Antisemitism: Unveiling the hatred that never ended

Jan. 6 reveals pressing national, local hostility towards Jews

The swastika is a symbol many people have seen, yet many people are blind to its history. Whether it’s etched beneath a desk or carved into a pole in the hallway, the small symbol serves as a reminder that antisemitism is not a thing of the past; it exists around us all.

Following the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 that included displays of antisemitism, the Acalanes community reflected on the pressing issue of national and local religious hostility towards Jews.

The recent spectacle of Capitol rioters sporting “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts blazed across social media platforms, bringing antisemitism to the forefront of American media. However, in responding to the growing recognition of antisemitism today, some people note that discrimination against Jews is anything but new.

“Antisemitism has been in the United States since its inception, and in Europe and other parts of the world thousands of years before that,” Acalanes history teacher Joseph Schottland said. “It has to do with hatred of the outsider or those who are different, and people’s willingness to believe conspiracy theories. Some of the world’s first and longest-lasting conspiracy theories have involved Jews.”

From the denial of citizenship and confinement to ghettos in the Middle Ages to the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego in the last three years, some historians now regard antisemitism as “history’s oldest hatred.” 

Despite its presence all throughout history, people today often associate antisemitism with just a single event: the Holocaust. The indefensible genocide between 1941 and 1945, in which antisemitic leader Adolf Hitler prompted Nazi Germany and its collaborators to murder six million Jewish men, women, and children, is unavoidably conspicuous in the conversation of antisemitism.

“What I first think of when I hear the word antisemitism is the Holocaust. I think that it’s one of the first things that comes to mind because [it] was a horrific event in history, and it didn’t happen very long ago,” Acalanes sophomore Sophie Westen said.

 While knowing about the Holocaust is a significant step in acknowledging the injustice Jews face, the mass awareness and extremity of this particular event can overshadow other forms of antisemitism. Studying the Holocaust alone may create a narrow-minded approach to the vast topic of anti-Jewish experience, promoting a false impression that antisemitic behavior ended with World War II.

“I feel like antisemitism is often thought of as a thing of the past. In my history classes. I learned about the Holocaust, but that is the extent of what was taught regarding antisemitism,” Westen said. “I was not taught about how it is still a huge problem today, and I did not learn about other large movements of antisemitism before the Holocaust.”

The idea that antisemitism exists only within history books is misleading, as Jews today experience targeted violence at a level higher than all other religious groups.

 On Oct. 30, 2020, anti-Jewish sentiment within the Lamorinda community sparked recognition when an unknown perpetrator vandalized several homes in Lafayette with paintings of swastikas along with the word “Trump.” The recent displays of antisemitic behavior both locally and across the country at the Capitol storming on Jan. 6 furthered fear among Jewish students.

“It’s really scary to see people revert so much to past ways of thinking and acting, especially knowing what happened not even 100 years ago, but it’s not unexpected. Acts of antisemitism have been constant throughout time and different leadership, but such a public display of hatred was definitely shocking nevertheless,” Jewish Club secretary and Acalanes junior Ava Spiegler said.

In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released data which revealed that 53.7 percent, or 920 out of 1,617, victims of anti-religious hate crimes in America that year were Jews. Several Jewish students feel that, despite its evident presence today, the issue of antisemitism does not receive sufficient attention.

“It’s very obvious to me that antisemitism isn’t getting coverage because if I look back on the Life Synagogue shooting, it got maybe two days of actual attention … What I see on social media about the issue of antisemitism is only Jewish people and maybe a couple of non-Jews posting about it, but it’s not enough,” Acalanes freshman Gabe Gardner said.

The Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh  was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history. On Oct. 27, 2018, gunman Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., and shot and killed 11 congregants. Despite its severity and national impact, students within the Lamorinda community mention that several local schools failed to recognize the incident.

“This shooting in October of 2018 hit the Jewish community very hard. 11 people were murdered. Some of them were even Holocaust survivors, and no teachers at Stanley [Middle School] said a thing,” Acalanes sophomore Maya Paul said.

