusion to the stereotype of Jews having long noses, or what I would call the fake sneeze: “a-Jew!”
But those who engaged in this form of bullying were very few in number. Looking back, I have no doubt that these crude expressions of hatred were passed down in their families, all by people who had actually never encountered Jews before. It hurt to be on the receiving end of these taunts, and if it were not for parents who bolstered my Jewishness and prepared me for this kind of rattling experience, it would have been even more unsettling. Adding balm to the verbal attacks on the playground was the support I received from teachers, and especially my non-Jewish friends and their parents.
IN THE fifth grade – at this point there were several Jewish students in our school – I was called out of class by our teacher, Florence Kellom. She had probably taught school for close to several decades, and I may have been her first Jewish student. Like any kid, I wondered what I had done wrong. On the contrary, Mrs. Kellom told me that a swastika has been found on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, and she wanted me to know that the janitor had washed it off. That she was eager for me to hear this from her, and then assuring me not to worry, told me everything I needed to know about the importance of friends from outside our community in the battle against antisemitism.
In the seventh grade I ran for class office. During recess, someone shouted “Jewboy” at me and I saw red, running at the tormenter and pushing him to the ground, all in full view of other students. With the election imminent, I didn’t know what effect my uncharacteristic schoolyard anger might have on the outcome. In the week that followed I, along with the other candidates, gave my campaign speech, and I recall making a reference to, and identifying with, the 1960 presidential election where John F. Kennedy had been subjected to anti-Catholic rhetoric in the campaign (something that cropped up in our dinner table talk at home that year).
As the years have passed, the outcome of the election itself is not as important as what to me was the nasty experience I had that day on the playground. My seventh-grade home room teacher, Eddie Main – who has remained a friend to this day – recognized the challenges I faced as a minority of one in my class, and was as reassuring to me as Mrs. Kellom had been two years before.
In the time since, I’ve come to believe there are two kinds of antisemitism: one that emerges from ignorance, and one that is intentionally aimed to inflict harm.
In the past several decades, the one that emanates from unfamiliarity with things Jewish seems to have diminished somewhat. More is known today about the Holocaust, thanks to TV programs like Winds of War and movies like Schindler’s List. Many Jews have been elected to Congress, and one – Joseph Lieberman – was his party’s nominee for vice president. Jewish actors today go by their real names rather than stage names aimed at hiding their Jewishness. TV news anchors regularly wish Jewish viewers holiday greetings at Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah. And many fields closed to Jews in an earlier era, like insurance and advertising, are now open.
To borrow a phrase, though, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Who would have thought that a series of physical attacks on Jews in Brooklyn – a borough which has produced so many who have contributed to the building of this country in so many ways – would be the scene of a mini-pogrom during the last couple of months; or that antisemites armed with automatic weapons would prey on Jews who came to daven on Shabbat morning; or that the ideological descendants of the pro-Nazis written about nearly 80 years ago by Arthur Derounian would chant in Charlottesville, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, “Jews will not replace us”; or that a surrogate for a major presidential candidate would declare that “Israel is built on the idea of Jewish supremacy”; or that members of Congress would charge us with dual loyalty for expressing our support for the Jewish state?
THE CONUNDRUM we have is not reciting the litany of examples of this epidemic of hate directed at the Jewish community, but at how to push it all back. Defeating it is, of course, a goal, but at the moment the need is to engage in a counter-assault at its purveyors, whom we all need to agree come from the Left, the Right and from Islamic extremists. It takes on all shapes and forms of hate: classic charges of Jewish control of the media, banks and Hollywood, newer charges from anti-Zionists and from the leaders of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement with comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa – and now physical attacks on the streets of New York.
There is a sense that many are apathetic and indifferent to what is happening to us because we are considered to be in a special category. As a successful ethnic group in America, we should be able to withstand these attacks and see them as only glancing blows in an otherwise very positive picture of our place in American society. Such assumptions and indifference are more than troubling.
The antidotes are obvious and yet bear repeating time and again. We need more public officials – not only those in Washington but in city and town halls around the country – to speak up, along with religious figures and community organizers, athletes and celebrities, and others who are seen as role models or who hold important positions in American society, sending the unambiguous message that acts of antisemitism in any form are socially and morally unacceptable. Period.
The media have a responsibility, as well. In the past, there might be an annual story or two about surveys that listed the number of antisemitic incidents that occurred in a particular year, and little else. It took the machete attack in Monsey, New York, to finally bring the problem to the front pages. To those who have access to a bully pulpit – and in today’s world of social media, there are many – the call is to drop everything and join us in this fight against the world’s oldest form of hatred.
I return to my boyhood and the encounters with the taunting I endured. I learned that I had many good friends in my small world who saw the injustice in what was being aimed in my direction and acted in my defense. These were good people and for them, they were doing me no special favors. They spoke up on my behalf or comforted me because they just thought it was right thing to do.
The solidarity march and rally in New York against antisemitism on January 5 was an important event in drawing attention to the problem and in bringing our community together. We are mobilizing to fight the scourge. But as a minority which accounts for less than one-fifth of 2% of the global population, we must look to our non-Jewish friends and allies to join the fight. They are out there in every town and city and on every block and street. We must motivate and activate the many resources that they have, to build the kind of coalitions we’ll need to turn the tide.
I believe there are other Florence Kelloms and Eddie Mainses out there whose voices can add much to our efforts today, especially when we find ourselves so much under attack. There is no time to waste.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, Mariaschin directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.