By: Jonathan Levin  | 

Entering the Silver Age of Jewish Life in America

On the brown, wooden floors of my family’s dining room, 13-year-old me stood, arguing with my parents. 

“It can’t happen here,” I said, passionately, my voice echoing across the room. “America is different. It couldn’t happen here.”

This seemed logical to me. The United States was committed to freedom and was a safe haven for Jews for a long time; it was, in the words of Rav Moshe Feinstein and my elementary school rebbeim, a “medinah shel chessed,” a country of kindness, a place where our people were never systematically persecuted throughout our exile here.

Needless to say, my parents, one of them the child of Holocaust survivors who continued to face antisemitism after moving to Washington Heights following the War, and the other a Soviet refugee who experienced extreme antisemitic bullying as a child, didn’t agree with me. They probably thought I was naive.

Yet this made sense to me. At the time, modern forms of expression of visceral anti-Jewish hate in the Western World seemed to be isolated to Europe. An avid reader of newspapers, I read about antisemitism tied to Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, which was then fresh in all of our minds. But it wasn’t an American problem, right? It happened “over there,” as we Americans have long referred to Europe.

It was synagogues in Germany that were firebombed, not here. We didn’t need soldiers to guard us from raging mobs of antisemites armed with bats trying to smash their way into our houses of worship. “Gas the Jews” and “Death to the Jews” was a European problem, not an American problem. While there was clearly antisemitism here, it seemed to me that it was less prevalent and far less tolerated. “It wouldn’t happen here,” I thought. “It's different here.”

Ten years have passed since that war, and now, the antisemitism we saw in Europe then has come to the United States. Antisemites have crawled out of the woodwork, and while antisemitism “only” rose 21% in 2014, it has gone up nearly 400% since Oct. 7.

Only last week, a Holocaust survivor, one of the last precious few, was heckled at a Berkeley city council meeting devoted to discussing Holocaust remembrance. 

“You are traitors to this country. You are spies for Israel,” said one woman.

“F— you, Zionist pig,” said another.

On Thursday, Jews leaving a Biden fundraiser only a few blocks from the Beren Campus passed through a line of people yelling obscenities of hate; the video reminding me of Jews running through lines of Czarist troops whipping them.

“F—ing murderous k—,” “f—ng die,” they yelled, knowingly on camera, forcing Jewish people to pass through walls of hate to just get on their way.

These were not one-off occurrences. This behavior has been repeated across the country — in Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, Seattle Teaneck. Nowhere Jews live is safe. Not even our Jewish bubble of the Wilf and Beren campuses. A man attempted to torch an Israeli flag by Burgers and Grill, and a window in the Schottenstein residence hall was broken by an antisemite who threw an orange through the second floor. 

Hating Jews has become normalized. There is no longer any fear. Antisemites follow and harass Jews openly, and have even extended their attacks to our allies beyond the Jewish community. Some of my non-Jewish friends have told me that they too have been attacked for supporting Israel. One, a queer progressive Democrat, was called a “fascist” for supporting Israel. Another, non-Jewish as well, told me she needed to meet with a Title VI officer after facing incessant antisemitic abuse for expressing support for Israel.

It’s a far cry from 2014. Seeing this outpouring of hate, its normalization, the failure of our government to prosecute offenders and the failure of the media and popular culture to deem it anathema has led me to rethink my position. Perhaps my parents were right. It can happen here, too. 

In prophetic words uttered more than a century before the Holocaust, Heinrich Heine warned that “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too.” In my mind, a society where people openly celebrate the atrocities we saw on Oct. 7 is the same society where given the chance, the same people will burn, murder and slaughter people too. A society where people can gang up on Jews with impunity is a society that lacks the will to stamp out hate. This is not hypothetical. This is our society. Our America. 

Call me cynical and pessimistic, but I don’t see this trend reversing. This is the same society that when I started college was bending over backwards to eradicate even the slightest amount of other forms of racism. Yet somehow, as I close my college career, this form of racism is acceptable, and I can’t help but fear for the future.

No, we aren’t Europe or even Canada, where the government has now halted arms sales to Israel following a “non-binding” arms embargo passed by parliament. As much as this country is a splintering reed cane, as the ancient Assyrians called untrustworthy allies, we are fortunate and blessed that our country’s government continues to support Israel, even if the Biden administration has started to show worrisome signs of wavering. We are blessed to be in a country where Congressional support for Israel is sky-high. But that doesn’t mean that I live under any illusions. Not anymore. My parents were right. It can happen here.

We all know that this rise of antisemitism, a continuation of the antisemitism we have seen over the past few years, is unlikely to stop soon. It's too painful, so, despite all of us knowing this, we don’t discuss it. 

Shortly after I finished my argument with my parents all those years ago, I conceded that were they to be right, this would no longer be “the America I know.” With antisemitism rising and the gale showing no signs of subsiding, I sometimes question if we were the last generation to grow up in the golden age of Jewish life and contemplate whether we are now in the silver age, belatedly asking, “Is this the America I knew?”