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The most antisemitic thing that ever happened to me (and to you)

This is an adaptation of Looking Forward, a weekly email from our editor-in-chief sent on Friday afternoons. Sign up here to get the Forward’s free newsletters delivered to your inbox. And click here for a PDF of stories to savor over Shabbat and Sunday that you can download and print.

It happened at Traquair House, the oldest continually occupied residence in Scotland, of all places, almost exactly three years ago. I had spent the weekend at this bucolic castle for the eighth annual “Beyond Borders” conference, one of a few dozen speakers on foreign policy, human rights, art and culture. The closing dinner, for staff and special guests, was an Indian buffet followed by a dance party with a 1980s cover band.

It was one of those buffets where each table was called up at a certain time, but a few of my table-mates were ravenous and suggested we not wait our turn. As we lined up for curry and samosas, a white-haired British barrister who was also on the speaker roster came up to me and said, “I should have known you’d be the one to cut the line.”

“Why,” I asked, trying to match his sassy tone. “Because I’m from New York?”

“No,” he said. “Because you’re Jewish.”

I was flabbergasted. How did he even know I was Jewish? I did not work for the Forward then, and was there talking about photojournalism around the globe, not my time covering Israel. Was it because I have a big nose? Talk too loud? Eat too much? I did not even know which stereotype I was being slammed with, but I felt like a truck had hit me.

Antisemitic graffiti covers Hebrew text.

Courtesy of Getty

I did not let it stand. I told him that what he had said was offensive. He said it wasn’t, because he had been married to a Jewish woman and had Jewish children. I got my food and returned to the table, but could not let it go. I asked how he even knew I was Jewish, and he said something about how he could just tell, because he knew a lot of Jews.

I told him that was offensive. He mentioned something about having lived in Israel, or known Israeli Jews, trying to do that “some of my best friends are…” thing. I kept arguing, he kept firing back. He got more and more obnoxious — it turned out he was quite drunk despite the early-evening hour — and I felt worse and worse.

The host of the conference made the barrister leave, and apologized sincerely. But the sting stuck with me for days — in some ways, for three years and counting. I realized this was the most antisemitic thing that had happened to me in my then-47 years. I also realized: it was really not that bad.

Not, certainly, compared to the beatings visibly Orthodox Jews suffer on New York subways and streets. Not, obviously, compared to the fatal shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City or the Hanukkah party in Monsey. Not to mention the systematic death, destruction of property, denial of dignity and forced exile that our enemies rained on generations of our ancestors.

It was laughably minor compared to the systematic and structural racism people of color continue to struggle through in this country today. What a privilege it was to be stung by the petty presumptions of a belligerent barrister! I have never lost a job or been denied admission to a school because of my identity, never been smacked or suspected of a crime, never been redlined out of a neighborhood, denied a credit card, stopped at a checkpoint, frisked in an airport, excluded from a club, questioned about my rightful place in America (or Israel), never even been subjected to negative preconceptions about my intelligence, articulateness, strength or savvy.

To be an American Jew in the 21st century is undoubtedly an unparalleled blessing. And yet: antisemitism is real. Both the New York and Los Angeles police departments recently reported a rise in antisemitic hate crimes, many of them rooted in backlash around the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza this spring.

Surveys of American Jews reveal heightened fear of going into Jewish spaces, wearing Jewish symbols. Three-quarters of American Jews think there is more antisemitism in the U.S. today than five years ago, according to the Pew Research study, and more than half feel less safe.

Today, President Biden is naming Deborah Lipstadt as his special envoy on antisemitism. The post has been elevated to ambassador level and the office’s budget increased to $1 million a year. It has also become a surprising lightning rod among Jewish groups on the Zionist right and the Israel-critical left.

Fear of antisemitism may be the single thing that unites Jews across geography, politics, religious observance, age, race, sexuality and experience. But defining antisemitism — how it relates to criticism of Israel, how it relates to white-nationalism and racism, how to draw the appropriate boundaries between free speech and protecting people from discrimination — has, unfortunately, become another litmus test dividing us.

Lipstadt has long been a friend of the Forward, a member of our governing Forward Association, and a contributing columnist. She has been a great supporter of mine, too, and a helpful sounding board. Her knowledge of the history of this plague is unparalleled, and I have admired her fortitude since watching the 2016 film “Denial” about her successful fight against a libel lawsuit by a Holocaust denier. She is a straight talker less concerned about political points than about truth and humanity.

The White House has asked her not to do any interviews until the Senate confirmation process is complete, but she’s said she’s game for a Zoom event with me once she is in office. Back in February, when our staff reporter Arno Rosenfeld was writing an assessment of President Trump’s antisemitism envoy, she said there were two key things for the next occupier of the role to keep in mind.

“A) to take the issue seriously, which I think this administration is clearly inclined to do, and B) to ensure that the issue is not weaponized — and that means as a political cudgel — because that won’t serve the fight against antisemitism at all,” she said. “That we fight antisemitism and not engage in politics.”

Your Turn: Antisemitism

What’s the most antisemitic thing that ever happened to you? Have you been physically attacked or verbally taunted? Had a swastika painted on your shul or college dorm? Called a name? Harassed on social media? Denied access to anything — or just suspected you were being judged unfairly?

I want to hear from you. We can learn a lot from these collective anecdotes — what happened, how they made us feel in the moment and long after. I’m especially interested in how this plays out across generations, from Holocaust survivors to today’s teenagers. So it’s a great time to share this column with friends, neighbors, colleagues, grandkids. And please urge them to sign up here to get it delivered to their inbox every Friday.

Share you story by emailing [email protected] with the subject “The most antisemitic thing that ever happened to me.”

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