Did you know that May was Jewish American Heritage Month? If not, I forgive you. You may have missed the coverage in Jewish newspapers, the article in South Florida’s Sun Sentinel, or the cursory proclamation by the White House.
To the extent that Jewish American Heritage Month ever did mean something, the intention was to honor Jewish contributions to this country. But Jewish success is not celebrated anymore, lest we add fuel to the ceaseless conspiracy theories about malignant Jewish control of the media, the banks, and Hollywood. Instead, we’re either reduced to a parodied version of ourselves — as Jews who have overbearing mothers, celebrate Chanukah, and wish everyone mazel tov — or paraded on screen as cheap, miserly, dishonest, and conniving.
If you have eyes and ears and live in the United States of America, though, you probably did know that May was also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The contrast felt like a cruel joke: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO Max all debuted collections dedicated to Asian Americans both in front of and behind the camera. They launched video ad campaigns and ran blog posts by Asian American executives. Museums hosted special exhibits. Outlets as varied as the “Today” show, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, NPR, ABC News, and Salon magazine ran features highlighting AAPI family traditions and success stories, while calling for us all to do more to fight anti-Asian discrimination.
This heightened attention and solidarity were doubtless attributable to the spike in anti-Asian attacks this past year, and rightfully so.
But I couldn’t help but notice a double standard. As attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders peaked, elected officials and influencers quickly issued categorical condemnations. Corporations, universities, and other institutions sent emails of support, just as they did in support of the Black community after George Floyd’s murder. Congress passed a bill to specifically address hate crimes against that community.
And yet the very same week that bill was signed into law, a gang of 30 men mauled a group of Jewish diners outside a restaurant. A mob viciously beat a Jewish man in the street in broad daylight. Palestinian supporters threw explosives into a crowd of Jews, attempted to run over a Jew in a parking lot, and vandalized synagogues and Jewish-owned shops across the country.
Messages of solidarity with Jews were slow to come, if at all. One by the Rutgers University chancellor was, unbelievably, retracted for its apparent insensitivity to Palestinian students. President Biden took nine days to issue a statement. Many stood up to condemn anti-Semitism only to qualify their condemnation with something else: But Jews had it coming because of Israel’s actions, said a public intellectual addressing a pro-Palestinian rally. But it’s a shame this will stifle criticism of Israel, said a New York Times columnist. But maybe Jews should start thinking about hiding their Jewish identity in public, said President Biden’s Jewish outreach director. But we should also talk about Islamophobia, said at least eight senators and House representatives, despite there being no concurrent wave of anti-Muslim attacks.
The writer Katie Halper, who co-hosts the “Useful Idiots” podcast (no joke) with Matt Taibbi, tweeted that “Israel perpetuates and requires antisemitism.” Excuse me?
This dual slight — where our heritage goes uncelebrated while anti-Jewish violence and bigotry somehow prompt less outrage — is not a new phenomenon. According to the latest FBI data, Jews are consistently the most frequent victims of hate crimes on a per capita basis. Even after 11 Jews were massacred while at prayer in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, Congress did not pass a bill combating anti-Semitism. One was proposed the following March, but that was apparently too controversial, so it eventually became a generic anti-hate bill. A series of vicious, high-profile attacks in 2019 also failed to prompt specific congressional action: A Jewish woman was murdered at another synagogue outside San Diego; three Jews and a bystander were executed at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey; and five Jews were hacked with a machete at a Chanukah party in upstate New York.
Adding insult to injury, the media began rationalizing away the violence. Rather than simply point to a surge in anti-Semitism as the reason why anti-Jewish assaults made up most of the hate crimes in New York City in 2019, dozens of news articles shifted blame away from the attackers and the environment that created them, pointing instead to factors such as gentrification or racial tension. (I explored this phenomenon then in a pair of op-eds and a radio interview.)
For Jews, concern for our own safety has now become a part of our daily reality. And the attacks, this time triggered by the intensity of anti-Israel vitriol in the first place, aren’t just statistics or distant news stories. They affect our families, our friends, and our communities. They get seared into our collective memory as Jews, compounding our intergenerational trauma from centuries of persecution. Imagine seeing hordes of people chanting for your death or calling to rape your daughters. Or hearing a car backfire outside your house of worship, wondering if this time they’re coming for you.
Liberty and pluralism are not self-sustaining values. To preserve them, we must confront bigotry with the same sense of solidarity and outrage no matter the targeted group. Only in this way can we truly rid hatred from our midst.