We Need to Talk About Antisemitism

Image of We Need to Talk About Antisemitism
Release Date: 
August 29, 2023
Seal Press
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Fersko avoids polemics or self-righteous posturing, keeping a smart focus on practical realities. How do you confront Jew hatred, from a clueless gym partner to social media jerks to campus bullies using geopolitics as their cudgel?”

Antisemitism comes in many forms. It’s that cringy dinner guest cracking “Jew jokes” at the Thanksgiving table. It’s a torch bearing mob in the streets of Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It’s politicians using the Holocaust as the baseline comparison for anything they disagree with or see as a personal infringement. It’s someone saying “I didn’t know you were Jewish. You don’t look Jewish.” It’s terrorists shooting up synagogues during Saturday morning services. It’s casual remarks in the breakroom about a colleague who doesn’t come to work on Jewish holidays. It’s activist groups on college campuses who use Israeli government policies to single out Jewish students. It’s a deranged insurrectionist wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie at the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot in Washington D.C. It’s graffiti reading “Free Palestine” spray painted in the middle of the night in front of a synagogue. It’s a former United States president denying that he knew anything about a well-known Holocaust denier brought along as a companion by a celebrity dinner guest, who has his own record of antisemitic driveling.

It’s blatant, it’s subtle, it’s violent, it’s micro aggressive. It’s ingrained in ideologies left and right, from their reasoned centers to their extremist ends. Antisemitism is the equal opportunity hatred.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports a 36 percent increase of antisemitism in United States between 2021 and 2022. In stark numbers, that’s a dramatic skyrocketing from 2,717 incidents to 3,697 in just one year. “Incidents,” is too casual word for such aggressive actions like mob attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, middle school kids hurling pennies at their Jewish classmates, swastikas painted in front of Jewish homes, and a whole lot more. Consider, as well, that the ADL statistics can’t factor in countless unreported cases, ranging from social media post rants to people in passing cars shouting Nazi slogans at Jewish pedestrians.

For all these reasons and so much more, Rabbi Diana Fersko’s We Need to Talk About Antisemitism is a vital book for our times. It should be required reading by school administrators, elected officials, business managers, others in leadership positions, or anyone else who cares about the state of Jews in modern America. Fersko is direct in her call to action. "Rather than lament the state of things," she writes "I say: Fight it. Fix it. And to do that we need to talk about antisemitism. We need to talk about it in our own way, in our own language, for our own time. And we need to do it now.”

These discussions can be difficult, given the multifaceted nature of antisemitism. It’s one of those things that can be painfully clear in some instances, while at other times can’t quite be defined, other than “you know it when you see it.” That’s not paranoia nor a persecution complex. It’s reality. Fersko provides many examples, but one of the most remarkable is something she experienced herself when a workout partner described another woman as “Jewish, but, you know, pretty.”

It’s a stunning comment, so casual in its antisemitism. “I have known this person for years,” writes Fersko. “I’m certain she knew I was Jewish. And yet.” Was there any malice in the remark? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, it was engrained in this individual’s mind that Jews—particularly women—have only one “look,” and it’s not an attractive one.

Moreover, in just five words, the speaker of that offhanded observation willfully ignored Jewish diversity. As Fersko points out, Jews come from Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, and Israel. There are African American Jews and Asian Jews. “Narrowing comments about Jewish looks have a long and dangerous history,” Fersko notes. “(T)hese stereotypes . . . dehumanize us, humiliate us, and ultimately do violence to us.”

It's not just looks. The not-so-quiet antisemitism of stereotyping permeates how Jews are portrayed in mass media. Think of SNL’s recent “Jewish Elvis” sketch. Its jokes are based on a single premise: kvetching middle-aged Jewish women kvelling over a kvetching Jewish Elvis impersonator. The comedy hinged on over-the top-caricatures of Jewish women portrayed by non-Jewish women plus a man in drag. It encouraged laughter because “those people sure are funny”—though not “funny” in a comical sense, but as figures to be mocked.

Compare “Jewish Elvis” to the popular recurring SNL sketch “Black Jeopardy,” where the humor is rooted in white ignorance of African American culture. It’s good stuff fueled by sharp satire. “Jewish Elvis” goes the opposite direction, exploiting cobwebbed stereotypes as the joke. (That the eponymous character of the sketch was portrayed by a Jewish woman reveling in the stereotype isn’t a “get out of antisemitic jail free” card. You’ll never see an African American actor playing up an equivalent exaggeration in “Black Jeopardy”—and for good reason.) “Narrow ideas of what it looks like to be Jewish are not the apex of Jew hate, but they sure are part of its foundation,” says Fersko. “Jewish Elvis” is just another case in point.

At the center of modern Jewish identity is the Holocaust. The further we get from WWII, with the number of survivors dwindling, the genuine horror of Nazi Germany seems to be slipping away. Rather than commit to education about the Holocaust, people use it as a flippant go-to metaphor. Covid mask mandates are compared to the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws, while Dr. Anthony Fauci is likened to Josef Mengele. At concerts Roger Waters dresses up like an SS stormtrooper to criticize Israel. Even the sitcom Seinfeld, with its Jewish creators and cast, goes there. A character nicknamed “Soup Nazi” puts a cranky restauranter into the same category as Gestapo murderers.

