Today, I am terrified.
I feel outnumbered. I feel hopeless. And I feel naive. Naive for not ever imagining that in 2021, I would see videos of huge crowds in Europe heiling Hitler and waving flags with swastikas. A motorcade of drivers calling for the rape of Jewish mothers and daughters. I have seen videos of Jews being attacked across the world, across the country, and at a restaurant 30 minutes away from my house. Today I am terrified in a way that I have never been before.
Growing up in Southern California, I have been constantly surrounded by fellow Jews my whole life. In my hometown, they have always been my friends, my schoolmates, and my neighbors. Jewish culture is an intrinsic and familiar part of the landscape here, and I have rarely not felt welcomed. I took for granted the fact that every year my local mall had a menorah standing next to the Christmas tree. That even though my school district wasn’t Jewish, we always got major Jewish holidays off because such a big part of the student body observed them. My whole life, I have lived in an area and among a community where I could comfortably and confidently be Jewish.
It didn’t occur to me that my experience was not the norm. That my world was insular and sheltered. It was not an accurate microcosm of the rest of America and the world at large, where antisemitism remains a very real, very significant threat.
At a young age, I learned that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor — and what that meant. I knew full well about the horrors of antisemitism in the past. My mistake was in believing it was constrained to the past. That I was being given a history lesson instead of a warning. It wasn’t until a few years ago, in the aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, that I awakened to the realization that antisemitism is not extinct. It wasn’t until this year, watching the riot at the Capitol filled with people sporting neo-Nazi insignia, that I realized antisemitism is not only still here, it’s thriving. And it wasn’t until last week that I realized it’s a threat to my family, my friends and I.
Part of my naivete was also due to the fact that as a non-Orthodox Jew, I don’t always wear my Jewish identity on my sleeve. Not being visibly Jewish has shielded me from the kind of blatant antisemitism that so many Orthodox members of our community — those whose religious garb gives away their identity to any passerby — have been subject to. I now recognize that because I could “pass” as a non-Jew to a stranger, I was avoiding the bulk of hate thrown at us.
Before this most recent slate of antisemitic attacks, the few incidents of antisemitism I heard about, I immediately dismissed as ignorance. These people didn’t know they were being antisemitic; they just needed to be educated, I thought. I couldn’t accept it for what it was: hatred. I couldn’t accept the fact that 75 years after my grandpa escaped death at the hands of Nazis, there were still people who wanted him dead.
There are still people who want us dead.
This is a horrifying realization. It is a thought that has haunted me for the past couple weeks. The images, videos and comments I have seen have made me sick to my stomach. I struggle between shutting off my phone completely and scrolling on it for hours at a time. Neither makes me feel better, but the more aware I become, the more scared I become. I didn’t and I still don’t understand such a deep and undying hatred. I’m glad I don’t understand it. But I finally see it.
Growing up in my Jewish-centric world made it impossible for me to comprehend that Jewish people make up a miniscule 0.2% of the global population, but this week, I reckoned with the fact that antisemitism is growing and spreading and revealing itself at an alarming rate, enabled and emboldened by the lack of public outrage.
If I didn’t feel like a religious minority then, I do now. Now, even in my sheltered hometown with its large Jewish population, I still feel alone and unsafe in my own skin. And I know all my Jewish friends feel the same way. I don’t know when I will feel comfortable enough to wear my Magen David necklace again. Or my youth group sweatshirt with Hebrew letters on the back. Right now, it just feels like displaying an easy target.
Several years ago, I visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles with my family. At the end of the long exhibit on the Holocaust, after walking through a reconstructed gas chamber, there was an interactive display that asked visitors to answer the question, “Do you think the Holocaust could happen again today?”
I remember how confidently I answered “no” at the time. Today, that’s not my answer anymore. Today, I am terrified.