Although Jewish, I am not one to loosely throw around the term "anti-Semitism," and the type of anti-Semitism I, like many American Jews, have personally experienced has been mostly what I'd call "soft" anti-Semitism. The hatred and death endured by millions in the Holocaust did not directly affect my family, some of whom were in the U.S. since the late 1800s.
However, my husband is from the former Soviet Union. Not only was his family directly impacted by the Holocaust – his parents were evacuated to Uzbekistan from Kiev to protect them against the Nazi onslaught, and he had family massacred in Babi Yar – but his family endured countless senseless bloody pogroms spanning the decades. Killing Jews for sport to distract the masses from their misery is the basest form of anti-Semitism, one routinely practiced by tsars and commissars alike in the Mother Country.
The first chance his family got to high-tail it out of the USSR in the early 1970s, they took.
In Ukraine, my husband's family were denied opportunities for no reasons other than their Jewish heritage. If you were Jewish, it was stamped on your passport. He fought his way to and from school almost daily because of anti-Semitic threats and taunting the other kids learned from their parents, the state, and their communities. The Soviet-Slavic-Russian hatred for Jews is so pronounced that ridiculing and demeaning Jews is part of the everyday vernacular of the mother tongue.
Their experiences in America were nothing like in the USSR.
Growing up in Upstate New York, my father experienced more "soft" anti-Semitism. When he was young, he got into some scrapes with kids hurling anti-Semitic epithets; he was asked to leave a local private golf course because "Jews weren't allowed" and was rejected from Brown because "they had already filled their quota of Jews." At the beach in Asbury Park, a couple of guys called my grandfather "a fat Jew bastard." My uncle stood up to the bullies and beat the living daylights out of that guy. That was the end of that.
After law school, my dad went into the linen business, a job that often took him to the South. He was routinely pulled over by cops skeptical of a New Jersey license plate, called "that Jew Boy from New York" as a matter of course, and repeatedly disinvited to golf outings because of longstanding anti-Semitic policies.
"Never forget you are Jewish, because the world will never let you live it down," he used to tell me.
Whether practicing or secular, we Jews always live in fear that the killing will come back in fashion. Our history teaches us never to be 100% comfortable in any one country for too long because it can happen anywhere at any time, no matter how assimilated we are. Thus, we are always on guard.
My siblings and I grew up in a very non-Jewish town. And yes, we also experienced soft forms of anti-Semitism – from our neighbors calling us "dirty Jews" and lobbing rocks at our house to being benched for missing baseball practice because of Yom Kippur to having pennies and anti-Semitic epithets thrown at me walking home from school to one girl turning down a date with one of my brothers because she wasn't allowed to date Jews.
But we were raised to be proud. We helped our friends celebrate Christmas, and they joined us for Chanukah. We didn't hide who we were. We didn't put up Christmas trees or lights to fit in. We were taught that it was not only disingenuous for us to do so vis-à-vis our religion, but disrespectful to our Christian friends if we treated their holiday so cavalierly when it was a serious celebration for them. We took off from school for the Jewish holidays when it was an unexcused absence. We were taught to be ambassadors for our people and to set an example.
The Born-Again Christians of yesterday who asked where my horns were or told me I was going to Hell are some of my closest friends today. We share similar worldviews and values and love each other. After all, we are all the children of G-d. And while it wasn't always that way, it goes to show the power of communication and interaction.
J.C. Watts told a story in his book What Color Is a Conservative of a raging KKK member who used to call Watts's preacher father on the radio. Instead of hanging up on this individual, his father engaged him; talked to him; and eventually, over time, changed this man. He renounced his ways, and they became friends.
I hope the people I encounter who have certain prejudices or are ignorant about Jewish people will come to understand that I put my pants on one leg at a time just as they do, that I'm flesh and blood just as they are. I try to explain that Judaism is fundamental to Christianity and that we have more in common than they realize.
Sadly, since the radicalization of students starting in the 1960s, more and more anti-Semites today are Jewish. I think for a lot of Jews – some even in my own family – they are so scarred by rejection and prejudice from their childhoods and early adulthoods that their politics and cultural choices are dictated by self-loathing rather than pride. Some people grow stronger in their faith because of these past experiences; others turn against it. They reject their religion, culture, and values, rewrite history, and question the legitimacy of Israel. They turn against virtually every commandment. They reject G-d. They talk about the Golden Rule, but only when it benefits their own political and cultural agenda.
Among this rejection and assimilation, intermarriage, and the decline of the family, Judaism is a dying breed in America. In a perverse sense, the anti-Semitic Nazis of today really needn't worry too much about killing us off, because in some ways, we are dying by our own hands. According to recent Pew polls, three out of four Jews marry non-Jews, and of their children, only 25% identify as Jewish. Synagogues are merging and sharing space to save money. Many are closing. Jewish Community Centers can't fill their Jewish programming and struggle with their budgets. The younger generations aren't interested in the social commitment to attend services on Friday nights or Saturday morning, let alone sending their kids to Hebrew school a few times a week.
It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that most of the people who were murdered in Pittsburgh were elderly. What a strange twist of fate for some to have survived the horrors of the Holocaust only to be murdered so brutally at the hands of an anti-Semite in a country where they thought they were safe.
America has been a great land of opportunity and freedom for America's Jewish citizens. We have so much to be thankful for. As long as America and Israel exist, we never have to be forced to march to our deaths with the barrel of a gun shoved against our heads. We will never have to cower or capitulate again.
The left will tell you our racism is internalized so we aren't aware of it, or we still have institutional racism, but the fact is, there is no government policy to deny certain groups their freedoms, intern them, or exterminate them. However, we can't be pollyannas, either: racism, anti-Semitism, all the "-isms" will never completely die out, because to hate and to love are equally part of the nature of man. As long as people exist, the potential for hate will endure.
Moreover, when we examine the many killing sprees over the decades in the U.S., it turns out, no one is really safe. We are all equal-opportunity victims. Disturbed individuals with either a cause or a disability have killed or attempted to kill innocent children of all backgrounds in schools, Americans for being Americans, black people praying in church, Jews praying in synagogue, people at a music festival, and politicians for their political beliefs. Americans of all stripes have died senselessly from the wicked acts of those who hate or are mentally ill.
There are no laws beyond the ones we already have in place that can fix this. The antidotes are cultural: conversation, education, vigilance, preparation, and love – and yes, our Second Amendment rights, because no matter how much we inform and prepare, there is always the potential for this kind of heinous violence.
But let's also not forget to acknowledge the positive things that happen every day because of decent people and the courage that entails. Being kind, showing love for your fellow man, doing good deeds or random acts of kindness – well, those are things no regime, no administration, no fascist, no totalitarian, no wingnut, no emotionally disturbed person can ever take away from us. That is what each of us has in his ruby-red slippers. That is our power over the hate.