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Reflection on the Jewish-American Experience & Anti-Semitism

01/09/2012 11:42:26 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Last month, I gave two talks on the Jewish American Experience as a “Lunch & Learn” and also for the “Rebbe’s Tisch”.  I started with an overview of American Jewish history, and then made some general observations about the exceptional nature of our experience here; we have never been as safe, as free or as prosperous as we are in America today: Ein ayin harah!

This unprecedented prosperity did not come all at once but rather was accomplished over time; there was and still is anti-semitism in America.  The difference is that, unlike almost all the other places we have lived, in America, thanks to the Constitution and the rule of law, we could fight and win, and we have!

Up to this point, folks in both lectures tended to agree or at least, go along with my premise.  Things got more interesting when I asserted that today there was little if any consequential anti-semitism.  What I meant is that, while people still hate Jews (like they hate other minorities), it is no longer socially acceptable or legal to do so.  In other words, the days of institutional anti-semitism are over, and Jews experience few if any barriers as participants in American society.

At this point my talk became more of a conversation, with participants telling their own stories, many of which included encounters, some of them quite ugly, with anti-semitism: name calling, physical abuse, discrimination in the workplace, etc.  Now, to be fair, almost all of the experiences that people shared dated to before the civil rights movement, when the last of the discriminatory practices ended.  Nevertheless, I was left wondering to what degree anti-semitism is a factor in Jewish life today?  And, just as this question began to percolate in my mind, Chris Smith of the Press Democrat published the anti-semitic joke that SRJC Vice-President of Student Affairs, Mary Kay Rudolf, had sent to 60 folks who work with her.

Since then, Ms. Rudolf has apologized to the college and she wrote me a very touching note, as well.  I think she acted out of ignorance, not out of malice, and I know she very much regrets what she did.  But this question is bigger than her:  Is anti-semitism a real problem here in America today?

I’d love to hear what you have to say, so please respond to this blog and make your voices heard; what is your experience?  Do you think anti-semitism is an issue in America today? Why? Or why not?

Meanwhile, these are my parting thoughts:  Yes, people still hate Jews in America and yes, you will also occasionally run into an anti-semitic joke or comment.  But let’s not confuse this kind of unpleasant, but relatively benign form of prejudice, with what used to be considered acceptable behavior in this country; there are no more Jewish quotas at colleges, no professions are blocked from Jewish participation, no neighborhoods can have “no Jews” in their By-Laws or deeds of sale.  Those days are over, and though the memory still stings, it’s time we stop being defined by them.  However, as I wrote in my blog about Hanukkah, we cannot take our prosperity or freedom for granted and must forever be vigilant.  If our history teaches us anything, it teaches that at any time, “a Pharaoh can arise who does not know Joseph.”

Wed, August 4 2021 26 Av 5781