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A Secular Jew Raises His Head and Doesn’t Like What He Sees

Fears of an American Holocaust distract from the real threat—the mainstreaming of casual antisemitism

Barrett Rollins
February 14, 2023
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
‘I and my ilk have to try to overcome the assimilationist’s practice of keeping his head down at all costs’Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
‘I and my ilk have to try to overcome the assimilationist’s practice of keeping his head down at all costs’Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

A mentally unstable celebrity finds inspiration in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for his tweets. A former president whose daughter converted to Judaism dines with a rabid antisemite and insists that there’s nothing to see here, move along. In the grand and eternal scheme of antisemitism, these are mere blips. And yet … I can’t stop thinking about them. Why?

For most Jews, it makes no sense to ask why. Shouldn’t all manifestations of antisemitism make all Jews, not to mention all people of goodwill, worried and uneasy? Maybe, but the taxonomy of the genus “Jew” is complex, comprised as it is of species with different mixes of religious, social, and political identities. In my own cohort, reactions to episodes like these are suffused with an uncomfortable self-consciousness that blunts what might otherwise be an immediate and outraged response.

The fact is that I’m such a perfect example of a secular Jew that I could be the standard against which all other secular Jews are measured. My parents were Jewish but never went to temple. Our family celebrated Christmas with gifts for the children. During my brief, obligatory fascination with religion—the phase that all pre-adolescents go through, Jewish or not—we lit menorah candles at my insistence but recited no prayers. The fever passed. Passover was celebrated with a meal that sometimes included relatives but never the Haggadah.

In adulthood, I have been professionally successful in a world that, until just a few generations ago, would have been closed to me. I attended an elite, Eastern college, graduated from medical school, and became a tenured professor at Harvard. I’m now married to a wonderful woman who, in full disclosure, is half Jewish; my previous wife, who died after 30 years of marriage, was a blond-haired, blue-eyed echt WASP. I have, in a word, by the standards of my own tribe, or subtribe, arrived.

Although I cannot cite a single experience of overt antisemitism during my long march to assimilated respectability, and despite my background and elevated status within the secular “establishment,” I am acutely aware of my Jewish identity. I have always assumed that my position is tenuous, that my credentials can be revoked at any moment because of my religion. Several of my Jewish colleagues share this mindset. We make knowing comments to each other about watching for the boxcars whenever the antisemitic heat is turned up.

This disconnect between disinterest in any exercise of my Jewish identity and my anticipatory dread of Jewish victimhood manifests in other ways. I have a compulsive need to revisit antisemitism’s greatest hits, particularly National Socialism and the Holocaust. My bookshelves reflect this obsession. In the past few years alone, I’ve read two multivolume biographies of Hitler (Ian Kershaw’s and Volker Ullrich’s—spoiler alert: they both have the same ending) along with a dramatic history of the first hundred days of the Thousand Year Reich. Nicholas Wachsmann’s KL, an exhaustive and masterful detailing of the concentration camps, is there, too, waiting for me. On the shelf below is the four-volume History of Anti-Semitism next to Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All.

These proclivities spill over into popular culture. I’ll watch any movie or television series that features Nazis. My current wife used to joke about it but after exposing her to films like The Night Porter, The Damned, and Mr. Klein, she said, “Genug!” Which simply means that I’ll be watching these things on my own.

The latest recrudescence of outright, unembarrassed antisemitism has started me thinking about where this conflicted attitude to my own Judaism comes from. As with so many others of my generation, it’s mostly a visitation of the traumas of the father on the son. The strict nonobservance of my childhood was mandated by my tortured paterfamilias. He grew up in a poor Orthodox home, abandoned both by his mother, who died when he was a toddler, and by his father, who was on the road as a salesman. Raised by friends of the family who were also Orthodox, he did well enough in school to go to college by which time he’d jettisoned his religion along with any connection to his own father. (I met my grandfather exactly once before he died.) During the war, he served as an army medic in New Guinea, an experience which made him want to become a doctor.

Returning home, my father finished college and applied to medical school but was not admitted anywhere; he tried a second time and was unsuccessful again. My dad’s name was Marvin Rosenfeld. Someone suggested that he de-ethnicize it, which he did. Applying then as Marvin Rollins, he was accepted. This was a story I internalized, a lesson about the contingent nature of social advancement for Jews.

The history of my mother’s family added nuance. Originally from Galicia, they came to Vienna when the Hapsburgs liberalized Semitic laws in the late 19th century. Living in Brigittenau, newly carved out of Leopoldstadt, they established themselves as solidly middle class. But the environment must not have been entirely hospitable—the Karl Lueger mayoralty was certainly no treat—because my grandfather and his brother emigrated to the United States immediately after the First World War. They were also in search of economic opportunity, which they found: both became prosperous businessmen who were somehow able to buy property and raise their families in one of the most thoroughly restricted suburbs in the Midwest. This was another story I internalized—a lesson in the value of assimilation, forgetting for a moment the fate of purportedly assimilated family members who made the wrong decision to remain in Vienna. We never talked about them.

Both of these stories end with arrival and acceptance, happy outcomes that tend to obscure the unhappiness of their antisemitic origins. Similarly, the security I’ve enjoyed throughout my career encourages me to downplay contemporary antisemitic threats. In fact, my late wife, who was also a physician and Harvard professor, used to say, “Look around you, for Christ’s sake. You’re at the top of your profession. Antisemitism just isn’t a problem anymore. Relax.”

“Easy for you to say,” I’d respond. “You won’t be herded into the cattle cars when they come to round up the Jews.”

I think my tired Jewish gallows humor misled both of us. It’s not that the roundups couldn’t happen, rather the more immediate concern is about something more subtle. After all, she was correct in asserting that Harvard is demonstrably not the antisemitic institution it once was. To be sure, I’ve read the articles that accuse the university of condoning antisemitism, but they make what appears to my mind to be the intellectually lazy mistake of confusing complaints about Israeli government policy with anti-Jewish bias.

