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Normalizing Cultural Anti-Semitism

Instinctual fear jolted through me when, while waiting at a Chicago bus stop, I happened to glance at the elementary school and find a trio of kids staring back, giving a Nazi salute. They were only 6 or 7 years old, so after the initial dread passed I realized that there was no way they knew I was Jewish and that they almost certainly had no idea what it meant.

Although there’s no proof that this would not have happened a year ago, it certainly seemed to fit into the rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents – whether malicious or unintentional – that have made headlines in recent weeks.

Indeed, there have been many important discussions, including in the Forward, about the dangers of normalizing political anti-Semitism. I myself wrote about how this normalization may lead the Republican Party back to its days of open Jew-hatred.

But my experience at the bus stop was a symptom of a slightly different problem – the normalization of cultural Nazism and anti-Semitism more broadly. After all, the children in primary school right now – whether first or twelfth grade – are likely spending much more of their time engaging with cultural than political media.

As the old cliché goes, the children of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and if those leaders are raised in a world that tolerates or even encourages anti-Semitism, if they grow up seeing Nazi salutes accepted or glorified in popular media, then the world of tomorrow will be much scarier for Jews.

I’m reflecting on this in light of the news that YouTube’s biggest star, PewDiePie, who has billions of views and a record 53 million subscribers, has found himself in hot water after a string of anti-Semitic incidents. These included paying a pair of men to dance around with a sign saying “Death To All Jews,” giving the Nazi Salute, and incorporating Hitler voiceovers into his videos.

PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, has since defended himself, arguing that these instances – the Wall Street Journal found nine since August 2016 – were always jokes, and not representative of any actual Nazi views. In response, neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer wrote that “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter [whether Kjellberg is truly sympathetic to Nazis], since the effect is the same. It normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.”

This is true, and it is especially worrying that a large core of Kjellberg’s viewers are children and young adults. The message that all of this sends to Kjellberg’s young audience is that Nazi imagery, and thus ideology, is not just acceptable but actually humorous. The YouTube star still maintains that his behavior wasn’t deserving of the backlash he has faced – he apologized to those genuinely offended but also put out a defensive video in which, once again, he gives a Nazi salute.

The realm of cultural media, and particularly that oriented at young people, ought to be the focus of Jews and allies concerned about Nazism and anti-Semitism. This is not to say that we should embark on any form of censorial or book-burning campaign, but rather that we must be vigilant and strenuous in our assertions that Jew-hatred is not acceptable discourse.

Moreover, we must look out for ways in which anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are perpetrated more inadvertently. Holocaust Historian Deborah Lipstadt has criticized the Trump administration for engaging in what she terms “softcore Holocaust denial.” But just as dangerous to Jews is the way that the Holocaust is regularly disrespected and denied in a variety of cultural media.

One recent case made headlines when writer Shahak Shapira put together “Yolocaust,” a website critiquing millennials’ disrespect of Holocaust memorials. From selfies to Pokemon GO, the youngest generations have violated the important solemnity and respect for the victims of the Holocaust that have prevailed for the past 70 years.

More insidious is the way in which, for example, acclaimed young adult author John Green has de-Judaized and disrespected the Holocaust. The Fault in Our Stars, a New York Times bestseller with over 1 million copies in print as of 2013 and a blockbuster film adaptation, has been at the center of controversial debates within the Jewish community for years.

These arguments revolve around Green’s use – and, many argue, exploitation – of Anne Frank and the Anne Frank House as a symbol and “sacred space for doomed people who are nonetheless still alive, and still full of desire,” in Green’s own words.

Even if we put aside the fact that Green once said that Frank “just died of illness like most people” while ignoring the conditions of the concentration camp she died in, and the fact that as recently as July 2016 Green had a joke about having “hot hot sex” in the Anne Frank House, his continual de-Judaizing of Anne Frank and the Holocaust will have a sincere impact on the millions of kids who read his book. Now, unlike Kjellberg, Green hasn’t intentionally engaged in the perpetration of Nazi imagery, but his oversized presence in the lives and minds of young adults means that he, like other young adult authors and YouTube stars, deserves our scrutiny.

Nazism and anti-Semitism have a way of infiltrating political and cultural discourse, particularly in times like these, and it will take every resource the Jewish community can muster to draw the line at these dreadful ideologies.

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