Such facile comparisons, Fersko writes, ultimately diminishes the memory of six million exterminated European Jews. It’s a disturbing trend that she terms “Flat Holocaust.” “Sometimes the Holocaust is used for humor; other times it’s used for politics; sometimes it’s used for self-advancement,” Fersko writes. “But in our culture, it’s almost always used. The Holocaust is no longer presented as a tragedy in its own right. Now it’s a vehicle for someone else’s cause.”

Even those who appropriate the Holocaust for their own agendas still understand that the Holocaust was real. They just don’t let it get in the way of antisemitic spewing. In a cynical sense, this isn’t surprising. The online world is a virtual La Brea Tar Pit of antisemitism. Jew hating is rife throughout anonymous social media posts, as well as the comment sections for stories on the Fox News website

Deeper still, the Dark Web provides Holocaust-denying Jew haters plenty of space to communicate, share ugly memes, spread false information, and demand calls to action. The results are deadly. Think about the mass shootings during Saturday morning services at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or the Chabad of Poway in Southern California. In both cases, the killers were driven by feverish online motivations steeped in age-old antisemitic tropes, conspiracy theories, and outright madness.

Far-right terrorists with assault rifles, horrific as they are, is an easy story to tell. What rarely makes news is the antisemitism faced by Jewish students on college campuses by left wing anti-Israel groups. The Israeli government is certainly open for much-deserved criticism and protest. But what’s happening at schools and universities throughout America is as antisemitic as it gets. The monolithic assessment of “Israel,” as opposed to the diverse realities of Israel, is now catalyst for unconscionable litmus tests forced onto Jewish students. Consider the following examples:

At UCLA, an undergraduate judicial council asked a potential board member, “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” No other candidate for the position faced similar interrogations. A campus group for survivors of sexual assault at the State University of New York-New Paltz had a stated policy denying membership to Jewish students who support Zionism. A Jewish student at City University of New York was told by her professor he wouldn’t write her a letter of recommendation until she explained where she stood when it came to Israeli politics and Palestine.

Admittedly, there are anti-Zionist Jewish groups who say their politics are rooted in traditional religious and cultural values. Fersko correctly points out that these organizations are small fringe players, incredibly noisy, and play directly into the hands of those who use Israel to promulgate their own brand of antisemitism. She emphasizes that yes, these factions are entitled to their views, tunnel-visioned though they may be. Her concern is that such organizations are held up by media and others as “representative (of all Jews) when they are a small proportion . . .” It’s anti-Zionist groups like these which give cover for others who use Israel to justify new twists on old antisemitic rhetoric and canards, and just plain old hate.

Such was the case at UC Berkeley, the center of the 1960s Free Speech movement. In 2022, several student groups at the law school, including anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, passed a resolution demanding that the school “not invite speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel and the occupation of Palestine.” The collective groups released a statement saying that this proposal was not antisemitic. Jewish speakers were welcome, as long as they fit the proper standard. Holding favorable opinions of Israel on any level was justification enough to ban someone from lecturing on campus, regardless of a potential speaker’s topic.

That’s not progressive action. It’s Orwellian thoughtcrime in action. It’s modern spin on age-old hatred. “Zionism” and “apartheid state of Israel” are code words. The meaning behind them is palpable: Jews are outsiders who cannot be trusted unless they conform—and even then they still need to be held in check. "Israel is the runway” Fersko writes. “American Jews are the destination." 

She readily admits there are no easy solutions to societal antisemitism, particularly when it’s so deeply engrained into everyday life. Many diversity, equity, and inclusion programs (DEI) at schools, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies don’t include the issues face by American Jews, let alone recognize Jews as a minority. Given that the United States Jewish population hovers around two percent, that’s a considerable omission. In California, the first state to require ethnic studies as part of a general education, Jews were not included in the initial draft proposal. There was no mention whatsoever of the Holocaust and its aftermath. “After a backlash—and more than a little tension—” Fersko writes. “The curriculum was revised to include these topics. But the initial omission was telling.”

All of this and more is deftly laid out in Fersko’s forthright work. Fersko avoids polemics or self-righteous posturing, keeping a smart focus on practical realities. How do you confront Jew hatred, from a clueless gym partner to social media jerks to campus bullies using geopolitics as their cudgel? “Consider public pride in your Judaism as an act of defiance,” Fersko writes. “Go out into this world and wear your Jewish star necklace, show off your chai tattoo, wave your Israeli flag, and put that menorah in your window for all to see.”

Fersko concludes We Need to Talk About Antisemitism with two transcripts. The first is from an interview with Fela Warschau, a Holocaust survivor, recounting what she endured at Auschwitz. That’s followed by a conversation with the grandchildren of survivors, discussing what the legacy of the Holocaust and what being Jewish means to them. It’s a powerful coda, underscoring what comes when antisemitism goes ignored and unchecked.

Fersko’s vision of Judaism is muscular, confident. “If we want antisemitism to wane, we must stand up and be counted as Jews,” she says. We Need to Talk About Antisemitism is that call to action—clear, self-assured, and essential.