The writing on the wall: Being a Jew in Trumpland
It started during the presidential campaign with anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, but since Donald Trump’s election the ripples of hatred have turned into a giant wave. In a special coast-to-coast project, Yedioth Ahronoth presents excerpts demonstrating the extent to which American Jews have become consumed with trepidation and who are beginning to realize that ‘never again’ is a very fragile phrase in the current climate.
Last Monday morning, local television channels in the United States were flooded with footage of small children holding the hands of adults walking next to them and trying to catch up with them. The adults, meanwhile, were trying to get the little ones to walk a bit faster, without making them panic. From North Carolina to Maryland, from Alabama to Rhode Island, thousands of children were evacuated from at least 12 Jewish community centers and schools.
A week earlier, vandalized gravestones were discovered in the St. Louis Jewish cemetery. Several days prior, dozens of Jewish centers were evacuated. A week earlier, swastikas were taped to the front doors of a synagogue in downtown Chicago, and swastikas were scrawled on the windows of a New York City subway train.
The day before that, and a day after, and pretty much every day since the change of administration in the US, America’s Jews have been facing provocations and insults which they never thought they would experience there, in that enlightened democracy.
In the middle of the week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a new security advisory to workers and visitors of Jewish institutions. This followed 90 bomb threats in a week and a half, including one threat directly against the ADL headquarters in New York, although they all eventually turned out to be false threats.
According to the new advisory, the different institutions must review their evacuation procedures, in case of bomb threats, as well as the security arrangements at the entrances to the buildings.
These troubling phenomena are now a matter of routine, and a direct result of the freedom felt by anti-Semites, racists and other ignorant people to bring their hatred out into the open.
It began during the presidential campaign, when Jewish journalists were the main victims of anti-Semitic harassment, whether on social media or in emails with images of ovens. But since Donald Trump’s election—after gaining the support of neo-Nazi organizations, leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the new generation of white supremacists—the ripples of anti-Semitism have turned into a big wave.
Under the anti-political correctness guise, real poison has been discharged into the American air. In the meantime, no one is actually trying to stop it, before something really bad happens. The result is that America’s Jews wake up in the morning without knowing where the next insult, in the best-case scenario, or the next physical threat, in the worst-case scenario, will come from.
The following excerpts—some using their full name, some using only their first name for fear of being exposed—describe what the US Jewry is going through right now. This relatively small segment of the population—proud, pluralistic and esteemed—knows its history and is beginning to understand that “never again” is a very fragile phrase these days.
Karin Warsha, a housewife: Not the last time
The place: The Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The time: February 26, 2017. The incident: Gravestone vandalism.
“I arrived at the Mt. Carmel Cemetery after hearing a report on TV that 75 to 100 gravestones had been vandalized. My grandfather is buried there, and I wanted to see if his grave was damaged as well. I was glad to discover that his gravestone was not damaged, but I feel terrible that so many headstones were toppled and graves were damaged. I don’t cry easily, but when I got there and saw the destruction, I couldn’t stop crying. I don’t understand what the people who did this want from the dead. What did they ever do to them?
“Only a week ago, we heard about what happened in the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, and now it’s happening here. Who would have thought? I’m shocked. I’m afraid that this is not the last time we will hear about gravestones being smashed, because as soon as it happens once or twice, it creates a chain reaction and pushes other anti-Semites to act the same way.”
Liran Braude, an ADL employee: 90 threats in 2 months
The place: San Diego, California. The time: February 27, 2017. The incident: Bomb threats.
“Today, Monday, we received a threat that bombs and explosive charges had been planted in Jewish centers. This is the fifth time that we have received such terror threats. At first, the threats were mostly made against the JCC (Jewish Community Centers), but today threats were also directed at a Jewish school. In total, some 90 terror threats have been received so far in 55 Jewish centers in a short period of about two months. This is a rough estimate. It’s very likely that there will be further warnings.
“So far, none of the threats has been authentic, but we take every warning seriously and evacuate the buildings. We can’t take a chance. The FBI is investigating all the incidents as a single crime, because all these threats sound the same and we believe that the same people are responsible for them. We keep getting reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents, but since November we have received more complaints than in the entire year before that.”
Gregory Locke, a lawyer: I felt like I was drowning
The place: New York. The time: February 4, 2017. The incident: Anti-Semitic graffiti on the subway.
“I got on the subway at night. It’s usually very quiet on the train during the ride, but I felt that the train was particularly silent this time. After a few seconds, I realized that there were swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on all the windows and the advertisements. I felt as if I was drowning, as if someone was strangling me. A minute later, the shock was replaced with an understanding that this is the world we live in now, that it turns out that it can happen here too, that I am among people who have been in the shadow until now but have now come out into the open, and it’s so scary.
“There were a few more minutes of complete silence, people sank deeper into their phones, until one man got up and said that alcohol could clean this ink and asked if anyone had a hand sanitizer. Suddenly, everyone on the train pulled out little bottles and gave them to him. He cleaned one window, and when we saw that it was working, people joined in. There was a sense of relief that at least we can do something.