The attack in Pittsburgh was just one of several anti-Jewish incidents across America that barely caught the attention of school students. This lack of discussion and awareness on modern-day antisemitism perpetuates the belief that discrimination against Jews is not present locally. However, even though such extreme acts of hatred are not common in the Acalanes community, antisemitism often appears in other forms such as jokes, passing comments, or stereotypes about Jews.

“Many times, kids would call people Jews, which sounds idiotic, but true. They would quite literally use Jewish stereotypes against people, like me, by referencing my nose, greed, etc.,” Gardner said. “Although they were joking, they really weren’t. My most recent experience with antisemitism was in eighth grade with a kid who told me Hitler wasn’t in the wrong.”

The subtleness of microaggressions sometimes allows people to overlook them, but such remarks that range from insensitive comments to hate speech are issues that a vast majority of Jews deal with on a daily basis.

Antisemitism “is an issue for all Jews because I haven’t met someone who is Jewish and has not had some kind of comment said to them … I think in our community, people don’t really think that it is a real thing because they haven’t been on the other side of people’s words,” Paul said.

Although comments and stereotypes may cause no tangible harm, they voice vicious intentions and promote an unwelcoming environment for Jewish students.

“I have experienced antisemitism, and though [some of] it wasn’t directly towards me, it still affected me and made me feel uncomfortable and nervous to be a Jewish girl in our community,” Jewish Club president and Acalanes sophomore Rachel Gottfried said.

Some Jewish students prefer to hide the fact they are Jewish to avoid facing up to antisemitism, or feeling out of place.

“Personally, I’ve seen people hide the fact [that] they are Jewish just for the sake of being comfortable and not feeling like the odd one out. Because of this, people are losing the sense of who they are and so much more … Of course no one reps [being Jewish] all day every day, but people sometimes can literally be ashamed by it,” Gardner said. “It’s scary knowing that [when] I go to temple something bad could happen to me which has been seen in the news.”

In looking for an explanation for the prevalance of antisemitism, some students say that the inability to spot discrimination against Jews based on physical atrributes undermines people’s awareness of antisemitic behavior.

“I think there’s a lot of antisemitic attitudes in our community, and I think it kind of gets glossed over because Jews typically have lighter skin, and it’s less obvious to a lot of people because they think racism only involves the color of a person’s skin,” Jewish Club member and Acalanes junior Franny Daughters said.

Many people also feel that a core factor of antisemitism lies in lack of education. Several students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, mention that the Acalanes district history curriculums contain insufficient amounts of teaching on Jewish past, faith, and tradition.

“There isn’t much education about the Jewish culture and people, and in general, the history of us as a people. When we talk about Judaism, it’s not about the people, or really the culture. It’s very diluted,” Gardner said.

Furthermore, some people voice the necessity for history curriculums to include not only Jewish hardships, but also the accomplishments of Jews as a people.

“America’s youth needs to be taught about antisemitism within school, meaning within the mandatory classroom curriculum, just as we now are talking about racism and talking about all the other forms of hate. [On the] flip side of that, we need to teach the beautiful things that Jewish people have brought to the world like ethics, culture, science, and justice,” the district’s Jewish Club leader and Rabbi Akiva Naiman said.

Members of the Acalanes Jewish Club, a club at Acalanes that offers a space for students to share personal experiences of antisemitism, emphasize that education is the first step in combating anti-Jewish sentiment.

“For starters, learning more about the Holocaust and why not only Hitler did what he did, but why so many people followed him, would be really beneficial to all … Education on the cause of the [Holocaust] and how feelings expanded to genocide would prevent a lot more hate crimes, or at least hatred,” said Spiegler, the Jewish Club secretary. “By educating students both on antisemitism as a whole and their peers’ experiences, I’m hopeful that it will allow the community to become more socially conscious and put up a united front against antisemitism.”

Although antisemitism remains a prevalent issue today, students are optimistic that the Acalanes community will acknowledge its presence to face it progressively.

“I encourage those who haven’t been stepping up to do so because as much as we would like to think it, antisemitism is not a thing of the past, rather, it is so prevalent right now, even at home, that we need to unite against it,” Spiegler said.