Welcome to the first edition of Soul Searching, a new series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
David A.M. Wilensky had always hated wearing a kippah. By the time he reached his late twenties, he was as Jewish as ever—he still went to shul, worked at a Jewish newspaper in the Bay Area, had lots of Jewish friends—but the ritual of the skull cap never made sense to him. He “despised” walking into a Conservative synagogue and being told he wasn’t dressed correctly. Plus, it seemed sexist. “The whole thing bothered me,” he says.
That all changed on November 9, when Donald Trump’s election seemed to confirm that the blossoming hate against minorities during his campaign wasn’t just a bad dream. Wilensky was horrified when he scrolled through whywereafraid.com, a Tumblr that had been cataloguing hate incidents of all kinds during and after the election. For days, he watched the site obsessively: A Muslim psychology student grabbed by her hijab and yanked backward. A woman pumping gas with liberal bumper stickers told that she should be “grabbed by the pussy.” Reports of swastikas drawn on sidewalks and dorm rooms.
That week, he decided to make his minority status visible by wearing a kippah every day, in solidarity with other targeted groups. The spate of anti-Semitism “suddenly made me feel different from other Americans in a new way,” he says. “Or actually, an old way—but we hadn’t been put in a position of feeling it yet.”
Between the bomb threats to Jewish centers and the graffiti swastikas and the vandalized Jewish cemeteries and Sean Spicer’s multiple Holocaust gaffes and known anti-Semite Steve Bannon’s close (albeit fraught) relationship with the president, Jews are one of the myriad groups who feel targeted by the Trump administration and its supporters. It’s startled and shaken many young Jews who’ve never experienced this sentiment before, and in fact grew up rolling our eyes at parents and grandparents who, in the shadow of the Holocaust, seemed overly vigilant about prejudice.
Hate crime numbers are notoriously hard to pin down, but organizations have been making an effort to track them since Trump was voted into office. After the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center started soliciting reports online of hate incidents across the country for the first time. Out of the 1,863 incidents reported through March, 244 were of anti-Semitic hate. “Our sense is that it’s a significant increase,” says deputy legal director David Dinielli, “whose job it is to pay attention to these things.” The Anti-Defamation League puts that number even higher, at 380 self-reported anti-Semitic incidents from January to March, an 86% increase compared to incidents recorded by the organization in the same months in 2016.
It’s not our imagination: Anti-Semitism is making a comeback.
The hate toward Jews so far has manifested in vandalism and harassment rather than discriminatory policies and executive orders. And unless we are very religious or decide to “come out” like Wilensky did, Jewish people can usually pass as non-Jewish in America. But the resurgence of anti-Semitic rhetoric is noticeable.
“It feels awful to acknowledge that, right now, fear is reasonable, and necessary, and real,” Zan Romonoff wrote in Buzzfeed last month.
Not every young Jew feels afraid, exactly—at least not in the way, say, Muslims or undocumented immigrants feel afraid. Ever the guilt-ridden overthinkers, progressive young Jews like me who consider themselves allies to more marginalized people are now left wondering how we should feel. Is this a time of genuine physical threat, or does our vulnerability pale in comparison to more obvious scapegoats? Do Jews of color and LGBTQ Jews feel like one identity makes them more of a target than the other? Are we victims or allies, or both?
While some of us certainly feel less safe, there’s also just a pervasive feeling of being less mainstream. In more than two dozen interviews since the election with Jews under 40 across the country, I heard the phrase “I feel more Jewish” over and over.
One 32-year-old woman feels “more aware of my Jewish identity now, in New York City, than I did as the only Jewish kid in my rural upstate school 20 years ago.” Haley Arden Moss, a secular Jewish doctor who moved from the East Coast to North Carolina just a few months before the election, feels like being Jewish is “now suddenly part of my identity in a way it wasn’t before.” One weekend in January, she considered going to synagogue to make friends and “meet liberal, cool people,” whereas “there’s no way I would ever think about doing that in New York City.” She was already feeling like a fish out of water as a Jew in the South, but now that the Trump era has arrived, she’s craving community. There’s safety in numbers, and comfort in shorthand.
