I had lunch with a former colleague several weeks ago, before the horrific Chanukah assault in Monsey, N.Y, which left five Chasidic Jews injured, one critically. She asked if I could foresee another Hitler arising in the U.S.
I answered that despite the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks, there were a vastly different set of circumstances in the Germany of 1933 that gave Hitler a plurality in the Reichstag and our country. Germany’s previous government, the Weimar Republic, only lasted about a dozen years and was hobbled by hyper-inflation, the Great Depression, and internal dissension within its governing coalition, paving the way for Hitler.
The United States, however, has a democratic tradition spanning several centuries, with a Bill of Rights established to protect religious minorities and freedom of speech. I recall visiting the Touro synagogue in Newport, R.I., where George Washington once addressed the congregation and reinforced the freedom of worship for the Jewish people, and Congregation Mikvah Israel in Savannah, Ga., which proudly displays a letter our first president wrote to the synagogue with similar assurances.
Despite the horrible legacy of slavery, I believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And the social progress in our country over the past half century has been staggering, from a low-point of the discrimination of Jews as exemplified in “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1947, to the social-economic and cultural esteem accorded to our people today. Staying with the use of movies as a barometer, last year’s Best Picture winner, “Green Book,” inspired by a true story, portrays a world-class black pianist in 1962 who was consigned to segregated and inferior hotels. Yet in the last dozen years a largely white electorate voted to put an African American in the White House — twice.
This is not to be Pollyannish, and I acknowledge our fractured society with all its flaws. But we must understand the larger context. By and large, Americans are good people, moderate in their views, and the most philanthropic in the world, and the United States is perennially ranked among the least anti-Semitic countries according to the ADL’s Anti-Semitism Index. Moreover, it’s heartening to witness the support of so many religious groups in their support of the Jewish community during this horrific increase in violence.
And yet, attacks like these have been occurring with such frequency of late that we are in danger of such acts becoming normalized. Recent incidents in Europe, like the 2015 shooting inside a Parisian kosher grocery store that left four people dead, have led to further anxiety, to the point that last year a government minister in Germany warned Jews not to wear kippot in public. Similar apprehensions — characterized by Deborah Lipstadt in The Atlantic as Jews going “underground” like the “Marranos” of Spain — are finding their ways to our shores. In a recent survey, the American Jewish Committee found that 31 percent of Jews hide signs of their Jewishness, and 25 percent avoid Jewish sites.
These results are understandable, but hiding who we are, although at times prudent, avoids, rather than solves, the problem. Paraphrasing the character of Howard Beale in the 1976 film “Network,” Jews should be “mad as hell” and decide we’re “not going to take this anymore!”
Here are some actions we should consider, as individuals and as a community:
• Lobby for greater funding for security and training grants to better protect our Jewish institutions and synagogues;
• Work with law enforcement to train volunteers to respond to attacks in real time, and organize patrols in predominately Jewish residential and commercial areas to report any suspicious activities and to serve as a deterrent;
• Advocate for banning hateful material on the internet — that is, incendiary messages that propel marginalized individuals into a frenzy of potential violence and spread the virus of anti-Semitism globally in nano-seconds;
• As Mitchell D. Silber wrote in a Dec. 31 op-ed in The New York Times that almost two-thirds of the recent anti-Semitic attacks in New York City were committed by juveniles who are local residents, he recommended there should be supervised community service for these youths that include an educational component emphasizing tolerance for other groups;
• Enact a zero-tolerance policy for all acts of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, no matter the source, which is to say that we must resist the temptation to use anti-Semitism as a cudgel only against our political opponents (An aside: I was speaking with a concerned Jew about the attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, which he blamed on Pres. Donald Trump’s infamous “very fine people” remark about the Charlottesville, Va., protesters. Though Trump’s comment may very well have heartened white nationalists, I explained to the man, the perpetrators in these recent incidents were black nationalists);
• Organize and attend rallies against anti-Semitism and hate, such as the ones in Manhattan and Livingston this past Sunday, and build coalitions with like-minded groups;
• Develop interfaith efforts to foster mutual understanding of our commonalities and respect for our differences, and local Community Relations Committees and synagogues should develop speakers’ bureaus to help educate other faiths about Judaism and Israel, actions that should be reciprocated by churches and mosques;
• Advocate for an enriched civics curriculum teaching the next generation about our cherished democracy that includes respect for religious and ethnic diversity.
On that last action item, we must redouble our efforts to teach students what hatred can sow. Shockingly, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 22 percent of millennials said they hadn’t heard of or weren’t sure if they had heard of the Holocaust, and 66 percent didn’t know what Auschwitz was.
Even though the recent violence against Jews isn’t even remotely close to the anti-Semitic levels of 1930s Nazi Germany, it’s still the worst I’ve ever witnessed in the United States. But neither going “underground” by hiding our Jewishness nor being a bystander will fix the problem.
In the midst of this crisis I’m reminded of the words Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed at the 1936 Democratic convention: “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” So do we. Let’s make sure we fulfill it.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.