As a Jew, I have never cried in response to an act of anti-semitism. I was raised to know that anti-semitism permeates, that there is a fear and hatred of Jews, but from afar. It was something that occurred elsewhere, in Europe, in years before my time. It was something other Jewish people experienced. In my reality, in a Philadelphia suburb, we were just “White people” who didn’t celebrate Christmas, packed matzoh in our lunch boxes once a year, and had B’nai Mitzvahs. My experience followed a generation of assimilation. I thought I grew up feeling average, with an average 1990s childhood. Although I can remember hearing anti-semitic jokes, I never felt an existential threat because of my Jewish heritage.
Image 1: The author’s four children enjoying their new Hanukkah pajamas
I did, though, internalize the subtle rejection and unspoken threat of anti-semitism when my mother would insist I tuck my Jewish star necklace underneath my shirt before walking into a space she judged concerning. Though my grandmother never gave us detailed context for her economic boycott of the ice cream man on the Ventor, New Jersey, shore, I noticed when she called him an “anti-shemi.” My parents never corrected the cashiers who wished us a Merry Christmas, they never raised a fuss when the teacher scheduled a test on Yom Kippur, and they made no mention of the added security fee to cover the cost of cops guarding the doors of our synagogue. But it was part of our lives and we noticed.
This was the way I came to internalize anti-semitism: as subtle, omnipresent, unchanging. My experiences, I now see, shaped my political and professional path as an anarchist working in critical terrorism studies and occasionally acting as a securitization consultant. As a father of four young children, I see the manifestations of contemporary anti-semitism, and it is unfamiliar in profound ways. In the “United States,” devoid of scripture and practice, Jews are not “White people” in the traditional sense. After shooting Jews at a synagogue in Poway, California, on April 27, 2019—the last day of Passover and also Shabbat—the gunman told a 911 dispatcher, “I’m defending our nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all White people.”
Image 2: Flyer from neo-Nazi accelerationist group Feuerkrieg Division
It seems I had forgotten the lessons of pre-assimilated Jewry, namely that for a sizable portion of individuals, Jews were never White people. A childhood of microaggressions and deep-seated lessons summoned a great sadness when I finally came to connect them to the contemporary. Johnathan Weisman spoke of this moment is his book (((Semitism))), remarking:
For an assimilated Jew, that moment—the ‘Who, me? Why me [as a target of anti-Semitism]?’ shock is indelible. We live lives of unstudied ordinariness, not particularly proud or aware of our assimilation, unconscious of the conformity that has meshed us with American society over the decades. Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore; most don’t live in particularly Jewish neighborhoods….Then, in this odd moment, we are singled out for the one trait we have stopped thinking about: being Jewish.
Hearing of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue massacre and later of the shooting at a syngogue in Poway, California, my heart hurt. My heart, which I used to believe was spared the anti-semitic pain that my European ancestors endured, has broken into fragments. I managed to avoid the pogroms, the blacklists, internment, and mass extermination, but I was not spared the splintering of my heart. I had endured plenty of pain over the years, but the shattering following the Tree of Life shooting cracked open an articulation of anti-semitism I did not realize I carried with me.
White privilege allowed me to forget I was a Jew
In his description of identity as formative of ideology, terrorism scholar J.M. Berger explains:
…in-groups and out-groups each represent an identity—a set of qualities that are understood to make a person or group distinct from other persons or groups. People who share a common identity may form an identity collective, a group of people who are defined by nation, religion, race, or some other shared trait, interest or concern.
Berger goes on to explain that extremist ideology is a “collection of texts that describe who is part of the in-group, who is part of the out-group, and how the in-group should interact with the out-group.” Reflecting on this simple point, I am reminded that the recent shootings, grave desecrations, assaults, synagogue fires, and coded slurs directed at Jews collectively formulate the textual ideology of today. These texts are written with bullets and fire and marked with kaddish and candles.
I am reminded that for those that wish us harm—the White nationalists, neo-Nazis, accelerationist fascists, Idenitarians, and the broader alt-right—my White skin which turns olive in the sun, my black hair and eyes and my circumcision are all unavoidable, embodied marks of otherness, of out-groupness, of Jewishness.
In retrospect, all of the othering experiences I lived through as a youth were minor. Sure, they identified who I was vis-a-vis others, but it could end there, right? They were not a source of sadness or fear, and while I felt a strong pull towards supporting social movements related to Jewishness—anti–White supremacy organizing, reproductive justice, and Palestinian solidarity—my identity as a Jew was hardly ever prominent in my consciousness.
Fast forward to 2019 and I feel like it’s plastered on my forehead, a yellow star on my black hoodie. I never felt myself to be the subject of an existential, genocidal, structural hatred of Jews as a kid. Then came the rise in right-wing populism, White nationalism, and the outright neo-fascism seen today. Suddenly I was reminded that for a growing portion of White, Anglo-Saxon Christians, Jews are not, nor have we ever been, White or American. To some, we are double agents with dual allegiance to the state of Israel, while for others, we are part of a global conspiratorial cabal that controls various combinations of the media, banking system, and government bureaucracy.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described the Nazi drive to eradicate Jews as the zeal of a gardener seeking to curate a perfect green space, noting that Jews’ transience, non-Aryanness, and resistance to assimilation allowed our people to be seen as “the weeds that spoil their design.” Bauman continues:
Modern genocide, like modern culture in general, is a gardener’s job. It is just one of the many chores that people who treat society as a garden need to undertake. If garden design defines its weeds, there are weeds wherever there is a garden. And weeds are to be exterminated. Weeding out is a creative, not a destructive activity…Like all other weeds, [human weeds] must be segregated, contained, prevented from spreading, removed and kept outside the society boundaries; if all these means prove insufficient, they must be killed.
Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life shooter, likely saw us as weeds; a barrier to his perfect garden—suitable for exclusion, removal and extermination. For many, we remain the permanent wanderers who can never be truly a part of the nation; a distinguishable, non-assimilable, interconnected network forming the diaspora.
Despite the efforts of men like Bowers and the many who quietly ally with him, we are still here. Despite assimilation, discrimination and outright genocide, we are still here.
As the refrain goes, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Alain F. Corcos, The Myth of the Jewish Race (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2005).
Cheryl Greenberg, “‘I’m Not White–I’m Jewish’: The Racial Politics of American Jews,” in Race, Color, Identity:
Rethinking Discourses about “Jews” in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Efraim Sicher (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2013), 35–55.
Elliot Spagat, “Recording Details Synagogue Shooting Suspect’s 911 Call,” AP NEWS, Online edition, September 19, 2019.
J. M. Berger, Extremism, Essential Knowledge Series (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018), 24, 26.
Jonathan Weisman, (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (New York, NY: St Martins Press, 2018), 11.
Todd Endelman, “Jewish Self-Identification and West European Categories of Belonging: From the Enlightenment to World War II,” in Religion or Ethnicity?: Jewish Identities in Evolution, ed. Zvi Gitelman (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2001), 91, 92.