I’ve been thinking about the complexities of the rise in antisemitism for a while, and the Brooklyn attacks, which happened while I was there, jogged me into writing this note.
I just returned home to the Pacific Northwest from a five-week stay in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn—an area with a visible Orthodox Jewish majority. Most of the women wear wigs, the women and girls wear long skirts with black tights, most of the men have prayer shawls whose fringes show under their jacket, and almost every male, even very young boys, wears a yarmulke. There are multiple small Jewish delis, bakeries, and specialized hat stores, and the Dunkin Donuts store, as well as the Caribbean and Chinese restaurants, have a sign on their front window that states “Yes we are kosher.” Synagogues, yeshivas, Jewish pre-schools and community centers are on every block. As I took my daily walks, I saw many more menorahs in the house windows than Christmas trees and decorations.
This neighborhood is home and cultural haven to these Ashkenazi Jewish American families, I thought to myself, not unlike Dearborn, which is home and cultural haven to the Michigan Arab American community, and where Arabic language, but also Arabic culture, are taught in the public school system, and reinforced in extra-curricular Saturday and Sunday school. And while I must say that I bristled at the Israeli flags flying on some of the Brooklyn porches, I also appreciated the fact that a once ostracized, literally ghettoized community, could openly go about its lifestyle with no pressure to assimilate into the greater New York City or “American” way.
Then I heard about the December 11 attack on the Kosher market in Jersey City, just across the river. A hate crime against Jews. The next day, there was another attack on a Jewish man in Manhattan. This was followed by yet more attacks on Jews in Crown Heights, and Gravesend. These were not random attacks on individuals who happened to be Jewish, as all the attacks were accompanied by anti-Jewish slurs. All the way across the country, an Iranian Jewish synagogue was vandalized in East Los Angeles. And on December 27, an orthodox Jewish woman was also punched, in Brooklyn, as her young boy was ripped away from her and thrown to the ground. In fact, there has been an antisemitic attack in New York and New Jersey every day of this Hanukkah season.
Yes, antisemitism is on the rise, and while we can and do blame the Trump Administration for condoning, when it does not openly embrace, white supremacy, the fact is, these hate crimes were not all committed by white supremacists. In some cases, the alleged perpetrators were people of color, emboldened by the energized antisemitic discourse in the country, since Trump’s presidency. And since it must be said, I am also extremely disturbed by the many accusations lobbed at some undefined “progressive left” that is supposedly behind the attacks, just because many are committed by people of color. When people of color commit homophobic or transphobic or Islamophobic crimes, the perpetrators are not considered the “progressive left.” The recent attacks on Jews are hate crimes, and “the progressive left” does not engage in hate crimes. There are gray areas everywhere, you know.
Also while in New York, I attended a staged reading of a play about the death penalty, and the criminal (in)justice system, one of the most racist institutions in this country. The weather was frigid, and as I stood in line outside the closed theatre doors, I commented on the fact that I would love to eat (but mostly, get out of the cold) at the vegan restaurant right next door, except that I could not patronize any establishment that serves what it calls “Israeli salad,” and “Israeli falafel.” The man in line next to me, with whom I had started a conversation about the death penalty, accused me of antisemitism, lecturing me on my racism until the theatre doors finally opened, sparing me his caricature-like interruptions of my arguments with “but Hamas…” That mansplainer had somehow fully bought into the misguided argument that any and all criticism of Israel is antisemitism. And that, if it were not for Hamas, Israel would not be violating the human rights of the Palestinian people. My attempts to explain chronology, history, international law, the Nakba happening in 1948, and the Naksa in 1967, whereas Hamas was not founded until after the first Intifada, in 1987, could not pass through his “but Hamas…” shield. Like me, he would not abide antisemitism, but unlike me, he could not distinguish between Zionism and Judaism, between anti-Zionism, and antisemitism.
The United States is as disunited today as it has ever been in its entire troubled history. And for that, whoever the actual perpetrator of the crimes, I blame an administration that foments callousness, hatred, and violence, as it empowers white supremacy and buoys Zionism. And I do not for a second trust that this administration, with its cynical attempts to weaponize antisemitism by criminalizing BDS, will adequately address the waves of hatred sweeping the country.
I am a full-fledged atheist–beyond “secular” and “agnostic.” But I would like to think that, if there was a visible marker of my atheism, I’d feel safe wearing it, just as Jews should feel safe wearing their religious markers, and Muslims theirs. I know many hijabi women, and hate to think that their scarf will designate them as targets in 2020, as it had done after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when a wounded American people lashed out at those perceived as “others.”
More than ever before, as hatred sweeps this country, we must be the ones who protect each other. More than ever before, the alliances we have formed over the past years, intersectional alliances across communities and issues, are critical ramparts against attacks today. I will not support the politics of people who would deny anyone their human rights, but unless your religious beliefs trespass on my rights, I will support you as you practice your spirituality, and celebrate your culture.
And I do hope my next president is the Jewish candidate from Brooklyn—Midwood, actually.