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Our Obsession With The Holocaust Made Us Blind To American Anti-Semitism

The historian Pamela Nadell made a fascinating point in an opinion piece in last week’s Washington Post: By focusing on the Holocaust, she argues, Americans have overlooked centuries of anti-Semitism on our own shores.

“This focus on the Holocaust gets Americans off the hook. Anti-Semitism is something that happened over there, in Europe — an Old World problem, not an American, New World problem,” Nadell writes.

“But anti-Semitism is an American problem. Its history is not simply about offensive tropes but also policies, attitudes and actions that have resulted in discrimination and violence. It is this history, which is rarely conveyed in classrooms or monuments, that we need to confront as a nation.”

And I’ll be honest here: We need to confront it as Jews, too.

It’s one thing for ordinary Americans to be ignorant of the stubborn hatred against Jews that has gnawed at us for centuries. After all, other groups — notably African Americans — have suffered much worse and their suffering has largely been unexamined. We are not a nation accustomed to introspection and deep atonement.

It’s another thing for Jews to be blinded by this, too; we are an introspective, atoning people. Yet many Jews, certainly of my generation and younger, have come of age during a time of sharply declining anti-Semitism that we believed would only continue to diminish. And that’s not true anymore.

Unquestionably, one reason we don’t focus on American anti-Semitism is because of our Holocaust obsession. If Americans remain largely unaware of the details of the destruction of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis — and polls show that to be the case — that can’t be said of most American Jews. We commemorate, we teach, we ritualize the death of the six million in our schools, synagogues, community centers and the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. There are nearly 60 Holocaust museums and memorials spread across the country. I’m sure that there are Jews behind most, if not all, of them.

As there should be. The Holocaust was not just another genocide, as awful as that would be. The Nazis used the tools of the modern state and the latest technology not only to slaughter, but to eradicate an entire people based not on their faith or politics or opinions but simply because of who they were.

Whatever has happened in America — including a massacre like the one last October in a Pittsburgh synagogue — is going to pale in comparison. Even as I write that phrase, it seems obscene. There can be no comparison.

Still, that’s no reason not to recognize that Jews were made unwelcome from the earliest days that Europeans settled this land. Gov. Peter Stuyvesant of the Dutch colony that became New York — whose name today graces a super-competitive public high school filled, I’m sure, with Jewish students — wanted to eject the first Jews who arrived here, calling them “a deceitful race.” Fortunately, Stuyvesant lost that battle.

But during the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant did expel “Jews as a class” from his military district, until President Lincoln intervened.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, the tide of anti-Semitism ebbed and flowed, sometimes camouflaged within anti-immigration nativism, or anti-Communist ideology, or anti-capitalist activism. This nation’s unwillingness to take in desperate Jews fleeing Nazi Europe will forever remain a stain on our character. Quieter but still insidious was the social, economic and educational discrimination many Jews experienced that barred them from jobs, housing, political leadership and broader acceptance.

The story in our family is that my father — a brilliant man who graduated first in his class from a large New York City public high school — could not get into medical school because of restrictive quotas on the number of Jews. As a child, I was aware that Jews changed their names, adjusted their noses and downplayed their heritage to fit in to American culture. Criticism of Israel sometimes veered into anti-Semitism. Occasionally I would hear a nasty comment or two.

But the truth is, I never felt discriminated against, singled out or held back because of who I was. And I am certain that is true for my children. Anti-Semitism seemed to be a thing of the past, an anxiety of the slightly paranoid. In the last half-century, Jews have become so accepted into American society that the establishment soon had to worry about a new set of issues: intermarriage and assimilation.

Until, that is, the ugliness of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism on social media and then in mainstream rhetoric. I was targeted as a Jew for the first time in my life. Now even the Democratic Party, the political home of Jews for nearly a century, can’t bring itself to denounce anti-Semitism as a unique and detestable scourge.

The promise of progressivism — that America would progress to a better, more equitable, more tolerant society — remains alive and relevant. The outpouring of support after the Pittsburgh massacre proves that Americans still believe that Jews belong here, fully and safely. That alone is what makes this country different from Nazi Germany then, and too many nations in Europe and the Middle East today.

But I am beginning to think that my experiences and those of my children may have been an aberration, an usually quiet moment in a thrumming history in which genuine hatred is concealed just beneath the surface. Maybe America isn’t all that we thought it was. African Americans surely know this. Maybe I am just coming late and reluctantly to that realization.

Jane Eisner is the Forward’s writer-at-large and the Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. Contact her at [email protected].

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