What I learned at the dinner table: Talking about antisemitism

In the wake of the Tree of Life horror, I heard words of outrage and comfort from classmates, foreign diplomats and others whose first reactive response was to reach out to the Jews they know.

Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 27, 2018 (photo credit: JOHN ALTDORFER/REUTERS)
Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 27, 2018
Growing up in New Hampshire in the 1950s and 1960s, we received most of our international news from our trusty, burgundy Bakelite GE radio that sat on our kitchen table. Our local radio station was a CBS affiliate, and I ate many a breakfast and dinner hearing broadcasting icons like Lowell Thomas, Charles Collingwood, Dallas Townsend and Alexander Kendrick.
Most mornings, my father would pick up a copy of the New York Herald-Tribune at Donahue’s, a newsstand on Main Street, and in the afternoon, he’d buy the Keene Evening Sentinel, our main source for local news. But it was at the kitchen table, with the radio on most of the day, that we’d discuss the important events of the day.
For Jews in the 1950s, memories of the Holocaust were fresh, already indelibly etched in the psyche not only of those who experienced it, but also those who had the good fortune to be living in the United States. My parents frequently referenced it: my mother would often mention her having received letters from relatives in Lithuania who passionately asked for help in coming to America. No one in our family knew anyone – a politician, someone high up in the federal government, even a journalist – who could move heaven and earth to issue visas to get them out. It always bothered my mother that she was helpless to save them.
So we talked a lot about the Holocaust and what brought it about. My father came to America from Czarist Russia when he was 13, and while he had no first-person stories about pogroms, he would frequently mention them as a point of reference in any discussion about antisemitism. My mother had a copy of John Roy Carlson’s Under Cover in our bookcase, which focused on the German-American Bund and other pro-Nazi organizations that thrived in the United States in the 1930s. She would also mention the pro-fascist, antisemitic radio broadcasts of Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin, whose rants ruled the airwaves at exactly the same time.
We also talk about the Virginia-based American Nazi Party, led by George Lincoln Rockwell who would lead his arm band-clad “storm troopers” at demonstrations in the Washington, DC area and elsewhere. My mother would cite Rockwell as an example of how antisemitism was still not stamped out, despite the Holocaust, and that he was operating here in America.
We were keenly aware of discrimination against Jews in hiring, public accommodations, and higher education. I heard the word “quotas” at a very early age. Friends and relatives went to certain schools because other universities just wouldn’t admit many Jews. Indeed, you’d have to state your religion on your college application, and paste on a photo as well. Bank hiring? Forget it. Hotels and resorts?  Some welcomed Jews as guests; many didn’t. Private clubs were notorious for excluding Jews as members. Jewish actors and actresses had, for years, anglicized or changed their names based on the belief that Jewish-sounding surnames could be a bar to popular success.
It wasn’t that many years before I was sitting in on these discussions at the dinner table that the motion picture Gentleman’s Agreement pulled the curtain on the extent of antisemitism – genteel or otherwise – that existed in post-war America. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of a non-Jewish journalist, posing as someone who was Jewish, testing the restrictive, antisemitic social environment that prevailed, was a monumental breakthrough in mainstreaming popular understanding of an age-old scourge.
A check of the B’nai B’rith archives came up with three examples of this kind of discrimination; they are typical of thousands of other instances of everyday antisemitism that the American Jewish community experienced.
A letter dated March 3, 1947, from the Hotel Winona and Park Hotel in Winona, Minnesota, responded to an inquiry for rooms from Mr. Nathan Scharf. The hotel’s representative wrote that “First, due to restrictions around our lakes, I must know whether you are Jewish or not, as Jewish people are not allowed….”
Another letter, from the Woodland Lodge in Elcho, Wisconsin, dated July 10, 1947, advised Mrs. R. Uslander that “We are returning your check for $5, for we cannot provide for you at the time requested. After seeing your letter we note that you are associated in some manner with Camp Maccabee. Perhaps we should advise you that we do not cater to people of the Jewish (sic) race.”
