I’m not one of those Jews who focus on anti-Semitism. I’ve always figured most people who aren’t Jewish have better things to do than to ask themselves how they feel about Jews: they probably don’t think about us much one way or the other. I mean, they think about individual Jews when they happen to make a Jewish friend, have a Jewish colleague, or whatever. But, according to my usual thinking, they don’t often step back and generalize from that — and if they do, it’s usually just casual ideas that aren’t entrenched, and could be overturned at any time. Something along the lines of “Hmm, my Jewish friends mostly seem to be super-liberal politically; wonder if that’s a Jewish tendency”: a fleeting thought that doesn’t affect them much, or influence their feelings about individual Jews when they meet and get to know them.
Of course I know that anti-Semitism has raged throughout history: anyone who spends more than a few sessions in any synagogue’s religious school will get that message very clearly. And it’s not just passive hatred; the group I hail from has been expelled, murdered, burned, taunted, and tortured in many locales, throughout many generations. So how have I squared that knowledge with my de-emphasis on non-Jews’ thoughts about Jews? I’m honestly having trouble coming up with concrete explanations. My knowledge of anti-Semitism’s history and my tendency to assume it won’t gravely affect me or the Jews in my life are both strong… but why, exactly?
It’s certainly not because I tend towards optimism. I’m the first one to tell you that, no matter how many fried pastrami sandwiches you refuse, or how many steps your Fitbit claims you’ve taken, your final day will come, one way or another. If someone told you that it’s all about the journey and it doesn’t matter whether you succeeded in your goal, I can promise you it wasn’t me. A few minutes ago, I glanced at an advertisement for “five perfect dresses for every event” and read it, at first quick glance, as “five perfect diseases for every evening.” And yet, when people express fears about anti-Semitism, I just kind of nod at them, mood unchanged, because somewhere deep in my psyche I just don’t think their worries are warranted.
After sleeping on this question, I realize that I tend to downplay the limited anti-Semitic feelings and sweeping Jewish stereotypes I’ve encountered. And I can attribute some of that to my parents’ attitudes, which have slowly shaped me in this sphere. I’m lucky enough never to have faced virulent anti-Jewish sentiment, but little incidents have cropped up here and there.
Recently, something along those lines happened at a store I frequent fairly often. I was chatting with the owner and her daughter, and the owner started complaining to me that Jews are all about helping other Jews, but have no interest in helping people from other groups. According to her, Jews are very successful, but they keep their success to themselves, never reaching out and assisting others who might benefit from their support. I was kind of taken aback, but I was also curious about her ideas, and just listened, not sharing that I was Jewish. I was actually surprised that she didn’t realize this already since I’m in her store often and chat with the people about all kinds of things, but I supposed she forgot about the one or two times I mentioned a Jewish holiday or some such.
That evening, I relayed the experience to my mother and asked her if she thought I should avoid that store in the future. I was willing to brush it off but wanted another opinion. She agreed with me, saying: “If the store is convenient and you like going there, just do whatever you’ve been doing. It’s possible she’s observed the things she mentioned in her own life.”
A few days later, I passed by that store, and the owner’s daughter motioned very insistently for me to come in. As soon as I stepped inside, she grabbed a bottle of shampoo and showed me that it came from Israel. She never apologized for her mother, but I could tell she had overheard that conversation and wanted to show me that she and her family were cool with Jews. I laughed and nodded, and at that moment decided to sweep the whole event aside and not allow that conversation to influence my feelings about the store. Yes, I learned a little something about a non-Jew’s negative impressions of Jews, but it wasn’t worth holding a grudge.
So if I don’t dwell much on anti-Semitism, why am I writing a whole essay about it? Well, at this particular juncture, after the election and some of the aftermath, many others are terrified of it. There seems to be a substantial increase in hate crimes, including explicit anti-Semitism. A boys’ bathroom in my own nephew’s middle school in Bethesda, Maryland was defaced with multiple swastikas. So… while nothing has happened directly to me, and no one I know well has received any kind of personal threat, the situation has begun to feel real.
Even so, I’m shocked that some Jews have started likening our situation to Hitler’s Europe and are crafting emergency getaway plans in case they begin to feel unsafe. I don’t feel nearly the same urgency as those who are spending a huge part of their lives trying every which way to add their efforts towards toppling the incoming Trump administration. I hear about Steve Bannon, recently appointed as chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Trump, and Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, and, while the allegations of racism and anti-Semitism trouble me deeply, I’m also open to people who say they’re not nearly as bad as many claim. If they’re in and there’s nothing we can do about it, I’m willing to see how they handle their new positions.
I’m upset by what’s going on, but, if I bump into you and you ask me how I’ve been, my answer will hinge on whether I’ve enjoyed recent gatherings and parties, whether I’ve discovered some scrumptious new food, whether my work is going OK, whether the people I care about and I are healthy, and how I’m getting along with the important characters in my life. Whether an anti-Semitic incident happened a few states away, or even near my home, won’t factor in all that much when I consider a global assessment of my happiness and contentment.
