At the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this week in Washington, D.C., the election hung thick in the air, with an undercurrent of raw fear—a fear that led an acquaintance to tell his children: “No, we won’t be forced to wear yellow stars…yet.” A fear that shows up in think-pieces and tweets alike that draw parallels to Germany in 1933. Suddenly every swastika carved into a wall is headline news.
Anti-Semitism, it seems, is back.
But as far as I’m concerned, as a Hasidic man—and therefore a very visible Jew—it never went away.
To be clear, a lot about the Trump presidency is unsettling. Questions loom large about his experience, his temperament, his treatment of women, and his rhetoric—especially for members of the Latino and Muslim communities. Trump rode to election on a wave of nationalism, fear, and hate. He has kicked the rotten log and now all the creepy-crawlies have slithered out into the daylight. Friends in the media have faced barrages of anti-Semitic vitriol from trolls in the alt-right.
It’s horrid and upsetting. But while I’m deeply disturbed at how anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head, I’m not surprised. Trump didn’t invent anti-Semitism. He didn’t even reawaken it. He merely made it more visible to those who don’t normally encounter it.
I wear my Jewish identity with pride. I have a full beard, a black hat, and a dark suit. Yet even in Brooklyn, people have always said nasty things to me, and other people who look like me. I’ve had kids yell “Heil Hitler” at me on Eastern Parkway and teens throw glass bottles at me on Bedford Avenue. On the eve of Yom Kippur, anti-kapporos protesters, encouraged by dog-whistles in Gothamist, gathered in Crown Heights, brandishing signs that compared us to Hitler. They screamed obscenities, hit men with signs, and told small children that their parents were going to die.
Last week I took a picture of a swastika spray-painted onto a Crown Heights sidewalk and posted it on Twitter. It was instantly retweeted, quoted, and written about by media pundits across the country. Buzzfeed added it to their running list of “28 Reported Racist And Violent Incidents After Donald Trump’s Victory.” The Mayor’s office tweeted a condemnation of the swastika. All of this is great, at least as great as one can call a response to a swastika, but I wonder what’s changed now.
Two and a half years ago, I was walking with my kids Shabbos morning and saw swastikas sprayed on a Crown Heights wall along with the message that “All Jews can eat a dick.” It made local news, but the Mayor’s office didn’t retweet that picture. I didn’t see condemnations coming in from San Francisco, Phoenix, or Moscow, the way I did this week.
So it’s nice that the Anti Defamation League has taken a stand against Pepe. But I still think about how rioters in 1991 threw rocks at 770, smashed windows of Jewish homes, and shouted “Heil Hitler” in Crown Heights—at that time, the ADL called it a “local issue.”
So as we step into the great unknown, I think it’s critical that we truly confront anti-Semitism in all of its forms. Being “woke” only when it’s convenient merely addresses a symptom of anti-Semitism, while letting the root cause fester. Be it from the far-right, or the left, hate in its myriad grotesque faces stems from ignorance and darkness. We in the Hasidic community have long since learned that the best way to confront darkness is to transcend it: to strike a match and bring light into the world around us.
Mordechai Lightstone is a rabbi, a director of digital communications, and the creator of exceptional experiences for Jews in tech and digital media. Follow him on Twitter @Mottel.