I was in my late twenties in the late seventies, a single man sitting in a piano bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was in friendly conversation with an older Irish couple, there to celebrate their history. He wore a green tie, she a green blouse. Alcohol was involved.
The conversation was free flowing, as random encounters with amiable strangers can be. When the talk turned to history, which can happen on St. Patrick’s Day, I put forth the notion — stolen, I think, from a Leon Uris novel I’d recently read — that the Irish and the Jews had much in common, that their shared history of oppression bonded them, that their experience of suffering and privation was deeply imbued in both their cultures.
Not an especially profound insight, but the husband — to the surprise not just of me, but of his wife as well — was having none of it. In his sloshed but strident state, he insisted that the suffering of Jews couldn’t possibly be compared to what the Irish had endured under the lash of the perfidious British. But his argument, such as it was, was less concerning than the disdain in his voice as he pronounced the word ‘Jew.’
And that was when I realized, at the exact same moment as his wife, that what we were witnessing was antisemitism, in the flesh, and that neither she nor I could quite process it. I was happy to change the subject, but she was dumbstruck, as if seeing her husband for the first time.
Looking back, what surprises me is how surprised we were. We had both assumed that overt antisemitism was no longer acceptable in polite society, that it had been relegated to the fringes. It was not something that featured in our lives.
I have never felt part of a “minority.” I have never felt marginalized, excluded, discriminated against, or even looked-at askance for being Jewish. Yes, there have been tiny vibes here and there over the years — at that piano bar, for instance — but nothing that couldn’t be laughed off.
I can’t remember even writing the word ‘antisemitism,’ let alone writing a thousand words about it. But here we are, watching one of its many, many comebacks.
Among the people I grew up with — Jews and gentiles alike — memories of the Holocaust were still fresh and painful. The stories were told in school, and were passed down through books, movies, plays, and television, all of which had a real effect on us growing up.
Thinking back, there was a clear, if subliminal, message being passed on: That we need to remember. That history gets rewritten all the time. That even six million dead Jews can be easily written out of the narrative.
I felt lucky to be able to learn that history from a safe remove. To me, it was a given that we lived in a liberal democracy, in a country where the worst impulses of humanity’s past were presumably behind us. And even as I’ve watched with great dismay this nation’s forty-year descent into collective psychosis, I have never felt that antisemitism was a big contributor to it.
I’ve been naïve. It’s only since World War II that Jews have enjoyed this period of broad social acceptance. Now, it appears that what I thought was a sea change in social inclusion was merely a respite, a brief intermission in the long and squalid history of Jewish suppression. An exception, not the rule.
Signs of the comeback are there to be seen. Swastikas on graves. Shootings in synagogues. Right-wing militants chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Celebrities with time-worn dog whistles spouting off on social media. And then there’s Trump himself, telling Jews to “get it together before it’s too late.”
We’re looking at a surge in what ADL — the fabled Jewish ‘anti-defamation league’ — calls “historic anti-Jewish tropes,” that litany of persistent falsehoods and toxic attitudes that have been handed down over several millenia.
In a recent survey, ADL asked 4,000 Americans about fourteen of these alternative facts. What they found was sobering. Here are five of the fourteen:
Seventy percent agree that “Jews stick together more than other Americans.”
Almost forty percent agree that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America.”
Over a third agree that “Jews don’t share my values.”
Almost a quarter agree that “Jews have too much control and influence on Wall Street.”
And twenty percent believe that “Jews have too much power in the United States today.”
But the ugliest finding, by far, is in the aggregate numbers. A full twenty percent — roughly one-fifth of the sample — agree with six or more of these tropes.
And the survey doesn’t even include some of the more enduring ones: That Jews own the banks. That they control the media. That they manipulate markets and governments.
Nor does it cover the ones that seem to have faded, finally: That Jews grow horns on their heads. That they poison wells and spread plague. That they steal Christian children and drink their blood. And the longest-running one of all, that they killed Christ.
Over time, these received lies have added up to a durable set of prejudices and stereotypes that need only the right demagogue to come along and incite violence. It wouldn’t be the first time.
So it’s entirely possible that the intermission is over, that antisemitism’s next act is already in the works. I hope not. I hope my children can continue to live in a country where good will prevails. I hope they’ll still be able to assume that Jewishness is like being left-handed or queer or vegan or Irish — a little bit different, but who cares?
In 1942, roughly thirty-five years before my St. Patrick’s Day encounter, my father, a twenty-year-old Jewish kid from Brooklyn, went to war. He was sent to basic training somewhere in Texas, where he shared a barracks with some good ol’ southern boys who’d never seen a Jew before.
In Dad’s telling, they were impressed by how human he looked. And he was adamant that they were not being mean or disrespectful — just curious — when they asked him, quite seriously, why he didn’t have horns.