And this, dated July 29, 1959, from the headmistress of a girl’s school in Charleston, South Carolina to a mother who had submitted an application and entrance fee for her daughter:
“We appreciate your interest in the school but we have found that it is a wise policy not to accept students of religious faiths different from the majority of the girls here….
“While we are a non-sectarian school, our resident girls are all members of Christian churches. Past experience has taught us that the Jewish girls find it difficult to fit into our schedules because of different times of church services and religious holidays.”
These were the very visible barriers that beset an otherwise well-educated, hardworking, patriotic Jewish community. At dinner, or later in the living room, we’d discuss these kinds of stories and met them with a mixture of shrugs and some anger, always accompanied by an expression of hope that things would change for the better.
In fact, they did.
There were many contributing factors, among them Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or religion in public accommodation and hiring. Pope John XXIII’s determination to address centuries of antisemitism within the Catholic Church, culminating in 1963’s Nostra Aetate declaration, opened the doors to other advances in interfaith relations. In the process, non-Jews became more accepting, and Jews, more confident.
Into the 1970s, barriers began to fall. In 1974, there were three Jewish members of the United States Senate, one of whom was filling a vacancy, and just 12 Jewish members of the House of Representatives.  One Jewish political figure, interviewed in Stephen Isaacs’s Jews and American Politics (1974), said Jews were hesitant oftentimes to run for office, so worked on campaign fund-raising or as media advisors. Fifteen years later, the numbers were eight in the Senate and 23 in the House. And into this century, those numbers grew even larger.
Today, entertainers use their own names, and no one blinks an eye. Yiddishisms have entered the vernacular, and many universities offer Jewish and Holocaust studies programs.  Quotas in university admissions are long gone. And corporate suites in businesses that were previously off-limits to Jews have opened, as well.
That’s why the shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue came as such a body blow to our community. The warning signs were definitely there. Even before that horrific day, three separate Jewish community centers had shooting incidents, in Los Angeles, Seattle and Overland Park, Kansas. The Tiki-torch-bearing demonstrators in Charlottesville shouted, “Jews will not replace us.” The Internet is chock full of websites, blogs and comments that trumpet unadulterated hatred of Jews. And the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, which calls Israel an “apartheid state,” and which uses Nazi imagery to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, only thinly veils the antisemitic tenor of its campaign to delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state.
If my parents were here today, there’d be plenty to discuss at the kitchen table. We’d surely talk about the threats and the challenges to our community. The spike in antisemitism in Europe, from the Left and the Right, would be a main topic of discussion. We might, at a certain point of discouragement, even repeat the Passover Haggada admonition that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us.”
But then we’d be grateful for good friends, personal as well as in the broader community – who speak out, as they did after the Pittsburgh shootings, about the dangers posed by the new antisemites. What separates this country from others when antisemitism rises to the surface is the breadth of solidarity that results when it occurs. In the wake of the Tree of Life horror, I heard words of outrage and comfort from classmates, foreign diplomats and others whose first reactive response was to reach out to the Jews they know.
With that, we’d rise from the table, secure in our Jewishness, worried about what might come next after Pittsburgh, pledging to do what we could – letters-to-the-editor, conversations with neighbors, keeping up on the latest reports of antisemitic acts at home and abroad – to meet the challenge when antisemitism “rears its ugly head.”
We certainly have our work cut out for us. We need to re-double our efforts to greatly expand the number of public schools that have Holocaust education programs. We need to confront, head-on, the explosion of hate on the Internet, notwithstanding First Amendment guarantees of free speech; privately-owned companies whose platforms allow this kind of verbiage to proliferate need to police themselves. This is a “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” moment. And we must see the BDS movement for what it is: the next level of global antisemitism.
Looking back, that small kitchen was indeed my classroom, preparing me well for the difficulties that lie ahead.
The author is CEO of B’nai B’rith International.