It has not been difficult for the majority of American Jews to “pass.” That is, other than physical stereotypes, Jews who did not identify by wearing religious items (e.g., head coverings), especially light-skinned Ashkenazim, physically could pass for white Americans and thus may have escaped being the target of antisemitism; this could and cannot however reasonably disavow knowledge of the problem.
Jewish-American Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Malamud, whose fiction work included survivor trauma “before the Holocaust was integrated into the American historical or cultural imaginary,” was acting as a historian and a prescience when he said, “If you ever forget you’re a Jew, a Gentile will remind you.” American Jews have always been sufficiently reminded but an effective response is elusive perhaps because the comparison is most often to the lack of pre-Holocaust remedies. The appropriate response to American antisemitism today however should be based upon following heroic survivors’ and Israeli historians’ principles to a Judeo-centric model.
By way of background, Hitler in Mein Kampf credited Jews with a backhanded compliment worth noting: “[The Jews] apparently great sense of solidarity is based on the very primitive herd instinct that … leads to mutual support … as long as a common danger makes this seem useful or inevitable.” Yet survivors arriving in pre-state Palestine or the newly created Israel were met with the feeling, if not the direct accusation, that they had acted, as the biblical analogy goes, like “sheep to slaughter,” by having lined up passively for deportation, selection, and death, without sufficient resistance. Many Jews preparing for and fighting existential wars on the new land finally recognized their bravery and heroism when fighting side by side with these heroes who had worked their way through the destruction still blamed on Jews and around British blockades knowing they faced immediate savage combat.
Even Israeli studies of the Holocaust beginning at the end of WWII had these victims’ experiences as a side-narrative in a Nazi-centric historiography until the topic evolved to a systemized historical field with the norm becoming a focus on reconstructing the “internal life” of Jews under the Nazis. Thus, in retrospect, it is not surprising that historians in the early study of the Holocaust analyzed the end result without a full examination of the Jewish perspective of, for example, considering the creation of a partisan resistance group, as did those nationalists who came together as countrymen. Historians’ full examination revealed the virtual impossibility of such a large-scale Jewish partisan movement, revealing instead that Jews consciously deliberated the potential impact on family and community who would suffer from group retribution.
These Jews either in hiding or ghettos also were operating without benefit of reliable information regarding concentration and subsequently death camps, as opposed to the premature conjecture of historians concluding that both Germans and European Jews were aware of what was the true definition of “deportation.” Predating the Yad Vashem memorial’s opening in 1953, Israeli historians began acquiring personal testimonies of survivors thereby beginning to bring the Jews’ experience to full light, a revolutionary academic evolution that eventually led to global initiatives including but certainly not limited to Stephen Spielberg leading a gathering of 54,000 personal testimonies.
Appropriately researching and collecting data constructing the appropriate narrative to more accurately define today’s continued and mainstream American antisemitism must rely on these past mistakes and subsequent recalibration. Despite that antisemitic tropes claiming that Jews control the government, banks, Hollywood—in fact the entire world and outer space—there is not yet a sufficient response to what is being called an “outbreak” by traditional media. To the contrary, it is well-documented that antisemitism has been the norm throughout history, including in the quiet parts of America, and the outlier here is the attempt to frame today’s recognition as unique or somewhat of an unsuspected rally against a cultural norm.
To borrow a phrase from those who lived under the Nazi regime, American Jews may be operating under the “if this is as bad as it gets, we will be fine” and/or “we are loyal citizens and this is only temporary” illusion. This is not to assign blame to those under attack, but a necessary question as to whether those are reasonable responses by those living in a country where (outside of Israel) the adage is, “Jews have never been as accepted or successful.” Unfortunately, that phrase is exactly how the unsuspecting Jews in Nazi Germany appropriately described themselves pre-1933 and the advent of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws began the rape of Jews’ humanity.
We must return to the lessons of the Holocaust without the unworthy comparison of the German government and the potential for an American parallel. Instead, the heroic movement of Holocaust survivors to educate the world about the personal impact of antisemitism and its generational trauma must be brought to the forefront if the phrase “never again” is to be considered something to work towards, rather than a hopeful bumper sticker.
It is time to approach antisemitism from the Jews’ point of view, utilizing testimonies describing the impact on individuals from today’s burgeoning attacks. Like survivors’ testimonies, this will broadcast the personal trauma with factual accounts and, if nothing else, create community among Jews against the common enemy of antisemitism. It reverses the apparent trend of generations in America being unable or unwilling to pass down personal experiences with antisemitism, including being refused employment at professional firms and corporations, subjected to quotas both as professors and students, systematically barred from country clubs, banned from buying homes in “white” neighborhoods (both officially by deed restrictions and unofficially through sellers rebuffing Jews). Historical data shows clearly that while American antisemitism took a break during World War II (when it was un-American to side with the enemy Nazis by disparaging Jews), antisemitism until today is as much a part of Jewish-American history as Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers.
Just as survivors overcame well-documented trauma and tragedy, unable to tell their stories even to their closest family members, their bravery in coming forward is the ideal model that not only ties Jews to their past but could possibly accomplish the original goal of the survivors’ testimonies: educate to empower. It is time to, as the testimony of each survivor did, change the narrative from antisemitism as an attack against Jews as a group to each instance being a crime against a person, e.g., a child in middle school, a senior citizen, or a religious person going to pray. When a target is an innocent person with a voice and face instead of a maligned, disdained faceless entity, those who might otherwise turn away may find compassion and Jews may begin to take down established walls within communities. At the very least, it will place the problem squarely in front of all Jews in an impactful way thus making it more difficult to turn aside from something which the viewer may believe is not that troubling, or not happening in his or her neighborhood.
Relying upon teachings from the past has sustained Jews since biblical times; learning from survivors recognizes and utilizes that tradition. Unleashing Judaism’s most effective weapon— the continued yearning of return to the collective path—can be accomplished by utilizing a successful model that once again could bring redemption from a villainous enemy.
Michael Snyder is a publishing contributor with The MirYam Institute. He is a retired attorney with 38 years’ experience in the areas of children’s and human rights and non-government organizations in the U.S., Israel and Africa.