Anti-Semitism and the Admonition to Repair the World

The most recent act of anti-Semitism in the US, taking hostages in Texas (“The Hostages Escaped, But Synagogues Ask, How Can They Be More Secure?” New York Times, January 17, 2022), including the temple’s (Temple Beth Israel) rabbi, is an example of the ongoing issue of one piece of the equation of hate in the US and around the world. The Texas hostage taking ended in the death of the hostage taker, who referred to the imprisonment of a person allegedly linked to religious extremism. President Biden called the hostage taking a “terrorism-related matter.”

Anti-Semitism’s history in the US is long, with its twin, racism, having a recognizable base of haters over the course of the 20th century and 21st century. Racism dates back to colonial America. Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head when economic and political tensions rise here and in the larger world. Anti-Semitism’s history dates back to biblical times and has been a constant in world history. The same forces that gave rise to Trump, extreme economic anxiety and xenophobia, gave rise to the America First movement that grew up before World War II. The contemporary example of Trump, and the historical example of the America First movement, both contained elements of anti-Semitism and nativism. Post-World War II anti-Semitism was connected to the witch hunts against communists. Anti-Semitism was apparent during the Red Scare around the time of the First World War. To say that both anti-Semitism and racism are constants in US society is obvious. The contemporary attacks against migrants at the southern border of the US are reflected in the extreme limits placed on immigration from Europe before World War II, as anti-Semitism exploded there under Nazism. Hate has a common thread and base.

My experiences with anti-Semitism are many. Growing up in a small town in Rhode Island, I did not come in contact with anti-Semitism. The Jewish community in that town was well-established and accepted by other religious and ethnic groups. Many Jews, who settled in the small town where I grew up, reflected the mass migration from Europe during the early 20th century. Most Jews in my hometown owned small businesses. The Jewish community there established a committee, most likely part of a larger state-wide effort, to deal with those who had escaped Nazism before World War II. Since it was a small congregation, my family related the conditions under which our temple helped with the resettlement of one person seeking asylum from Germany.

We celebrated the founding of Israel in our temple, and there was no mention of the mass and forced exodus of thousands of Arabs. One of my mother’s short stories written about a celebration of a religious holiday at our synagogue mentions celebrants parading around the center of the temple’s sanctuary carrying what she mistakenly identifies as the Jewish (Israeli) flag. There was an unquestioned reverence in my hometown for the establishment of Israel as an answer to the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The first experience I had with anti-Semitism was on the political left around the time of the Vietnam War antiwar movement. Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel positions on the left became a cause célèbre for many. There was no discussion of the plight of Jews who left Europe before and after World War II, as there was almost no discussion among many Jews about the plight of Arabs and Palestinians before and after Israel’s founding in 1948. If such discussions existed, it was not at the level of consciousness or knowledge of many.

The Holocaust, now a central theme in any discussion of anti-Semitism, did not have a major place in discussions about what it meant to be a Jew in the US when I was grew up. We knew the horror of what happened in Europe prior to and during World War II, and it became part of the over 2,000-year-old history of intolerance, discrimination, torture, and murder that was visited upon Jews across the world. But, the personal testaments about the Holocaust by survivors and their families did not rise to the level of common knowledge until the decade of the 1970s and beyond. The growth of contemporary anti-Semitism in the US, and the importance of the discussion of the Holocaust, seems to have taken on more importance following the three major wars that Israel fought at the end of the decade of the 1960s and the beginning of the decade of the 1970s. Many Holocaust survivors spoke out about their horrific experiences under Nazism, after Israel took up a place in the turbulent Middle East as a reliable ally of the US. Or perhaps the lack of attention to the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors finally took its rightful and horrific place in the history of anti-Semitism? I do not know the answer to the question of when the Holocaust became a topic of general discussion. As a kid, I remember the arrest and execution of one of the Holocaust’s architects, Adolph Eichmann, and felt a strange sense of discomfort during those events.

Discussing the history of the Middle East is too complex an issue for this writing and would fill many libraries. Colonialism and the importance of fossil fuels in moving the West and its economies to positions of prominence play a central role. Colonialism, and its support for compliant regimes in that region, led to endless wars over the resources of the Middle East and the emergence of religious zealots who would stop at nothing to extend their power in the nations from which they sprang over the region. Monarchies kowtowed to the interests of the West and extremism became a given. Proxy wars were the order of the day, as in the civil war in Syria that began during the Arab Spring and spanned the Middle East and into Northern Africa. The war in Yemen, and the US role in supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons and intelligence information, led to a human catastrophe. Religious zealots also have an inordinate influence, and participation in, in Israeli politics. The latter flies in the face of the reasoned liberalism that guided the lives of many Jews with whom I grew up.

Working and living in Rhode Island following the Vietnam War era exposed me to a barrage of anti-Semitism, both in a city in which we lived and in the workplace. It became so bad in one community in Rhode Island, a Democratic stronghold in which a majority of voters there voted for Donald Trump in 2016, that I was referred to as “the Jew” and “Mr. Matzoh Balls” by two staff members. In yet another community, my wife heard routine complaints in a teachers’ break room that Jews had religious holidays off from work (the Jewish new year), while they did not. In fact, Christmas was a school holiday.

A neighbor, with whom I spoke about the endless barking of his dog, saw fit to categorize my complaint against him in relation to my often-published writing in the state’s major newspaper this way: “Hitler should have killed all the Jews!”

Sixteen years later, and with the authoritarian Trump and his handlers in power, there was shock, but little surprise, as white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched, fought, and committed murder in Charlottesville, Va in August 2017 (“A Far-Right Gathering Burst Into Brawls,” New York Times, August, 13, 2017).

The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, was another reminder about how alive and lethal anti-Semitism had become in the US. The most recent hostage situation in Texas generated masses of “I stand with Israel” overlays on my Facebook friends profile pictures. One Facebook friend posted a response to the hostage crisis in Texas by her temple’s rabbi that was a logical condemnation of that hostage situation and a call for Jews of all political persuasions to come together for a dialogue about anti-Semitism in the US and around the world.

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, a group that rightly condemns and tracks anti-Semitism in the US, makes a passing statement about extremists’ attacks against Israel in an interview on ABC following the hostage crisis. While the criticism of religious extremists and anti-Semites is appropriate in a discussion of the hostage crisis, many can justifiably criticize political extremism within Israel and religious extremism there that has denied the Palestinian people the right to their own nation. Repression against those Palestinians who want their freedom might take issue with the ADL’s position on Israel.

I don’t believe that anti-Semitism will ever disappear. The America First movement had at its helm, Charles Lindberg, a heroic flyer and a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite. Yet another anti-Semite, Henry Ford, was the moving force for the publication of the anti-Semitic track The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), an insane attempt to show an international effort of Jews to control the world for their own designs. For decades, a Jew could not own Ford car dealerships in the US.

Two principles from secular Judaism have long captured my imagination: Stop doing onto others that which you find abhorrent; and repair the world. .


Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).