One evening this week, my family and I were walking down the street when a person walking in the other direction turned, sneered, and said, “Hey you ugly Jews.” To be clear, while at no point did we feel physically threatened, that moment was traumatic nonetheless. As we kept walking, somewhat jarred by the experience, I thought to myself that the most remarkable part of the antisemitism we had just been the target of was how unremarkable it was. The person wasn’t a skinhead covered in swastikas or waving the Nazi flag. She wasn’t at a rally or demonstration. She looked ordinary, benign, and she barely broke her stride to spew her poisonous hatred in our direction.
This is the new face of the current wave of antisemitism. It does not just take the pernicious form of physical threat and harm, nor is it limited to a violent attack or hostage situation, but it also manifests in the casual way in which someone can comfortably spew hate at Jews with impunity.
This week, we marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nations around the world are called on to remember that hate led to the extermination of six million innocent people, among them one million children. The Holocaust erased two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, one third of the Jewish people on the globe.
According to a Pew study from less than two years ago, while more than 84% of American Jews said that remembering the Holocaust was essential to their Jewish identities, among younger respondents (under 30), only 61% agreed. On the one hand, it is understandable to not want one’s Jewish identity and meaning to be inextricably connected to genocide and hate, it is increasingly important to not allow the Holocaust to be forgotten. Indeed, a different recent Pew study found that while most Americans know that the Holocaust was perpetrated against the Jews, half don’t know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
While the Holocaust is obviously not the only tragic event in our history, it is by far the most heinous and devastating. But it is much more than that, for it remains the symbol and the synonym for antisemitism and in that one word conveys a warning for how the world’s oldest hatred can lead to a democratically elected, “civilized” nation carrying out a genocide. While Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust, the term should be reserved specifically to invoke hatred directed towards the Jewish people.
That is why it is so offensive and dangerous when it is invoked flippantly and casually and when it is used in grossly inappropriate contexts. Just this week, in a rally against vaccine mandates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. compared the threat of 5G cell service and vaccine passports to the Third Reich: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you can hide in the attic like Anne Frank did… Today the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run, none of us can hide.”
This wasn’t his first time invoking Holocaust references when talking about public health policies, but the backlash was so swift and strong that he apologized soon after, tweeting: “I apologize for my reference to Anne Frank, especially to families that suffered the Holocaust horrors. My intention was to use examples of past barbarism to show the perils from new technologies of control. To the extent my remarks caused hurt, I am truly and deeply sorry.” (This was, of course, a textbook non-apology as he continued to equate the “barbarism” of new technologies to the Holocaust and conditioned his feeling sorry on the extent that his remarks caused hurt instead of categorically saying they were wrong.)
We must continue to confront antisemitism, and Holocaust education to the general public is one critical component. We must create a culture in this country of the same intolerance, hypersensitivity and opposition to antisemitism, Jew hatred, and Holocaust appropriation as we do other forms of hate, bigotry, and racism. “Ugly Jew” should be taken as seriously as the N-word: triggering, traumatic, and simply unacceptable and intolerable. Good-hearted people—not just Jews—must never allow this country to become a place where Jews cannot comfortably and safely walk around in a visibly identifiable way.
Some argue that Jews should be defended because we are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. When Jews are allowed to be attacked, it is a sign of the collapse of the society. German pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.” In her book “People Love Dead Jews,” Dara Horn, a recent guest on Behind the Bima, argues that we should not be grateful for this quote or way of thinking, rather we should be offended. This sentiment essentially suggests that the only reason to care when Jews are murdered is because it is a warning that later, actual people might be attacked or killed. We obviously should not accept this argument and certainly should not perpetuate it.
But there are two other reasons Holocaust education is vitally important within our Jewish community. When we reference the Holocaust, we are often referring to the millions of martyrs, the victims who were murdered. But there is another population who should come to mind, maybe even first: our Holocaust survivors.
The Holocaust is not just a part of history like the Crusades or Inquisition. Israel today has 165,800 living survivors, 950 of them over the age of 100. According to some estimates, America is home to 80,000 survivors. This may be the most heroic population of all time. Their resilience, strength, fortitude, and faith may be unparalleled. There has never been a group more entitled to be bitter, resentful, to feel entitled, or to give up on the world and on people. But instead, overwhelmingly, survivors rebuilt, they worked hard, they maintained positivity, optimism, and hope. Most exude deep faith, determination and a selfless devotion to Jewish continuity, to Jewish community, and to the Jewish state.
Though we are more prosperous than ever and have more comfort and conveniences than those who have come before us, many are still struggling with finding happiness, hope, meaning and purpose. Find a survivor. Latch on. Draw from their energy, ride their enthusiasm, be carried, and lifted by their heroism. If you struggle with faith, piggyback off their unwavering emunah, be inspired by their dedication to Torah and mitzvos.
We can learn much from the six million martyrs who lost their lives in the Holocaust, but we can learn even more from the 3.5 million who survived and then built thriving, rich Jewish lives.
Lastly, I believe we should use Holocaust education and current campaigns against antisemitism as outreach opportunities. While the majority of American Jews believe that the Holocaust is essential to their Jewish identities, only 15% said that observing Jewish law is an essential element of what being Jewish means to them personally.
With the rise in antisemitism, the world is presenting us with the opportunity to remind our fellow Jews about why Judaism matters, what it means, and why they should care. With people increasingly hating us for being Jewish and once again excluding us for being Jewish, we should double down on Jewish pride, Jewish practice, Jewish continuity, and a Jewish lifestyle.
We say at the seder, v’hi she’amda la’avoseinu v’lanu, and it has stood for our forefathers and for us. What is the v’hi, what is it? The Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, answers, it is that b’chol dor vador amad aleinu l’chaloseinu, that in every generation they have risen to attack us. While we do not welcome or want antisemitism, it often takes our enemies’ reminder that we are Jewish to inspire us to fight for our people.
A non-observant Jew told me that when there was an antisemitic event at her son’s college, her son, who previously had little to no interest or investment in his Judaism, put a mezuzah on his door and hung a Magen Dovid around his neck. While we confront and combat antisemitism, let us simultaneously leverage it to remind and inspire our fellow Jews about their Judaism.
The only ugly one there the other night was the person who called us ugly Jews. I am sad my children were exposed to that but the harsh reminder that the world’s oldest hatred is being revived even now has motivated us to continue to educate, confront, inspire, and reach out.