A young woman experiences the fear her ancestors must have felt for the first time. Another wonders if she should even talk about Israel around her friends anymore. A third feels the urge to fight back against anti-Semitism, but isn’t sure how.
These are just a few ways that teenage girls participating in the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Rising Voices Fellowship said that their lives have been affected by the rise in anti-Semitism over the past several years.
Deadly attacks against Jews in Pittsburgh, Poway, Calif., Jersey City, N.J. and Monsey, N.Y. have dominated headlines during their high school years. But these young women haven’t given in to their fears.
Before the global coronavirus pandemic took hold, we asked the 18 fellows to answer our questions about how this new era of violence against Jews is affecting their generation. Nine of them responded, telling us about feeling inspired to share the beauty of Judaism, to show the world their Jewish pride and to fight against hate on behalf of Jews and other minorities. Below are excerpts.
What’s the worst anti-Semitism you’ve ever experienced?
One day in the fall of my freshman year, a boy whom I didn’t know very well was running up the steps. I didn’t pay him much mind. But as he passed me on the stairs, I distinctly heard him say, quite casually, actually, “Heil Hitler.”
I froze. It was the first time anyone had said those words to me. It caught me completely off guard. So I didn’t say anything. I continued to walk to class.
After school, I told my sister, and she said that that was awful, but that it wasn’t worth making a fuss about. But when told my parents, they said it was definitely something to bring to the administration. I went to the principal and told him what had happened.
He had me fill out an incident report, and I made clear to him that I didn’t want the boy who said those words to be punished. I just wanted him to learn the power those words had and the horror and generational trauma often triggered by those words for Jews and other groups.
Per my request, he was not punished. He did however send me an apology letter, which I still have.
I still think about it when I see him, but I also remember that people are good, and he learned from that experience. Better to learn his freshman year of high school than when he’s 64.
Eleanor Harris, 17, Edmond, Okla.
When I was in middle school, I heard a lot of anti-Semitic jokes, particularly relating to the Holocaust. In retrospect I don’t think these people were motivated by genuine anti-Semitism. I think they were pushing the boundaries to get a reaction or because they thought of the Nazis as more fascinating than monstrous. But that doesn’t negate the fact that they should take responsibility for their actions or that all people must be educated enough to understand why those actions cross the line.
As a young Jewish person, the worst part for me was the self-doubt it made me feel. I felt like I didn’t know who I could trust or be friends with. It felt like I had an obligation to fight against these jokes but I didn’t know how. It felt like I was being oversensitive in my trauma and relationship with the Holocaust since for other people it was clearly just a joke.
Ellanora Lerner, 17, New London, Conn.
In eighth grade I had the strongest, most painful, personal attack. After I left the lunch table, a girl — whom I thought was my friend — called me “too Jewish.” It wasn’t physically violent or threatening, but seldom have I felt more uncomfortable with my Jewish identity. I wasn’t scared. I was more angry. I won’t apologize for loving and living my proud Jewish life.
After this, I started to consider more carefully how often I bring up my Jewish identity, fearing that if I discuss it too much I’ll become just “the Jewish girl” and the rest of my identity will blur away.
Coming back from Israel I so often want to talk about my experiences, but every time before I say “When I was in Israel…” I fight the voice telling me not to.
Lilah Peck, 17, Charlotte, N.C.
Last summer, I did a homestay program in rural Bavaria where I lived with a host family. While spending mornings at the local school, we were taught about the history of the German people. While many time periods were discussed in great detail, the historical events of the 1930s and 1940s were not even mentioned. On the last day of lessons, we discussed the Holocaust, and the teacher showed us anti-Semitic books from the Nazi era where Jewish people were portrayed as having large noses.
This teacher then asked us to raise our hand if we were Jewish. While I was the only person to raise my hand, I felt isolated. Although the teacher said that she did not want to be offensive while teaching, I began to wonder if this teacher might have behaved differently if I had not raised my hand. Would she have uttered anti-Semitic comments?
Ilana Drake, 17, New York City
Have you ever had to explain anti-Semitism to non-Jews?
A non-Jew will never be able to understand the fear of anti-Semitism and the conflicting imperatives of celeberating and hiding a religious identity.
I explained to my friends anti-Semitism through the following story. My grandmother died and left my mother a valuable piece of jewelry. My mother, holding this necklace in her hands, looked into my eyes, her face bearing a somber expression I had never seen. She said, “never sell this, not because it is an heirloom, but because if we ever need to flee, this can fit into a jacket pocket.”
In that moment, I truly understood the threat I faced, the threat my family faced, the threat my people faced. The threat my non-Jewish classmates will never be able to understand.
Sometimes explaining anti-Semitism means explaining why it isn’t okay to make Holocaust jokes; other times it means opening their eyes to the Jewish stereotypes portrayed in the media; and still more times it means reminding them that hate crimes against Jewish people occur the most out of all religion-targeted hate crimes.
Sometimes, they empathize. I have friends who face discrimination based on their races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and other immutable characteristics, and those people can often relate to me. They struggle just as much as I do.