“I pulled out my phone, took a few pictures and posted them on Facebook. I didn’t think it would become such a viral story, and from many aspects I would have preferred it wouldn’t have, because I was cursed a lot and many people said I had made it up. But these are the exact same people who are unwilling to believe that such things can happen here.
“Over the years, I have seen swastikas here and there, and I usually ignored them. I didn’t think it was intentional anti-Semitism, but just some idiot. But here it was clear that it wasn’t a trick. Here someone scrawled it on an entire subway train. A person doesn’t become anti-Semitic overnight. These must be feelings that were deep inside of him for many years, but now he feels that he is allowed air them, in the most public place, the New York subway. I myself am not Jewish. I grew up in a Baptist home and what I saw scared me, but for Jews it’s a real physical threat. I’m pretty sure that there was a Jew on that train too. It’s New York, after all. I can’t imagine how he felt.
“I’m glad that the main thing people remember from this incident is that people decided to do something. The only way to beat what is happening now is not to keep quiet and not to accept it under any circumstances. Whoever knows some history must remember what happened when good people were silent in the face of evil.”
Dave, a student: What's this weird thing on my door?
The place: The University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-Saint Paul. The time: February 8, 2017. The incident: A drawing of a concentration camp in the dorms.
“It was late at night. I was sitting in the room in the dorms to do my homework. When I happened to raise my head, I suddenly saw on my room’s door a swastika and a drawing which was probably supposed to look like a concentration camp, with fences and a furnace. My first feeling was: ‘Wow, what is that weird thing?’ But it was immediately replaced with great fear. First, I tried to understand how someone had entered the room and scribbled on the door from the inside. I know that it was not my partner and not any friend of mine, and it’s still unclear who did it and how they got in.
“I’m not naïve. I’m a proud Jew who talks about his Jewishness a lot and understands that in the current era it’s something which may cause trouble. The area I live and study in is very liberal and pluralistic, and we usually don’t see these kinds of things here, but in the past few months there have been nine cases of swastikas drawn in the area, and I think there is definitely a cause for concern. We live in a period in which people are getting the feeling from the government that they are allowed to bring out all the dark sides and all the hate, which who knows why they have gained. I hope this situation doesn’t get worse, but I wish I could be certain about it.”
Judy, a student: I started crying
The place: The Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. The time: February 24, 2017. The incident: A swastika in the bathroom.
“I was returning from school to my room in the dorms when I saw a lot of people gathered near the unisex bathroom. It’s a liberal campus which practices equal rights for transgenders. Everyone was standing there pale. I thought that someone had died. They told me they had found in the bathroom a swastika which someone had drawn with human feces.
“I immediately felt sick. I had to sit down. I went to the corner, and a few second later I started crying. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family in the camps. She always told me that there was no such thing as ‘never again,’ that wherever there were people, terrible things could happen, but I wouldn’t accept that. As far as I was concerned, such a thing could never happen in America, and suddenly seeing it was a terrible shock. What if she was right?
“It happened at the same time that Donald Trump decided to cancel the orders defending transgender students, so it wasn’t clear if the psycho who did it had a problem with Jews or with transgenders or with both. One thing’s for sure: These lunatics feel very free to bring out the hatred now. Religious Jews are suffering from anti-Semitic harassment on the street all the time, because it’s much easier to identify them of course. They are attacked with curses and insults and ‘burn in the furnace’ wishes. And this is a liberal and democratic place. I can only imagine what is happening in less pluralistic places.
“People don’t want to say the truth out loud, because most Americans are still living in denial, but the fact is that there is a president who has surrounded himself with people who believe in scientific racism, and not only does he not see it as a problem, he even feels that he is the victim here. I am very concerned that people won’t wake up until something really terrible happens.”
Andrew Moss, a StandWithUs coordinator: Students told that 'Jews are the world's problem'
The place: Ann Arbor, Michigan. The time: November 2016. The incident: Anti-Semitic emails.
“In the past few months I have experienced more anti-Semitism than in the entire two preceding years. It began in November, at the time of the debates between the presidential candidates. Jewish students would approach me and say that students are telling them that all the Zionists are Nazis and that the Jews are the world’s problem.
“Several months ago, someone broke into one of the professors’ accounts and sent emails attacking the Jewish students to his contacts, 4,000 people. A radical right-wing organization recently distributed a flyer reading, ‘Let’s reclaim our tradition and get rid of the blacks and the Jews.’
“In Michigan, there has always been a problem of anti-Israel activity and no one cared too much. Even now, it took the university’s management a long time to condemn what is happening.”
Isaac Amon, a government worker: I was shocked
The place: The Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Saint Louis, Missouri. The time: February 21, 2017. The incident: Gravestone vandalism.
“My mother’s grandparents are buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Saint Louis. I work in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, and I was at work when we heard what happened at the cemetery. My mother went there with one of my brothers, and they discovered that grandmother’s gravestone had been vandalized. I was shocked. I couldn’t speak or move for a several minutes. Words cannot describe the feeling. You ask yourself again and again, how could this happen here?
“I work in the government building, and people saw that I was very shaken up. I don’t know how, but Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, who is Jewish himself, heard about it. He called me, said he was going to Saint Louis and asked me to meet him at the cemetery. I went there with my mother and brother, and the governor met my mother and gave her a hug.