I also feel like the “other” in a way I’ve never felt, even though I’m as secular as one can be. And while the hate unnerves me, right now feeling distinct from white America isn’t so bad. I find myself doing little things differently: I made latkes multiple times for Hanukkah, I’m getting fewer blowouts, I’m even more interested in dating Jewish guys. But it has also moved me to engage more in social justice, which I consider just as much a part of my Ashkenazi New York heritage as Passover or the Torah—probably more.
I could never imagine being called a “dirty Jew,” like my dad had been by a WASP-y classmate in the 1950s. (He says it’s the only time he ever punched someone.) For the vast majority of the progressive Jews I spoke to, anti-Semitism was abstract growing up, even outside of places like New York or Miami or Boston. There may have been curiosity, even some sideways comments, but outright hate speech and prejudice seemed like a moment in history that had passed us by. My friends and I bristled against older Jews’ hypersensitivity and rebelled against it; cries of anti-Semitism always struck me as alarmist.
Later, we saw accusations of anti-Semitism lobbed at Jews who criticized Zionism. That conflation seems almost quaint now. Aaron Wagener, a senior at Swarthmore and a member of the college’s Hillel chapter, was freaked out when swastikas were found drawn in the bathroom of the campus library in late November. To think that he had been called anti-Semitic and a “self-hating Jew” by Zionist alums when he had advocated for a more open Hillel policy on speakers who were critical of Israel. Now there was “real” anti-Semitism, coming from people who “actually” hated Jews. With one election, the goalposts had moved.
Of course, not all American Jews are feeling like outsiders. Twenty-four percent of us voted for Trump. Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, is one of the president’s closest advisors. The Zionist Organization of America invited Steve Bannon to speak at its gala in November (amid public outcry, he didn’t show).
Many progressive Jews have found themselves aghast at their conservative counterparts who stay silent or dole out excuses for Trump and his supporters. “Dvora,” a 26-year-old Hasidic mother living in Borough Park, Brooklyn, is surrounded by them. In recent years, Dvora has gone through a secular feminist awakening (she declined to use her real name because she is not yet “out” to her community). She did not support Trump, but her husband did, and so did her neighbors and her colleagues. She finds it all so hypocritical.
“I remember [my community] being so vigilant during the Obama administration, not voting for people because they were supposedly anti-Semitic,” she says. “Now during the Trump administration, who’s doing way, way worse things, they’ll find ways to justify it.”
Dvora grew up with this “very strong narrative that everyone was out to get us.” Whenever a Jew from her conservative community clashed with law enforcement, she says, people would blame it on anti-Semitism. “And yet, I never experienced it,” she says. The hypervigilance “really bothered me. I started to think anti-Semitism was a myth.”
Now, when it’s plainly happening, she says her community scrambles to explain that Trump didn’t mean it. They say Spicer didn’t know. They say they don’t care because Trump is good for Israel, he’ll Make America Great Again. “I’m just like, ‘How could you?’ I find it inexplicable.”
The paranoia that once felt like a political calculus for conservative Jews has now become a more universal part of the Jewish American experience. I’ve started to read into small things, imperceptible things, probably innocent things, in the way my elders often did. When I was traveling in Texas last month, a hotel clerk in the tiny town of Big Spring commented on my “unusual” last name. “It’s Jewish,” I told her. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “We don’t get many Jewish people around here.” I obsessed over that interaction for days.
When I got back to New York, I spotted a swastika chalked onto the ground on the first night of Passover. I became despondent, then irate, then I Instagrammed it and told a bunch of people about it. Before the election, I probably would have only taken note for a few moments and moved on. Then again, it might not have been there in the first place.
The next day, I was unexpectedly invited to the most Jewish Passover I’ve ever experienced. The singing and reading and eating lasted beyond midnight on a Tuesday. Even though I could have left at any time—I barely knew most of the people there—I didn’t. I still had zero affinity to the Haggadah’s “Lord our God, king of the universe.” But I felt very Jewish, and that felt kinda good.
