Saturday, May 26, 2007

My thoughts on anti-semitism

Today, I was making a list for my birthday of organizations that I would like to see get donations, instead of me getting presents. I added the the Jewish Federation of Seattle's Victims Fund and the "Brick by Brick" fund. I haven't forgotten the shooting that happened last year. How can I? When I go to Services I, like other members of my congregation, say hello the security guard standing outside the door to keep us safe. As I walk down the hallway, I see the picture of Pam Waechter who was killed in the shooting. Five other people were shot and injured on that day. I went to services that night, listening to the news, not knowing who in my community was safe and who was hurt or dead. After the shooting, with much support from the Seattle community, the Jewish Federation remodelled the building and move back in. Now, that building is being vandalized.

The sad thing is I am not surprised. This is nothing new. The Synagogue I attended in Tacoma experienced vandalism, threats, gunshots (into an empty building) and attempted arson. I was followed in my car once and harassed after the High Holidays. I, like any other Jew, know that I can be targeted because of my religion and heritage. Most of what we experience is more subtle. As a child growing up I wondered if I would become greedy and rich. Certainly that's the message I got. I heard comments like "the car dealer was trying to Jew up the price". I saw portrayals in the media and in literature of the rich Jews who were greedily counting their money. I struggled to reconcile those messages with what I knew of my Jewish relatives. I learned to have a public, non-Jewish persona. I was told by my teacher once that my Yiddish expressions were "made up" and scolded for using them. Every Jewish person I know carries some level of fear and has their own stories to tell.

All too often hate crimes and anti-Semitic acts are either labeled "an isolated event" or are buried under debates of politics. Both are a way to distance ourselves from the reality of what happens to people in our own neighborhoods. I know that my grandfather was beaten up for being a Jew, if he wandered out of his neighborhood in the Bronx. My mother was the "token Jew" at her school. She got to attend classes, but was not welcome at any social events. Anti-Semitism has existed long before the latest turmoil in the Middle East. Even the word "anti-semitism" seems an effort at distancing. Why not call it what is is - hate, judgement, fear, violence and discrimination. Within the Jewish community, I think we sometimes fear the backlash we can cause by speaking out. We do not want to create a culture of "them" and "us". I was taught to be grateful for our success and acceptance in the USA. How can I complain about prejudice or hate? Have I experienced anything comparable to what many African-Americans live with daily? What about all the other groups in the world that suffer so much. Yet, the Anti-Defamation League reports over 1,500 anti-semic incidents in the USA in 2006, 39 of which occurred in Washington State.

More often I have experienced acceptance and curiosity about my Judaism. I have always lived in places where the Jewish population was extremely small, usually less then 1%. I'm usually approached with a desire to learn not a need to judge. I write this in hope not fear or blame. In talking openly and honestly about the issues we face we can build a better tomorrow.