But why? If I strongly suspected that we were heading towards a Nazi-like regime, I’d be panicked and miserable. I guess I don’t actually believe that’s very likely, despite the fears of so many of my friends. I think we’re moving towards a period where decisions I sharply disagree with are made. The openness that, to me, makes this country dynamic and special — with new infusions of people from all over the world, freedom for women to control their bodies in the face of unexpected or traumatic circumstances, and sensitivity to those (including myself, in all kinds of ways) who tend towards vulnerability — will be endangered. Our basic safety as a nation may be jeopardized as well, given Trump’s lack of experience with foreign policy and impaired self-control. But, given the sharp ideological divide in this country, I find it very likely that, after four years (possibly even two years, after midterm elections) things will swing back in the other direction.
Some good people may actually benefit from Trump’s presidency — say, the small business owner who is much better able to thrive because of changed economic policies, and his children, who may be able to access more educational and cultural opportunities because their parents are more financially stable. For many, though, the next four years may feel long and dreary. For all we know, they’ll turn into eight years, and they’ll feel really dreary. But it won’t be Hitler. It won’t be Nazism. It won’t be gas chambers or labor camps, for Jews or for anyone else.
Sometimes, when context is available, situations aren’t as acute as they seem at first glance. My nephew, whose Jewish identity is so strong he wants to keep kosher despite his family’s secular bent, does not seem traumatized by the swastikas in his school’s bathroom. He told me: “I never even saw them,” and described his school enthusiastically, particularly his social life. He feels embraced and accepted there, and would not have even mentioned the swastikas if I hadn’t brought them up. When I asked him specifically if they made him feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, he said: “That’s what the teachers were saying would happen, but I don’t feel that way, and I don’t think my Jewish friends do either.” He and some of his friends have a hunch that this was an act of rebellion against a school exercise on tolerance that many of the students found very silly.
It was a horrific event, and whoever caused it is a major menace who needs to be contained. But, even in the face of something like this, most speculations don’t point to large-scale threat.
During Trump’s presidency, you’ll still have your favorite coffee shop and the delicious croissants you like to savor while doing your work, reading a great book, or schmoozing with a fabulous friend. You’ll still be able to walk outside and feel the sun against your arms. And if you can’t — if some kind of disaster drastically cuts into your life — it probably won’t be because of the bigotry Trump may have encouraged, even if you’re part of an affected group.
How do I know? Honestly, I don’t. I’ve never been particularly excited by politics, and I don’t have any information that any normal citizen wouldn’t have access to. As far as I can tell, Trump’s rhetoric focuses on keeping people out, not killing or actively hurting them. It’s certainly not conducive to the kinds of diversity I’ve always loved, but I don’t think it will lead to state-sanctioned violence or large-scale physical injury or death towards any particular demographic.
Some might say that Hitler didn’t speak of these things at first either; it was all a gradual process. I think many see our current situation as similar to Hitler’s early stages, and obviously that terrifies them. So why am I not terrified? Me, of all people: someone who begins to shake if the subway is delayed and I might be a few minutes late to meet someone for brownies.
As pessimistic as I often am, I think I actually believe that, in the end, enough people have learned from history not to allow it to replay on such a grand scale. In 1930s Europe, many Jews were complacent at first because they were so assimilated into their larger societies. They had intimations of all kinds of sinister doings, but many found it impossible to believe that the cultures where they had thrived and found much-appreciated roles could turn on them with such force.
Today, we — Jews and non-Jews — know that this can happen. Some lack knowledge of history, of course, but enough people understand enough to realize the outer reaches of what could develop, and stop it. Trump and his few top advisors can’t enact violently bigoted policies on their own, even if they’re so inclined, and I’m confident that the powers that be would not allow the worst possibilities to emerge. We’d have massive insurrection, and I don’t think your typical American career politician or government official — even the ones that seem closed-minded and insular — would authorize policies that would make this likely.
Even if they’re not concerned about the bigotry when it comes down to it, they are concerned about avoiding utter chaos, and they can see how much division and strife this country is facing. Fringe groups may well feel emboldened to express their hatred towards Jews and others, but law enforcement will try to keep them in line, just like they always have with obstreperous elements. I know that law enforcement people have sometimes created new problems with racial and ethnic relations, but this had been a problem long before Trump joined the political scene. Things will be far from perfect. They always have been — and perfection may well feel even more elusive during this period. But day-to-day life won’t change radically for most, as long as they don’t spiral into internal fear and turmoil.
I could be wrong. I didn’t think Trump had a real chance of winning, and I was wrong there. If I ever feel that my basic safety is in jeopardy, I’ll be on the next possible plane out. I’m sure someone out there is thinking it might be too late by then, but I’m not all that worried, and someone like me needs to embrace those moments of non-worry and not wish them away. Should my sense of the situation shift, I’m sure my tone on the matter would change from measured to manic and incendiary. Right now, I’m going to snuggle into bed and look forward to the fun weekend ahead, because, Trump or no Trump, this Jew is planning to enjoy herself.
***Image Credit: “Hope,” by Hartwig HKD, May 27, 2010, on flickr.com