Over the past month, there have been 57 bomb threats to 48 Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) around the United States. Jewish infants sleep at our JCCs in daycare, our toddlers learn their first Hebrew letters in the JCC classrooms, our children attend camps held across the JCC network and our community comes together to learn within the JCC halls. The JCC movement has been the beating heart of the American Jewish experience, and it is now under terrorist threat, yet no one outside the Jewish community seems to care much.
At the largest civil rights marches in the past twenty years, the women’s march did not mention the threats to the Jewish community during the intersectional speeches given on the National Mall. The Trump administration has been silent in the face of hundreds of Jews being evacuated on almost a weekly basis from their community centers.
Outside of the bomb threats, we have had Neo-Nazi marches planned against a Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana, swastikas pop up across the New York mass transportation system, and a shul in Chicago’s windows smashed in. A sense of anxiety has crept into the American Jewish community that the hard won safety of US Jewry might be shifting.
American Jews, unlike their European counterparts, have, since around the 1960s, considered themselves as part of the white majority. When I arrived in the US five years ago from the UK, I was surprised when my wife told me to tick the white box on the ethnic surveys that I had to fill out on various government forms. Growing up in the UK I, like most other European Jews I knew, had always ticked the other box on the census and written in ‘Jewish’ in the space provided.
The otherness of European Jewry was not controversial. We did not suffer persecution from the government for not being part of the majority. It was just how things were. You knew that those in the majority saw you as different, and you made your peace with it or you left. I enjoyed full and equal treatment in the UK as a British-Jew, and also suffered from some anti-Semitism, but generally enjoyed life as a minority group.
In the US, the integration of the American Jewish community into the majority of the US population was a shining achievement of the community. Joe Lieberman as a vice-presidential nominee was seen as the height of integration and no one saw Sen. Bernie Sanders’s faith as something that would be questionable in his campaign- if anything, his lack of religiosity was called into question. The hyphenated identity of all US Citizens, being a nation of immigrants, allowed the Jewish-American to be just as American as the Italian-American or the Irish-American.
Yet with the steady beat of the neo-Nazi ‘alt-right’ within the 2016 election campaign and the nativist appeals that undergirded President Trump’s win, the question of the place of American-Jews within the fabric of US society seemed to open up again. Op-Eds on if Jews were white started to appear, much to the glee of racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Just days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the bomb threats started and the anxiety started to grow.
As Jews were feeling a little nervous, the women’s march came and as I watched the power of millions of American’s marching, I was a little annoyed that the threats to the JCCs somehow were left out of the many speeches going through the various challenges minorities were facing in this new era. It felt like a betrayal of solidarity and an extension of the campus debates of whether the Jewish experience fitted into the intersectional struggle.
Yet this nervousness changed to fear during the embarrassing and shambolic episode of the White House’s handling of the Holocaust Memorial Day statement. I was not particularly upset by the administration’s oversight in leaving Jews out of their statement, mistakes happen. But when called out on it the administration went out of their way to insult and denigrate everyone who disagreed with them. The White House chief of staff first came out saying that ‘everyone suffered in the Holocaust.’ I am not sure how Mr. Priebus’s family suffered, but my grandparents, who came over to the UK as part of the Kindertrasport while their families were murdered, suffered a little more than the general population at the time.
After the Zionist Organization of American (ZOA) and the Republican Jewish Committee (RJC) issued gentle criticism of the statement, Sean Spicer, the White House Press secretary called ZOA and the RJC “pathetic”. Mr. Spicer’s defense was that the author was Jewish, or as Saturday Night Live put it, “the guy who wrote the statement was super-Jewy, so back off.”
The idea that if a Jewish member of staff has written something it is immune from complaint demonstrates the fallacy in believing that Mr. Trump’s Jewish picks will protect us from his neo-Nazi white nationalist supporters.
As US Jews attempt to come to terms with the changing environment we should be aware that we do have allies. The state representatives in Montana came out in support of the community against the neo-Nazis, passengers riding in the cars cleaned off the graffiti on the subway in New York, and the Chicago catholic diocese pledged solidarity with the Chicago Loop Synagogue that was attacked.
Yet for this nervous moment to pass we need both our government, and the resistance to it, to recognize that American Jews are feeling a little frightened right now and some kind words and solidary are needed sooner rather then later.