Growing up in a small town in New England, I never thought much about anti-Semitism. I was, however, aware of the differences that marked the Jewish presence in a town in which most residents were first and second-generation children or grandchildren of immigrants who had come from Canada, Ireland, Portugal, and from several countries in Eastern Europe. One black family lived in the town where I grew up. Most residents earned their living from textile mills, or from running shops in the business district. I never felt very uncomfortable because of the differences in background. People learned to get along with imperfection. The small Jewish community in which I grew up had seen dwindling numbers following World War II, but shopkeepers and a few professionals gave me the sense I belonged to a group that defined its own identity and was not molested in any way.
The textile mills in town had seen labor strikes decades earlier.
By the time I worked in public schools the sense of being different because of the strong presence of ethnocentrism was obvious. Before leaving public schools for work in community colleges, the kinds of anti-Semitism that I experienced were substantial. A neighbor with whom I had had a minor dispute said, “I’ve read your articles in the newspaper and Hitler should have killed all of the Jews.”
I had lost an adjunct teaching position at a college for what a colleague called out as being brash enough to address women’s rights in a school founded on sectarian principles, but this was only a minor issue since I had full-time employment to fall back on.
Despite the loss of that job, I never felt that my identity as a Jew was ever under any serious threat. I even felt confident challenging Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Now with Trump, all of this has changed for the worse. Anti-Semitism has escalated to levels that make putting hate into perspective impossible. A few days ago, a probable anti-Semitic incident took place at an Orthodox-Jewish school in the Catskill region of upstate New York, with fire damage and swastikas spray painted on the outside walls of a school building. Visions of Nazi Germany came to mind as they had when 11 worshipers were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. Readers will remember that the gunman in Pennsylvania identified an immigrant aid society as one of the reasons for his attack.
I have closely followed anti-Semitic incidents as they have been reported in the press. There is an area of the lower Hudson Valley in upstate New York that has seen an alarming increase in anti-Semitic incidents, the suspicious school fire being the latest example.
The hatreds expressed in many of Trump’s statements are partly an attempt to enrage his base and drive them to act out the foulest kinds of behavior while the far right solidifies its grab of more power and more wealth. These trends are the hallmarks of a decaying society where inequality and meanness on the streets are the calling cards of the few and the wealthy and their sycophants like Trump. Recall his “very fine people” comment referring to some neo-Nazis and some white supremacists at Charlottesville, Virginia, and the neo-Nazi chants of “Jews will not replace us.”
While searching for information about the closing of a clothing store in a nearby town in upstate New York where I shopped, I found a disturbing comment from its former owner, a person with whom I often chatted while in the store. He talked about his suspicion that when an incident of arson took place at the store in the middle of the decade of the 1980s, he strongly suspected that the motivation for that arson may have been the targeting of a business owned by someone Jewish.
The business owner pointed to the fact that at the time of the fire at his store, a similar fire took place at a clothing store in a nearby town in Connecticut. There were two issues that stuck in the business owner’s mind about the second fire: The clothing store in Connecticut was owned by a Jewish individual and that fire took place on Hitler’s birthday. Although no proof of anti-Semitism has come to light in these arsons, enough information is available to draw tentative conclusions.
I met with a religious leader near the community in which I live to discuss a number of incidents near my home that I considered to have some elements of anti-Semitism. The area has many Jews who have relocated from the greater metropolitan New York area. The rabbi I spoke with observed that when Jews come into conflict with long-time residents of the area, in any number of ways, that sometimes innocuous contact may be seen by people as interfering with their established control over some of the aspects of living, working, and governing in the hill towns that comprise most of this geographical area.
As nativism and populism grow on the right worldwide, along with economic uncertainty, anti-Semitism, racism, and anti-immigrant actions and attitudes have once again become prominent.