As we lined up backstage this morning at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” summit, historian Deborah Lipstadt remarked that she never thought we’d be here.
Not here speaking about anti-Semitism before a large audience of concerned citizens. If I wade into the topic with some regularity, Deborah — author of a soon-to-be released book on the subject — swims in it day and night.
No, I interpreted her rueful sigh as marking something much more profound.
The first time I spoke at this annual summit in 2016, it was nine days after the election of Donald Trump as president, culminating a presidential campaign uglier and more divisive than any in recent memory, including a surge in anti-Semitic harassment against Jewish journalists and many others. But there was still a hope that somehow the hatred unleashed during the campaign would subside, tucked away far from polite company and political power.
Now we are here. Days after an ultra-Orthodox Jews was punched in the head on the streets of Brooklyn. Less than a week after schools in Summit, New Jersey were defaced with hateful graffiti and when the office of a Columbia University professor was spray-painted with swastikas.
And just over a month since the massacre in Pittsburgh.
It feels different now because it is different now. Discussion of anti-Semitism is now the default topic in many Jewish public events. Last week, I moderated a conversation about religious life in the modern world with Rabbi Shai Held and Rabbi David Ellenson; in preparing for the program, we wondered aloud whether we should also talk about anti-Semitism. It is not a specialty of either of these brilliant men, and so I didn’t bring it up, but I was struck by the very fact that it seemed obligatory for us to even consider.
I have a few fresh thoughts, and am eager to hear from you, too.
The first is to acknowledge that this surge is motivated by many reasons, not just the one that fits into our political ideology. Yes, it is driven by those associated with the alt-right, who feel emboldened by the Trump presidency and the ascension of far-right political leaders around the world.
But it is also driven by those on the far left who refuse to stand up to bigotry in their ranks.
Some of this may be random street crime, that seems more unusual now because in many of the big cities where Jews reside in this country — notably New York City — overall crime is at record lows.
Some may be driven by the kind of social media that didn’t exist a decade or two ago (and which needs to be policed much more carefully than it is now.)
Second, if there are a variety of causes, we need a variety of responses. To me, the Pittsburgh massacre is just one more data point in the list of thousands of reasons why this country needs to figure out how to keep guns away from unstable people. The fracas over whether some of the leaders of the Women’s March are anti-Semitic requires another response entirely. So do the worrying attacks on highly identifiable Orthodox Jews.
But I’d also like to underscore what Deborah wrote in a beautiful piece for us after Pittsburgh and reiterated again this morning. We can’t let this define us. We can’t allow ourselves to be defined as Jews just because of what is done to us.
Then we lose. And let’s be honest: The role of victim is oftentimes a comfortable one for us, historically sound, psychologically tempting. If all the world is going to hate us anyhow, then we may not have to grapple with all the wondrous but complicated aspects about being Jewish in the modern world.
Anti-Semitism is real and dangerous and deserving of serious attention. But let’s remember to talk about something else, too.
What else I’ve been writing (and saying.) The passing on Friday evening of George H.W. Bush allowed me to share this story about how the former president consoled me after my father’s death.
After my piece was published, I received a lovely note from Jean Becker, Bush’s chief of staff, who was in the room when he died. Writing her again after so many years reminded me not only of the grace with which he operated, but his sense of humor. The domain name on emails from the official Bush staff is flfw.com: Former Leader of the Free World.
To commemorate the shloshim, the month after the Pittsburgh massacre, we published my essay from our December magazine. I do believe that day will mark a turning point in the way America regards its Jews and the way we Jews regard ourselves.
And this morning, I was once again a guest on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show to talk about, yes, anti-Semitism and Hanukkah. If you missed our lively discussion, you can tune in here.
What else I’ve been reading. Gali Cooks, president and CEO of Leading Edge, which trains and advocates for excellent leadership in Jewish not-for-profits, wrote about the latest results from an extensive employee survey and they are sobering. Gender inequity is perceived and quantifiable in the Jewish communal world.
Yes, the glass ceiling does exist. And it’s not just up to women to break it open.
One mother against gun violence starts a movement. Two years ago, we published this inspiring story about Tamar Manasseh, an African American Jewish woman living in Chicago’s South Side, who took a bold step to confront the gun violence that was destroying lives in her neighborhood. She rallied a few friends to set up lawn chairs on a dangerous corner, and hang out there every night for hours. Thus was Mothers Against Senseless Killings — MASK — born.
Brad Rothschild, a documentary filmmaker in New York, read the Forward story and knew immediately that he had to make a film about Tamar. In the course of filming “They Ain’t Ready for Me” Tamar and Brad have struck up a deep friendship. I had the pleasure of hearing them speak after Shabbat dinner at my synagogue. Want to see how one unusual Jew tries to change the world? Follow Tamar’s story.
Looking forward. The Forward gala is now just two days away! There is still time to donate in honor of all the fearless women in your life.
Next weekend, I’ll be participating in the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto, California and will have to take a week off from writing this newsletter. Jane Looking Forward will return on December 17.
May your Hanukkah be filled with light and joy.
This column is part of the weekly Jane Looking Forward series. If you would like to receive it in your inbox, here’s the link to sign-up. And, remember to email me at JaneEisnerEIC@forward.com. with your questions and concerns. Thank you!
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.