Gary was my friend, then he was my mortal enemy. How did Gary G. transform from friend into foe? An age-old story: Jewish hatred.
Gary and I went to the same elementary school in Long Branch, New Jersey. It was not uncommon for us to follow the same route home and eventually we started chatting and spending time together. We played baseball in the same summer league and rode our bikes together to and from the games. Most nights we’d stop for soft ice cream on the boardwalk after the game. All this changed in an instant when a schoolyard game turned violent.
I was playing catcher during a recess game of baseball. Gary came running around third base and tried to score by knocking the ball out of my hands. He was unsuccessful but in the collision, the ball, my hands, and his stomach collided. In the heat of the game he called me a “kike.”
I told him to take it back but his response was to call me a “dirty Jew.” My response was to punch him in the mouth. We were both suspended for three days. It was a tough policy back then, no fighting on the playground.
After our principal excused us to get our coats and books, we returned to our homerooms. Upon entering my classroom, the teacher proceeded to lecture me on non-violence. He was a Quaker and believed nothing justified violence. I explained what had happened and suggested that in the circumstances defending my heritage was very appropriate. (The language has been massaged as the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is a family paper). I was suspended an additional day for rudeness.
My experience was not unusual for its time and place. Everyone I grew up with could tell stories like mine. Being called anti-Semitic names, having others marginalize us, or exclude us from schools, hotels, restaurants, etc. was fairly common.
Fortunately, most of our children and grandchildren will not live with such personal incidents of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has simply morphed into something more personal and far more lethal. The murders in Pittsburgh and Poway of Jews at prayer revealed to us what our kishkes told us: buried within the dark corners of the Internet is a warren of sites challenging our very existence. B’nai Brith Canada suggests that “anti-Semitism is becoming mainstream,” based on the number of highly public incidents that occurred in 2017. The Anti-Defamation League in the United States also registered an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Both organizations are quick to point out that the number of physical incidents are down, but all other forms of anti-Semitism are up.
What the reports also document is that it is not left wing anti-Israel behaviour that is increasing, it is an expanding white nationalistic anti-Semitism focused on a fictional Jewish plot to destroy white North America by encouraging mass non-white immigration. While left-wing anti-Semitism arises primarily, though not exclusively, out of Israel-Palestinian grievances, the more violent right-wing anti-Semitism emerges out of xenophobia and racial grievances.
Both of the shooters in Pittsburgh and Poway left long documents on the Internet purporting to explain their actions. The writings are eerily similar. Both speak of grievances and hatred based upon the belief that Jews are responsible for a meticulously planned plot to subjugate and enslave the white population of the United States. We in Canada have been fortunate that this kind of violence has not been directed toward us. Our Muslim neighbours in Quebec City and Christchurch, New Zealand have not been so lucky.
Some have suggested that it is simply a matter of time before one of these “lone wolf” gunmen finds an open door to a synagogue or Jewish community in Canada. Though that may or may not be true, what is true is that anxiety is on the rise in Canadian Jewish communities. The best response to anxiety is concrete actions. Assurances from the authorities that assure us there is no increased danger rarely have the calming impact that they are meant to have.
The events of the past six months, coupled with the disturbing statistical trends in Canada and the United States, the release of both the Canada and U.S. statistics should incite more vigorous public responses. Jewish community leaders should rethink their approach to security, with a focus on assuaging the growing concerns of communities themselves. We may have nothing to fear except fear itself, but the same old responses will not assuage that building anxiety and fear.