Developing a stronger affinity to my roots, while feeling an inkling of the vulnerability others feel, has also made me a more empathetic ally. Many people I spoke with acknowledged Jews’ relative privilege; most American Jews are light-skinned, and their income and education levels are higher than any other religious group. One of my friends felt “truly sick” when, during Thanksgiving last year, her aunt remarked, “Thank goodness we don’t look Jewish or Hispanic. We can blend in and no one will bother us.”
For Jews of color, assimilation isn’t an option; they may be able to hide their Jewishness, but they’ll always be reminded that they’re outsiders. Hannah Sultan, a founding member of the Jews of Color Caucus of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, is also half-Mexican and has an Arab last name, which she says makes her feel more exposed than her Jewish identity. Sultan says it’s always been a mistake to rely on Jews’ ability to mainstream—this new rise in anti-Semitism “shows the false comfort of assimilating into whiteness.” Combating the sinister consequences of assimilation are precisely why David A.M. Wilensky decided to start wearing a kippah, “making visible something that was already there, but hidden.”
“As Jews, we’ve seen what happens when people make the mistake of looking for protection in cooperation with fascism,” says Adam Greenberg, a 28-year-old political organizer living in Boston—like when the Jewish ghetto police colluded with the Nazis during World War II, in some cases helping to undermine resistance movements, only to meet the same fate as their Jewish neighbors. Or the way certain upwardly mobile American Jews, more and more divorced from their working-class labor movement roots, start to identify with the One Percent. Instead, “Jews need to be the first line of defense,” Greenberg says. “We should use our privilege to ally with more disenfranchised minorities rather than cozying up to power.”
This renewed sense of allyship is possible in the modern era in a way it wasn’t historically, says Barbara Epstein, a professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz who studies social movements and the Jewish resistance to fascism during World War II. Under Hitler and Stalin, for example, targeted groups “barely knew about each other.” LGBTQ people weren’t public about their identity. There was no free press, let alone the internet. On the other hand, “the United States is so multicultural and there’s an attack on so many different groups right now, it would be surprising if a rise in political activism wasn’t accompanied by this moment,” Epstein says. Not only that, “we have the history of fascism in our heads as a framework.”
And Jews in particular have long been key players in civil rights, feminist, and labor struggles, often alongside people who can’t easily assimilate. There are various theories as to why Jews, particularly the ones from Eastern Europe and the United States in the past century, historically lean to the left and make good allies. Maybe it’s because of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam—“repair of the world”—a sense of universalism not found in, say, the Bible. Or perhaps it’s because we’ve always been an international people, with no center and no army. It might be connected to Jews’ tradition of intellectualism, which many theorize was sparked by being barred from owning land in Catholic feudal Europe, therefore steering them to become literate artisans and merchants.
Whatever the reason, this moment has made me more politically active, which in turn makes me feel like more of a Jew. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
In February, I went to a rally outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall with thousands of Yemeni bodega owners protesting Trump’s Muslim ban. They were waving American flags and chanting “USA! USA!” in between speakers and prayers. It gave me shivers to watch this group of people, who’d been actively rejected by their government, be so patriotic. The square was ringed by non-Muslims, mostly white Brooklynites like me. I saw an Orthodox man with a tall hat and a long beard holding a sign that said, “Love your Muslim neighbor.” I felt a connection with the bodega owners—a group of mostly young men who, like many of my ancestors, had been targeted for their religion.
Still, there was something eerie about that “USA!” chant, the same refrain of drunken frat boys celebrating bin Laden’s death, the same subtle tool of racist intimidation wielded at high school sporting events. It belied an intense and wholly understandable desire to be accepted, the same way my great-grandparents on the Lower East Side wanted to be accepted, the same way everyone does. It reminded me of the peril of that desire, too. Acceptance never lasts forever.