“I grew up in Saint Louis and I never experienced any anti-Semitic incidents, but the past few months have been very tense for the Jewish community across the United States, not just here. I don’t know if there is one reason for it, and there is still no unequivocal proof that the gravestone desecration was an anti-Semitic act or just vandalism, but it doesn’t matter. We understand what is happening. I’m an American and I love this country, but I’m recently finding myself wondering about things I was certain about until now.
“We heard all our grandparents’ stories about how everything began in Germany, and how no one thought it could happen there either. My mother was completely shocked. She told me that she had thought that if there was one thing everyone agreed about, it was that graves were always respected, that the dead were allowed to rest in peace, and now it turns out that it’s not the case. But she also reminded me that these are only gravestones, stones, not people, and that we should try to take the positive sides out of this, the overall sympathetic reaction and the fact that so many people from all religions volunteered to help us.
“We went back to the cemetery yesterday and saw that my grandmother’s headstone was put back in place. I’m still walking around with a heavy heart, but I hope things won’t get worse.”
Rabbi Yisroel Levine: I was afraid
The place: Oak Park, California. The time: February 11, 2017. The incident: Swastikas in the synagogue.
“Our synagogue, of the Chabad community, looks like just another apartment in the area. That was the condition for opening the synagogue at that place, that there would be no sign at the front or anything indicating that there is a synagogue here, because it’s a residential neighborhood.
"That’s why we were surprised when we discovered two weeks ago two pieces of paper taped to the door with a swastika and ‘Hail Hitler’ written on them. I know about at least five other people who received the same anti-Semitic flyers on their doors. And by the way, they’re not Jewish. The security cameras discovered that the flyers were taped by four coward teens with hoods and bandannas covering their faces.
“One of the synagogue goers, who passed by, saw the paper and called to tell me. I was definitely afraid. I didn’t think such a thing could happen in a place like this. It’s an upscale neighborhood in the suburbs, north of Los Angeles, and the people are very nice. Seeing such hatred here was shocking. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and it took me back to all the stories my grandmother used to tell us every Friday.
“The police were great. The cops were very supportive and responded immediately. A week after the incident, on my way to the synagogue on Shabbat, I met one of the cops. He was putting flyers in all of the tenants’ mailboxes with the image from the security camera, so see if anyone knew who these teenagers were. I was filled with appreciation that the police identify with what we’re going through and are trying to act.
“This isn’t the first time that something like this happens. In the past, someone drew graffiti outside the synagogue and wrote, ‘Get out of Oak Park!’ it was shocking at the time too, but it’s much worse when you see a writing like ‘Hail Hitler.’”
Ilanit Michelson, Israel Scouts, St. Louis: We felt like these people had died againThe place: The Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Saint Louis, Missouri. The time: February 21, 2017. The incident: Gravestone vandalism
“I have been living here for 21 years. I got married here, I had four sons, one of them is now serving in the IDF, and I never thought I would encounter such a thing. My mother-in-law’s entire family is buried in Chesed Shel Emeth. She doesn’t visit the place often. The Americans, in general, go to cemeteries a lot less that what we are used to in Israel, but when we heard what happened we went there with her.
“Those barbarians toppled mostly thin headstones, and most of the graves that were desecrated where very old, because it’s probably easier to desecrate old gravestones. It’s a large old cemetery, a lot of graves, and as we walked around we felt like those people had died again. There was one girl there who was looking for a relative of hers. It was clear that she hadn’t been there for a long time and didn’t know where he was buried, and she was extremely shaken up. Some of the headstones which were vandalized belonged to very small graves, and it took me a few minutes to realize that they were old graves of children.
“This incident was all people talked about in Saint Louis for several days. My son, a 10th grader, told me that all his friends were worried about him because they saw how he took it to heart. He said to me, ‘Mom, I don’t understand, why do such a thing in a cemetery?’ A friend of ours, the son of Holocaust survivors, said he planned to buy a gun.
“Over the years, there have been manifestations of anti-Semitism here and there, but now there is definitely a feeling of a rise in the number of incidents. People are shocked that such things can even happen in America and are afraid that we may have become a target. Each person has his own theories about the reasons, but there is no doubt that the atmosphere in the United States since the elections is very unpleasant. I will never forget how entering the synagogue and seeing what they did there made my stomach turn over.”
Daniel, a high school student: ‘Jew, there are coins on the floor’
The place: San Diego, California. The time: February 23, 2017. The incident: Anti-Semitic insult at a Home Depot store.
“When I was at the Home Depot store, I noticed two young people who kept staring at me. They began walking towards me. I thought perhaps they wanted to ask me something, but then they said mockingly: “Hey Jew, look, there are coins on the floor.’ They laughed and walked away. It hurt me. It’s easy to see that I’m Jewish because I wear a skullcap and I have side-locks and a fringed garment, but luckily, I never encountered anti-Semitism. Until now.
"I told my mother what had happened and she reported it to the Anti-Defamation League, but the truth is that there is not much we can do about it. It’s sad, but it’s part of what we Jews deal with.”