For the first time in her life, writer Alana Saltz is afraid of being Jewish. She isn’t alone. Yet history has taught her and others not to give in to fear, but to fight back and survive.
On the first day of Hanukkah, six weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, the rabbi of a Santa Monica congregation arrived at his synagogue to find feces smeared on a window near a menorah display.
When I read the news that morning about this sickening incident, which occurred less than 10 miles from my home, my first thought was, That’s horrible, but at least they didn’t shoot the place up or set off a bomb.
Hanukkah is an eight-day remembrance of the Jewish people’s struggle for religious freedom and of the miracle of light. Clearly, this holiday was considered far from sacred by many in this country this year, but its symbolism couldn’t have been more timely. Since Trump was elected, anti-Semitic hate crimes have spiked, so much so that the number of appearances of swastikas has increased as much as 500 percent and acts of anti-Semitism are up more than 31 percent in New York City alone from one year ago. In the same Santa Monica synagogue vandalized on Hanukkah, the assistant rabbi reported that, during a service in November, a man yelled, “Heil, Hitler,” positioned his arms like a shotgun and then ran out of the temple.
Jews are disproportionately targeted when it comes to religious hate crimes. In fact, hate crimes aimed at Jewish people comprise 50 percent of total hate crimes, and, although Jews represent a mere 2 percent of the population, they are three times more likely to be targeted than any other group. These statistics matter.
At least, they should matter.
When I was a kid, I attended Hebrew school every Sunday. In addition to memorizing the Hebrew alphabet, singing songs and playing games, we learned about Jewish history. I first heard about the Holocaust at a very young age when we had a Holocaust survivor speak at the temple.
As the survivor recounted the horrors and tragedies of a time that seemed so long ago, I was shocked and terrified, trying to imagine what it would be like to be persecuted, hunted and killed simply for my family’s religious background and beliefs. The atrocities this woman suffered were cruel and inhumane. She’d lost most of her family to concentration camps. She’d narrowly escaped with her own life after years of unimaginable suffering.
When I celebrated Passover every year with my family, we told the story of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt by a cruel pharaoh, one they were able to escape through a series of plagues and miracles.
As part of the traditional rituals of the holiday, I dipped parsley in salt water to symbolize the tears that my people had cried. I put my finger in grape juice to count the plagues onto my plate. I ate bitter herbs to relate to my people’s suffering. I put charoset, a sweet paste made of chopped apples and walnuts, between pieces of matzah to symbolize the mortar in the adobe bricks that the Israelites used in their enslavement.
We recounted the story of our people’s persecution, and my uncle got out his guitar so we could sing songs like “Dayenu” and “Chad Gadya,” with lyrics about being grateful and celebrating freedom and our history. “Dayenu” was always my favorite because its lyrics are about how any act of kindness toward us in that time would have been enough. It would have been enough just to grant us our freedom. Anything more we received was a gift.
So much of Judaism, and being Jewish, is about being grateful for what we have.
Judaism has always been woven into me as part of my culture and family. I spent two weeks in Israel when I was 9 years old, staying on a kibbutz with relatives, floating in the Dead Sea, exploring the ruins and mosaics at Masada. I slid a wish into the Wailing Wall. I searched for a Star of David necklace on the streets of Jerusalem to bring back home to remember the trip, and my heritage, forever.
As a child, I learned that swastikas were symbols of evil and hate. I saw them in history books alongside photos of Jews being rounded up in the streets and killed in concentration camps. Huge armies of men wore the symbol on their sleeves, waved it as a flag, to celebrate that persecution. That symbol was used to kill people like me. It’s still used as a sign of solidarity among those who hate people like me, and any people who aren’t the way others want them to be.
I wasn’t afraid of being Jewish. Not yet. The hate crimes, genocide and oppression seemed like things of the past. I was naïve and protected enough to believe that for many years. But last year, my best friend, a rabbi at a congregation in Richmond, Virginia, told me that her synagogue had been targeted in a white supremacist attack planned on synagogues and African-American churches in the area. The FBI was able to stop it at the last moment, but she was only a step away from having her place of work and worship shot up and bombed by white nationalist terrorists.
I started to see online harassment and threats targeted at Jewish friends, authors and journalists. Twitter turned into an anti-Semitic battleground where I personally received hateful messages and vile images in my mentions. The most disturbing image tweeted at me was a World War II-era caricature of a Jewish man with a hunchback and a huge nose, smirking and grasping his hands together, a yarmulke atop his head. It was the kind of anti-Semitic propaganda you’d find in a Holocaust museum. Reporting these incidents to Twitter did nothing. I was told this hatred didn’t violate their terms of service.
I watched Donald Trump tweet anti-Semitic imagery and spout propaganda, using language that more than hinted toward oppressing minorities and encouraging violence against them. In an attempt to turn voters against Hillary Clinton, Trump tweeted an image of Hillary atop a pile of money with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” written inside a six-pointed star. Toward the end of his campaign, he started rallying against a “global power structure” and showed footage of Jewish CEOs and philanthropists in his final campaign ad, which denounced large corporations. His white supremacist followers held a rally in a federal building in Washington, D.C., where they chanted in German and did Nazi salutes.
Hundreds of Jewish Holocaust scholars gathered to release a statement about how dangerous Trump’s rhetoric was, not just to Jewish people, but to everyone. To these scholars, it was starting to feel like history was repeating itself.
In 2010, I visited the Anne Frank House, in Amsterdam, with my younger sister. We ascended that creaking, cramped staircase and saw where the Frank family hid from the Nazis, where Anne wrote her famous diary.
This can’t happen again, I assured myself. The world has changed.
I used to believe that. It didn’t occur to me to hide my Jewish identity. I didn’t worry about being trolled, harassed or targeted for physical violence.
Now I’m afraid, truly afraid of being Jewish — for the first time in my life.
But I refuse to let that fear stop me. I won’t censor myself, my words or my name. I’ll write articles and essays, attend protests when I can, and report attacks and harassment when I see them. I hope that others will stand beside me and see me, and see all Jewish people, as a minority worth protecting.
Persecution is in my blood. The trauma has been passed down through generations. We’re survivors above all else, and I believe we can survive this.
That will be enough. It shouldn’t be, but it has to be.
Alana Saltz is a freelance writer and editor. She received her MFA in writing from Antioch University, in Los Angeles, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, RoleReboot and Bustle. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com and follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.
Photo of Living Torah Synagogue in Santa Monica. Source: Google Maps