Responding To Anti-Semitism In The Age Of The 'Alt-Right'

"To truly understand anti-Semitism, one cannot look through the lens of race-based discrimination alone."

Two weeks ago, a man wearing a swastika armband showed up — twice — on our university campus. Citing his First Amendment right to freedom of speech, Michael Dewitz, 34, questioned the Holocaust and extolled the Nazi party, seemingly well aware that authorities could legally do nothing to obstruct him.

Coincidentally or not, his unwelcome visits happened to fall during the week of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day the United Nations designated to commemorate the victims of the genocide that resulted in the murder of over six million Jews, along with homosexuals, disabled people, and other groups the Nazis deemed “undesirable.”

Students and faculty at the University of Florida hold signs reading “Never Again” in protest after Michael Dewitz, center, a
Students and faculty at the University of Florida hold signs reading “Never Again” in protest after Michael Dewitz, center, arrived on campus Jan. 25 wearing a swastika armband.

That same day, President Trump provoked anger within the Jewish community when he signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees from entering the United States, evoking memories of Jewish refugees turned away from U.S. shores during World War II, and then proceeded to issue a statement regarding Holocaust Remembrance Day which failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism at all—a move later endorsed by white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Last week, the latest in a series of ongoing bomb threats were called in to Jewish Community Centers in Albany, N.Y.; Syracuse, N.Y.; West Orange, N.J.; Milwaukee, Wis.; San Diego, Calif.; and Salt Lake City, UT. The centers were evacuated, and though the threats were deemed not to be credible after the fact, that did not quench the feelings of intense vulnerability and uneasiness that lingered.

Over the weekend, Chicago authorities released a surveillance video of a man smashing the front window of a synagogue and placing swastika stickers on the front door. In Houston, Rice University campus police launched an investigation after a swastika was drawn on the base of a school statue. In Manhattan, passengers on a subway car witnessed anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas and the phrases “Jews belong in the oven” and “Destroy Israel, Heil Hitler,” scribbled with Sharpie over advertisements and windows. As passengers sat in uncomfortable silence, one brave man announced that the alcohol in hand sanitizer could remove Sharpie. Promptly, passengers searched their pockets for sanitizer and tissues, and proceeded to scrub away the hate-filled messages.

Passenger on Manhattan subway removes anti-Semitic graffiti.
Passenger on Manhattan subway removes anti-Semitic graffiti.

These instances are only the most recent in a long list of hate crimes that have been targeting the Jewish community. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that of the 1,402 victims of anti-religious hate crimes reported in the United States in 2015, 52.1 percent were victims of crimes motivated by anti-Jewish bias. Based on the dramatic spike in hate crimes following the recent presidential election, there is reason to suspect the 2016 figures will be even higher.

Some people find these statistics hard to swallow for several reasons. Just as there are still those who think racism is a specter of the past because America elected a black president, some look to Jewish individuals who have risen to positions of prominence and influence and conclude that anti-Semitism died with Hitler. Moreover, there is often a conflation of race with ethnicity, nationality, and religion when it comes to defining Jewish identity, which is complex and far from monolithic. Some inaccurately assume that all Jews are of Eastern European descent and neatly fit into the paradigm of “whiteness.” In reality, Jews are predominantly an ethnoreligious people, and we can be found across a wide and diverse racial and ethnic spectrum. We are proud members of Black, Asian, and Latinx communities. In Israel, where a majority of Jews hail from across the Middle East and Northern Africa, Jews of color are the norm.

However, in the United States, where a majority of Jews are of Eastern European ancestry and tend to be fairer in complexion, it is sometimes difficult for some to comprehend the legacy of fiery hatred and discrimination that these “white Jews” have themselves faced at the hands of white supremacist groups. To truly understand anti-Semitism, one cannot look through the lens of race-based discrimination alone. This insidious form of bigotry goes beyond racism and colorism, affecting Jews of all races and hues. Even light-skinned Jews with blonde hair and blue eyes were targeted for extermination by Hitler and his mass-murdering Nazi regime. Of the Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis who were cast away from the shores of the United States and sent back to their untimely deaths in Europe, the majority were from Germany and other predominantly “white” European countries.

Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis in 1939.
Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis in 1939.

Anti-Semitism at its core is based on conceptions of ethnoreligious, cultural and nationalistic “otherness.” Thus, we have historically seen such prejudice manifested through the depiction of Jews as Christ-killers; as greedy, swindling shysters; as all-powerful, sinister puppet masters of media and politics; as inherently disloyal citizens incapable of true assimilation.

We often hear chants of “Never Again” from within the Jewish community. Our generation has grown up hearing first-hand the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors, and we are all too aware that we will likely be the last. Some of us within the community are descendants of Holocaust survivors, carrying the anguish of those who came before us in our genes, allowing them to live their lives through us. As survivors are dying out, we have promised to pass on their stories. We have taken the words of Elie Wiesel to heart: “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.” But now, less than one hundred years after the Holocaust, we see warning signs that “Never Again” is already happening. In Europe, anti-Semitism is once again thriving. Moreover, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and Kosovo stand as shameful stains on the hands of history, attesting to the fact that the possibility of genocide is ever-present.

Despite isolated incidents, the United States has more or less been a haven for our people since the end of World War II. For many American Jews, this has been the only home we have known. Thus, these increasing incidents of unfounded hatred are profoundly disconcerting.

For decades, American Jews have stood alongside other marginalized groups as allies. In the 1960s, we marched in the Civil Rights Movement. Today, we stand alongside our brothers and sisters proclaiming “Black Lives Matter.” We position ourselves on the ground among those at Standing Rock. We advocate for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and Muslim rights. Many Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, originally constructed with the purpose of fighting anti-Semitism following World War II, have since expanded their mission to encompass all forms of bigotry. Perhaps due to our own collective trauma, social justice runs through our veins, heeding us to stand up to injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere. Otherwise, “Never Again” will be nothing more than a hollow slogan.

Jewish marchers gather in solidarity with Black Lives Matter at Washington Square in Greenwich Village, N.Y.
Jewish marchers gather in solidarity with Black Lives Matter at Washington Square in Greenwich Village, N.Y.

Now as anti-Semitism again rears its ugly head, we reach out to those with whom we have stood, and with whom we continue to stand, asking you to stand also with us, to show up on our behalf, to not be silent or indifferent to our struggle. Just as non-Jewish residents of Billings, Mont., placed menorahs in their windowsills during Hanukkah in 1993 to demonstrate their solidarity with the Jewish community following waves of anti-Semitism, we need allies today who will rise up, who will refuse to let their cities—or even their subways—be overrun by hatred, who will place figurative menorahs in their windowsills, allowing the collective light to drive away the darkness of discrimination. Most importantly, we need our generation to know that the Holocaust and its symbols, far from being mere relics of the past, continue to bear witness today, serving as reminders of what can happen to any minority group subjected to bigotry. The hatred fueling the fires that consumed so many of our ancestors was never fully extinguished.

When hatemongers like Michael Dewitz and Richard Spencer like to hide behind the free speech protections of the First Amendment, they ought to be reminded that the First Amendment does not protect them from private actors exercising their free speech rights to call them out—loudly—on their bullshit. When Dewitz arrived on our campus for the second time two weeks ago, we were encouraged to see the outpouring of students and faculty members rallying against him in protest.

Over the next four years, as the political climate grows more hostile, as hate groups are emboldened, as civil rights activists and lawyers launch the fight of their lives to uphold liberty and justice for all, we pray that these words from our tradition guide us together along the way:

Standing on the parted shores, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.

Lauren Levy, 3L, and Yuval Manor, 1L, are law students at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Lauren is the current President of the UF Jewish Law Students Association. Yuval Manor, an Israeli-American, is a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors.

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