Which is not to say that anti-Israel sentiment may not sometimes be a Trojan horse for antisemitism, but still: The facts are that Harvard’s immediate past president and current provost are Jewish, as was its previous medical school dean. The Kennedy School of Government even rejected human rights activist Kenneth Roth for one of its prestigious fellowships, allegedly because of his anti-Israel stance, before changing course and appointing him to the position.

A more realistic-seeming fear in my world is one of a general backsliding into socially acceptable anti-Jewish bias. A striking characteristic of today’s antisemitic moment—acknowledging but setting aside for a moment the small number of truly violent episodes—is its retro feel. One gets the sense that most of those who indulge in the newly licensed antisemitism of the 21st century take a kind of nostalgic pleasure in it. Expressing mild disdain for Jews, often cloaked by the fig leaf of humor, seems to provide the same sepia-toned comfort as myths about small-town America and snoods. It reflects a longing for a time when you didn’t have to worry about letting Blacks into good schools and the only concern you had about Jews was making sure that the owner of the dry goods store wasn’t overcharging you.

The concern among people like myself isn’t so much that the cattle cars will be taking us to the camps—although one must always be on the lookout. It’s more that a permissible, even sanctioned denigration of Jews will be quietly reestablished. Not the old restriction of Gentleman’s Agreement, but something more insidious, at least to start. An attitude that might disfavor a Jewish job candidate (“Haven’t we already had enough folks like him?”), or that might condone disparagement as when a German conductor was reported to have said, in response to the possibility of Daniel Barenboim leaving his position at the Staatsoper, “Now the Jewish mess in Berlin is coming to an end.” (The accused denies saying this but my point is that the accusation was considered plausible and, in our changing climate, similar statements could gain currency.) What begins as discomfort could, unopposed, grow into loss of advancement opportunities and ultimately into threats to job security. No amount of cover would be provided, say, by being married to a shiksa goddess or occupying an endowed chair at Harvard.

It’s right about here that my self-consciousness kicks in and urges me, like my late wife did, to relax. Special pleading for a class so obviously blessed with advantage, privilege, and status is unseemly. After all, I haven’t seen any of my colleagues lose their jobs because they’re Jewish. I do not live in places where Jews are physically attacked on the street, and I do not wear Jewish garb that would attract the attention of people looking for a a target. Better to shut up for now and not whine; save the big guns for when the shit really hits the fan.

But something about the current moment has pierced the veil of complacency that’s kept real anxiety, as opposed to my performative worries, at bay. Some of what’s different this time is external—the easy acceptance of antisemitic comments in the media, for example—but there’s an internal component, too. My responses feel different. Trying to understand this difference has led me to an unexpected connection to my late wife’s illness and death. I’ve written about this in detail in a memoir I’ve called In Sickness, but I ask your indulgence as I summarize the story.

I’ve already mentioned that Jane and I were both physicians, oncologists who worked together at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. One day, as we walked to lunch, she suffered a massive pulmonary embolism—a clot that blocked the blood vessels in her lungs. Jane ended up intubated in the intensive care unit where a secret was revealed: For 10 years, she had been hiding the fact that she had breast cancer. She hadn’t sought medical care and, by now, her neglected tumor was massive and had spread to her lungs and bones. She died within the year.

What’s relevant to this discussion is my studied denial of Jane’s illness. When she discovered her breast cancer, she withdrew into herself and ended all intimacy with me. I had no idea why she had turned so cold and she refused to explain herself. I didn’t press her because I was worried about making her angry and losing her love, so I just got on with my life.

A few years before her embolism, during an episode of bleeding from her tumor, Jane was worried enough to tell me that she had breast cancer, although she wouldn’t show it to me. When the bleeding stopped, she said that if I ever tried to talk to her about her cancer, she’d leave me. So, again, I remained silent. I suppressed my knowledge so thoroughly that when her cancer was revealed again in the ICU, a part of me was genuinely surprised.

While this may seem a far cry from our antisemitism discussion, here’s the connection: Humans have the potential to behave irrationally when threatened with the loss of something they think they can’t live without. I thought I couldn’t live without Jane so I deluded myself into believing she was healthy. I think I can’t live without my academic trappings—being at Harvard has insinuated itself into my self-esteem—so I discount antisemitic threats to my position. The difference is that, unlike my full denial of Jane’s cancer, I do acknowledge the existence of antisemitism; I just haven’t done anything about it.

But, just like the public revelation of Jane’s cancer ended my fever dream about her good health, the public accumulation of antisemitic acts and their acceptance in some quarters has dissolved my denial about their impact.

So, what to do? Well, first, I and my ilk have to try to overcome the assimilationist’s practice of keeping his head down at all costs. There’s no need to take to the ramparts yet—there aren’t any, at least not in the institutions where I feel at home. But there is a need to speak up when the opportunity presents itself.

Second, we should be clear-eyed about antisemitism and not offer excuses or look for ways to deny or minimize the threat when it appears. For instance, in the same way that one should not conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, one should not allow Trump’s pro-Israel stance to blind us to his open tolerance for antisemitism.

It took all my strength to lift up my graying secular head and write this piece. But the times are extraordinary. Despite my longstanding and often-repeated worries about the tenuous position of fully assimilated Jews, this is the first time in my very fortunate life that I’ve believed it to be an authentic threat. And I know that I am not the only one among my equally fortunate Jewish colleagues who feels this way.

Barrett Rollins is Chief Scientific Officer, Emeritus, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Linde Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. His memoir, In Sickness, published by Post Hill Press, is available from Simon and Schuster.