Anti-Semitism: The Elephant On the Boardwalk

THIS IS WHAT I KNOW--Yesterday, I joined the ‘Alt Right is Not Alright’ March in Venice -- and knew I’d write an article about my experience. What I could not foretell was that the column I’d write would end up being quite different from what I had intended. 

As a Jew, I’ve taken last Saturday’s horrific display of hatred in Charlottesville very hard -- along with all the events leading up to what has emboldened hate groups to “come out” from the shadows of the anonymous internet. I was taught throughout my childhood by my parents and by my childhood rabbi that we Jews have a responsibility to defend anyone who is the target of prejudice and hatred. 

As a people, we’ve faced over 2,000 years of others attempting to wipe us off the face of the earth. We joke that our holidays are about, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” Six-million Jews were tortured and murdered during the Holocaust -- which decimated European Jewry. We should have learned from the history of our people. 

I’ve felt and continue to feel sorely disappointed that some of my fellow Jews have been silent as immigrants, Muslims, members of the LGBT community, and others have been targeted by Donald J. Trump’s campaign and since, his administration. I feel disgruntled that some have raised their concerns only after our own were targeted in Charlottesville. 

I’ve struggled with my decision to write this column. I reached out to numerous friends because I feared what I have to say might be taken out of context but in the end, with the encouragement of my community, including my high school Spanish teacher and my father, I knew I had to write this. 

Yesterday, I stood with hundreds of protesters carrying signs, listening to a lineup of speakers. I have gratitude for the organizers of the event and tremendous empathy for the struggles continuously faced by the groups represented, going back over well over a century. 

I could have focused on recounting the “No Trump, No Fascists, No KKK.” chants, the messaging of the speakers who brought tears to my eyes. One shared his grandparents had torn down all the trees in their Venice yard because they had seen too many lynchings in their Southern state. I could have limited my column to the struggles of the proud Tongva people whose ancestors had inhabited the Los Angeles Basin and Southern Channel Islands. I have tremendous respect for the ways in which they have maintained their culture. I could have written only about the tears of appreciation in the eyes of employees at salons, restaurants, businesses who couldn’t take time off work but high-fived us as we walked by. 

What I am about to say in no way minimizes the positive impact of the march. 

As I listened to each speaker’s important speech, I noted there was no mention of the anti-Semitism in Charlottesville. Anti-Semitism is the elephant in the room. 

I spent much of yesterday reflecting about this, about the role of Jews in this new era of transparent hatred. Perhaps we are considered among those who are “privileged.” Certainly, in contemporary American society, our experience is not the same as the challenges people of color face each day. Jews aren’t targets of racial profiling; Jewish mothers don’t worry about their children being pulled over my rogue cops, unsure of the outcome. As my daughter noted, we can hide our identity if we choose to do so. 

Our history as a nation is rife with anti-Semitism -- and many of us remember being taunted as “Christ Killers” or other pejoratives. My grandfather and his brothers had to change their surname in order to get jobs during the Depression when companies and schools had quotas. Until 1967, Jews were banned from owning homes in a certain neighborhood of my New Jersey hometown. The Packanack Lake area of Wayne required all homeowners to be members of the Packanack Lake Country Club and membership was barred to persons of “Italian, Spanish, Latin American, or Jewish background and to all other pers  ons not of a Northern European or Christian background.” 

In decades since, many American Jews have assimilated and we surely no longer face the same obstacles as our parents or grandparents but it’s still part of our story -- and there’s no denying that anti-Semitism is alive and kicking. The Ku Klux Klan, though its main target has been black Americans, has a history of targeting Jews, as well. 

When the “first era” Klan disbanded after Jim Crow laws mandated segregation in southern states, the Klan revived interest during the 1920s, when Klansmen opposed Jewish and Catholic immigration. As northern Jews mobilized in the southern states to fight segregation, southern Jews faced pushback from the Klan. Between November 1957 and October 1958, temples and Jewish community buildings were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami. 

Just last week, the KKK, racists, and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville were crystal clear about their hatred of Jews. When white nationalists carried those now famous Tiki “torches” at their Friday night rally, they chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “blood and soil,” a translation of the Nazi “blut und boden” and “Jews will not replace us.” Their signage included swastikas; their shirts featured quotes from Hitler. 

David Duke and Richard Spencer both referred to Jews during their speeches, perpetuating the oft-mentioned anti-Semitic trope that the banks and media are controlled by Jews. James Field, Jr.’s history teacher has noted his fascination with Hitler and Nazism. 

Why do white nationalists target Jews? Part of that answer might be found in the role Jews played in toppling segregation and promoting civil rights. During the 1960s, the majority of civil rights attorneys in Mississippi were Jewish graduates from Ivy League law schools; 30 percent of the volunteers who drove freedom buses were Jews. Rabbis -- including my childhood rabbi Israel Dresner -- marched in Selma and Birmingham. In 1964, two voting registration volunteers from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and a colleague James Chaney, were murdered by Klansmen. 

My motive for writing this is not to place one group against another or because I have what my kids would call FOMO -- fear of missing out. I am writing this column to encourage all of us to work together to combat the malignant racism and hatred that fester in this country, that  have continued to grow under the Trump Administration and through vehicles like Breitbart. We cannot afford divisiveness -- and we need to stand united, regardless of religion, background, gender, sex, sexual orientation. 

Anyone who has a conscience must stand to defend those who are targeted by these hate groups. With that goal, we must embrace all groups who face discrimination and use our voices to send a message, loud and clear, that hatred and prejudice on any front will not be accepted in our great nation.


(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles writer and a CityWatch columnist.)