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Antisemitism and racism in ourselves and society

Rev. Irene Monroe

This year, for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, I joined the Congregation Beth Israel of Merrimack Valley’s book discussion of “People Love Dead Jews” by Dara Horn, exploring why antisemitism continues.

Twelve days before, on Jan. 15, during Shabbat prayer, a gunman held four hostages in a standoff that lasted 11 hours at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The terrorist act was a hate crime, the FBI stated emphatically.

Surged by 60 percent in 2017. What is happening in America right now is not just a crisis for Jews. It is a crisis for this nation as a whole; it is an assault on the very thing that makes us all Americans. Antisemitism, we don’t see until something awful happens.

Antisemitism should be tied to other hate crimes, like racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, to name a few, but understood as having a distinct history and motivations. Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of the history.

During the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were killed. False equivalence and revisionism of that fact are not only hurtful to remaining Holocaust survivors, their families, and friends, it is also dismissive of the human carnage and crime against humanity.

In 2017, President Trump’s public statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day intentionally omitted any mention of Judaism, antisemitism, or the Nazis’ systematic program exterminating European Jewry. While the president’s generic statement on suffering might have been intended to be an all-inclusive acknowledgment of other groups killed — gays, Gypsies, political dissidents, non-Aryans, to name a few — by the Nazis, it did more harm than help. The president’s statement acknowledging the Holocaust and not mentioning Jews and antisemitism is similar to making a public statement acknowledging American slavery and not mentioning Blacks and racism. At worst, the statement bolsters an already existing worldwide population of Holocaust deniers and revisionist historians, because it erases the unique stories of survival, bravery, and resistance.

When Martin Luther King was invited to address the American Jewish Committee convention in 1958, he noted the significant similarities between Jews and African Americans, who both experienced hatred and prejudice.

“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol insurrection, history was made in Georgia. Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, a Black male and a Jewish male, won their Senate seats in the Bible Belt. In the Deep South, Jews could be lynched as Black men were. The historic 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia caused many Jews to “become acutely conscious of the similarities and differences between themselves and blacks.” The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 with understanding the interconnected fight of battling all forms of hatred.

However, antisemitism is so pervasive as to be invisible and normalized. One reason is that too often we de-historicize Jewish people from their suffering. For example, I know of Christians who love Jesus, but hate Jewish people. I tell them it’s similar to some white Christians who revere MLK and Obama, but they hate Black men. I remind these same people that Jesus was crucified because he was a Jew, and Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery were killed because they were Black.

Another reason for antisemitism is because racist Jewish tropes won’t cease until we confront them head-on. During Trump’s presidential campaign, he was condemned by Jewish leaders for what appeared on his anti-Hillary poster with the Star of David layered over $100 bills. Trump barked back, telling his critics the star was a sheriff’s badge.

Jews become easy scapegoats in turbulent times like this one.

In August 2017, at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists threw Nazi salutes, waved swastika flags and shouted, “The Jews will not replace us!”

Last July, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was fighting for his life against a man who attacked him with a knife and a gun outside a Jewish school in Brighton, Massachusetts.

In “People Love Dead Jews,” the premise is that there’s too little respect for Jewish lives unfolding in the present.

To stop antisemitism in society, we must stop it in ourselves.

Irene Monroe is a theologian and news commentator.