Sarah Seltzer is a writer, a Jew, and a mother. The opinions expressed here are her own.
Fear is instilled in American Jewish children early, whether it’s reading novels about the Holocaust in Hebrew school or real, passed-down stories about pogroms, extermination, threats, and war that led so many of our families to flee here. And yet, most of us have lived lives free of violence, or even its threat. This weekend, that changed in a few moments when the deadliest attack on Jews in American history happened in Pittsburgh, at a synagogue where different groups were celebrating a new baby, praying together, and studying. We are mourning the terrifying, anti-Semitic attack. This massacre may signal a turning point for young American Jews. We’ve never seen anything like this on these shores, and yet on some level we have been waiting for it, preparing for a future where our safety is anything but guaranteed.
As kids, American Jews often pretend to hide from the Nazis during our imaginary games. But the truth is, for many of us — especially those who grew up in pluralistic areas where restaurants serve matzah ball soup and menorahs stand next to Christmas trees — a dread of anti-Jewish violence has been part of our psyches without being part of our existence. Of course, anti-Semitism has been ever-present in American society, but it in our era it has more typically looked like social exclusion, ignorance, or casual cruelty rather than physical terror. Indeed, for Jews of color, queer and trans Jews, or Mizrahi (Arab) Jews, fear was more likely to be stoked by bigots within and without Jewish communities than it was by anti-Semitism.
All of this is a broad generalization, to be sure. But certainly in recent decades, anti-Jewish violence in America has seemed like a small threat compared to the hate crimes our brothers and sisters of other backgrounds have endured. For this reason, progressive Jews have tended to use our history of persecution as a reason to stand up for others, focusing on immigration, racial and gender justice, and LGBTQ rights in particular. Social justice activism and showing up for others has been our way to honor our slain or exiled ancestors.
Then the 2016 election came and with it a sense that the landscape was shifting back to hold a direct threat to all Jews. What was it exactly that signaled a change? Was it the Trump family retweeting white nationalists, or the closing Donald Trump campaign ad that used prominent Jews in finance and philanthropy as its big bad bogeymen? Was it the disturbing media trendiness of dapper neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, or the almost unbearable barrage of oven and gas chamber memes aimed at Jewish journalists on social media? In New York City, one of the capitals of the Jewish diaspora, Adam Yauch Park, was defaced with swastikas the week after the election. If this crap was happening so brazenly in Brooklyn, at a park named for a Beastie Boy, many of us guessed that anti-Semitic violence wasn’t far behind. Certainly, by the time marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Heather Heyer was murdered, and the president declared that there were “very fine people” on “both sides” there was no masking the new reality.
Anti-Semitism is like and unlike other forms of bigotry. With its conspiratorial ideas about Jews “controlling” society, it is a prejudice that requires Jewish people to be ensconced in a society to take hold. That’s why some Jews can have white privilege and still be targeted by neo-Nazis. As Jews For Racial And Economic Justice’s pamphlet on anti-Semitism notes, ”Rather than keeping Jews perpetually at the bottom, anti-Semitism often becomes most intense when Jews are afforded a measure of success.”
2016 was the year the uptick in anti-Semitism began to feel real. It was also the year I had my first child. For me, the entire year brought with it a deep, new understanding of historical Jewish persecution and how it crept up and devoured families that were going to the beach and eating ice cream. Maybe the situation gets worse by the day and you don’t notice it, or you do notice it and say, “This is going to explode” and you hold your breath and put off confronting it until one day you can’t anymore, because the bloodshed is at your door. Because you realize your family is a target based simply on who you are.
That realization is utterly devastating. Even if what happened in Pittsburgh was inevitable in our current climate, it still feels like a fresh, raw wound. It can be hard to sign on to social media and see my Jewish friends mourning while some non-Jews post cat pictures like nothing has changed. As I was writing this, a friend messaged me to say, “I am honestly scared in a way I've never been before.”
Of course we’re scared. White supremacy killed 11 people in Pittsburgh, and it was stoked by an administration and party that routinely dog-whistles about George Soros (the target of a recent pipe bomb) and “globalists,” which is a code word for Jews. When the president blames the targeted synagogue itself for a lack of security, he’s hanging Jewish Americans out to dry, along with transgender folks, immigrants, Black people, and women.
Here is what gives me the most hope, despite how shaken up I feel: in Pittsburgh, according to the social media accounts of the suspect, Jews were targeted for raising funds to resettle immigrants and refugees. All across my timeline today, I’m seeing Jews my age doubling down in solidarity and vowing to continue the work, raising money for immigrant groups and stating out loud that what we feel right now likely pales in magnitude compared to what so many others, especially immigrants, trans, or Black Americans, feel daily. In New York City, Jews held a vigil while Muslim allies circled them for protection.
These Jewish activists are linking arms with everyone else affected by this Trump-era intensifying of age-old prejudices, and that’s our only way forward. If my son has to live in an America newly menaced by violent anti-Semitism, I mourn for him. But I also want him to look around and feel empathy, kinship, and understanding towards all others who are under attack. Even if our particular pain this week is uniquely Jewish, the feeling of being frightened and in pain these days is far from unique. Knowing that can give us the strength to fight.