Others simply have no way to compare their privilege to my lack thereof. Yes, I explain, I am white-passing, and that brings its privileges. However, I don’t have the privilege to feel included with the rest of the school during Christmastime. I have to fight to ensure that my religious absences aren’t counted against my nine allowed absences per semester. When we learn about the Holocaust in school, the jokes are all around me. A lot of people don’t get it. But at least most of them try.
I’ve had this experience many times, and the non-Jews have fortunately been incredibly receptive to my history lesson. It is sometimes difficult for me to share this history and this current oppression because I know that any empathy I receive from my non-Jewish friends comes from a place of not sharing my history. But history has oppressed us all; we must listen to these diverse stories if we hope to achieve collective redemption and protection for all marginalized peoples.
Madeline Canfield, 18, Houston, Texas
How has the recent rise in anti-Semitism affected you?
The recent rise in anti-Semitism makes my blood boil. When I hear a joke at school, I pounce. On the other hand, the rise in anti-Semitism has exhausted me. When I see another cemetery vandalization in Europe, sometimes I don’t even repost the news story. I can’t stand up every time. It’s getting too hard. But I know how important it is to speak out, and I do when I can. It’s been the norm for almost half my life. How can we fix it?
The rise in anti-Semitism has reminded me that we cannot afford to not prioritize our Jewishness. As Jews, we must fight for equity for all people, but the hatred and danger we have faced in both our history and our present means that we too must be fought for. And often, we are the only people who will fight for ourselves.
Whenever we have Jewish events or gatherings, I feel like there’s a target on my head. In this new wave of anti-Semitism, I am able to truly feel the fear of my ancestors. Maybe not to the same extent, but on a level that is enough for me to feel afraid every week on Shabbat as I pray.
Neima Fax, 18, Los Angeles, Calif.
The recent rise in anti-Semitism has made me think more about how Reform and Conservative Jews are able to pretend that the anti-Semitism is not directed at them. Because we do not “look” Jewish and may not even belong to synagogue, we have a tendency to delude ourselves that anti-Semitism is directed only to our ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters. A threat to the Jewish community, no matter which sect, is a threat to everyone.
Last year I participated in a summer program with an extremely diverse group of girls. On the first day, a few girls noticed that the lunch I was eating was different from theirs, since it was kosher, and they asked me about my food.
I hesitated. In the end, I decided to explain that my food was kosher, instead of just vaguely saying that I had a dietary restriction. I explained that I was Jewish, and answered questions about kashrut and about what keeping kosher means to me.
But I still remember my initial hesitation. I didn’t want to admit that I was Jewish because I didn’t know if I would be judged for it.
Ellie Klibaner-Schiff, 17, Newton, Mass.
While I am still thrown off every time I enter a synagogue and a police officer greets me or pats me down, I am no longer surprised. The threats and attacks though should not have had to come to my backyard to draw me into the issue, but now that they have arrived, I am more conscious of my Jewish identity than I have ever been.
That said, as the Jewish people face increasing discrimination, we can not forget about other marginalized communities. When others rush to our aid, it is a reminder that we can not leave their side and abandon our commitment to allyship and social justice.
Mica Maltzman, 18, Bethesda, Md.
What do you think should be done about the rise in anti-Semitism?
Much of today’s anti-Semitism stems from negative views of Israel. For some people, all they know about Jewish people is their association with Israel and in turn — depending on their views of Israel — they might have a negative view of the Jewish people.
What I think we can do as individuals is be proud Jews in all of our endeavors. Spread your message of tikkun olam, be kind to the people around you, and tell people you are Jewish. That matters. You might be the one Jew someone knows, and the rest of the Jewish people are relying on you to show that person that we are a nation of good deeds. Sometimes, it is all we can do to feel safe. Individual interactions matter.
I believe anti-Semitism is rising because of the increased presence of right-wing conservatism and white supremacy in this country. Events like the 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville have emboldened average people to explore their capacities to gain attention and power through racism and xenophobia.
Anti-Semitism exists and thrives in American culture, and it takes active effort to dispel rumors and defend Jewish people. To achieve any kind of solution to this problem, action is required from more than just Jews; allies and friends of our community must stand up as well and be able to recognize anti-Semitic rhetoric and know how to put a stop to it.
Lila Goldstein, 17, Wellington, Fla.
I have always believed very strongly in the power of education. There must be better understanding of the Holocaust, Jewish history, and Jewish culture and identity within both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
There must also be better understanding and better education around Israel. The conversation around Israel has become hyper-binary and the majority of people don’t understand or attempt to understand the nuance of the issues.
I think that hate in general stems from fear. But in the last few years, the rise in hateful crimes can be partly blamed on the current president of the United States. I think that his hateful speech towards minorities and women have validated people who otherwise would be too afraid to act on their hate. If the leader of the country seems to think it’s okay, then isn’t it?
I think what we can do is to show people our pain and show them how beautiful Judaism really is and we have to give second chances. Because people don’t shift their mindsets from hate to love by rotting in a prison cell. Instead, we must show them how much it hurts, we must connect with them and their own painful experiences, we must try to create an understanding between us that transcends hate and creates a bridge of love.