Taekman: A shout amidst a quiet return

Sarah Taekman, Staff Columnist

When I was in my senior year of high school, a Holocaust survivor came into our classroom and told us about her experience.

She didn’t look her 90 plus years: she walked unassisted, her hair was white but well-kept and she still had a sharp tongue. She had aged wonderfully, especially considering she had spent three years hiding in a doctor’s sunless basement with her family on the border of Poland.

Her story left most of us with dry mouths—it’s incredibly hard to imagine such a cramped, fearful existence. But she had done it, and she had survived and was incredibly honest as she answered our many questions about religion, the buildup and the aftermath.

Toward the end of the class, she scooped her bag into her lap and pulled out a folder filled with newspaper clippings. She slid her glasses onto her face, cleared her throat and announced:

“Anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide. And it’s coming here, too.”

Hate crimes all across Europe. Politicians spewing anti-Semitic propaganda and winning elections. Shootings, brawls and swastikas. All prevalent across the sea, and according to her, soon to be prevalent in America, too.

And based on the past two years, her prediction was correct. With the rise of the alt-right and other outspoken neo-Nazi groups, American hate crimes against Jews seem to be more frequent than ever. The recent Pittsburgh shooting has brought anti-Semitism to the forefront of the public eye. We’d seen graffiti and hate speech before this, but this was the first mass shooting we’d noticed.  

There has been a lot of support from the general public: a lot of prayers, a lot of promises. It’s been wonderful to see everyone come together to denounce such a hateful act and pledge to stand with the Jewish community. It’s easy to pin all of our concerns onto the violent anti-Semites. We can pretend that this is a new problem, and they’re just outliers.

But anti-Semitism isn’t just now coming to America. We’ve been cultivating it here for years. It’s ingrained in how we speak and act.

When you’re raised Jewish, you very slowly become aware of the subtle anti-Semitism around you. It’s not quite as blatant as the xenophobia expressed towards other minorities.

In fifth grade, I went to my Jewish weekend school and we had a discussion about anti-Semitic sentiments we had experienced in our day-to-day lives. Everyone had experienced at least one.

Holocaust and nose jokes, being called greedy, laughing at our diets and our traditions. The list went on. This behavior hadn’t even seemed like something strange to me until our teachers pointed it out—it was just a part of everyday life. They weren’t outright death threats, but still: we were 10 years old, and we already knew we were different. And I haven’t ever really stopped feeling that way, ever since that discussion.

It’s easy to put qualifiers on our own bigotry: “It’s not like I shot up a synagogue, so I can’t be an anti-Semite. I have Jewish friends. I’m not drawing swastikas in the bathrooms.” We do this for all marginalized groups. We aren’t the extremists, so we’re not part of the problem.

But why do you think extremists feel comfortable enough to act out?

Our words have meaning. Offhanded jokes about the Holocaust, casual statements about being a “dirty Jew” and implications of stinginess have all been normalized in our everyday lives. Because there are no societal repercussions for such language, the overall implication is that it’s okay to hate Jewish people verbally. Hating Jewish people physically follows soon after.

How often have we scrolled by something ignorant online? How often have we awkwardly laughed at something bigoted someone said for the sake of avoiding conflict?

If you want any sort of progress, you have to take action. And luckily, action isn’t hard to take. Tell people off when they casually use hateful language. Create repercussions for bigotry. Let people know that no, it’s not okay, and no, you’re not going to let this one go. Anti-Semitism can sometimes seem like a relic of a part of history that people would rather forget. But anti-Semitism has been prevalent for the entirety of Judaism’s existence, and it certainly has not ended in 2018.

Following the events in Pittsburgh, I thought about that little old lady for the first time in three years. I thought how she warned us, and how far away all those newspaper clippings seemed at the time. But she was both right and wrong: anti-Semitism isn’t re-emerging, it’s already here. It’s always been here, under the surface.

Now it’s up to us all to cut it off at the source.

Sarah Taekman is a third-year student majoring in origins sciences.