Commentary: For American Jews, the fear never went away

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Utah's Jewish and interfaith communities hold a vigil and prayer service at Congregation Kol Ami, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018 for the 11 people killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

My wife is Jewish.

Telling you that a couple of weeks ago probably would have prompted different images than it does following the greatest mass killing of Jews in the history of our republic. And depending on your politics, and in addition to the anti-Semite who did the shooting, you may have people you are inclined to blame.

But blaming is less important to me in this moment of tragedy for Jewish peoples than trying to know, to accept, to understand the country in which we have been suffering anti-Semitism since before the 19th-century mass migrations of Jews to America escaping Russian pogroms; since the early-20th century escape of Jews to America from persecutions of Jews in Eastern Europe; since the mid-20th century escape of Jews to America from the Holocaust; since the shouts in Charlottesville of “Jews will not replace us!”; to the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh. And to recognize that for those of us not raised Jewish, we may be insensitive to the continuing threat anti-Semitism presents to American Jewry — a threat evidenced by a rise in anti-Semitic acts last year of more than 57 percent, the highest increase the Anti-Defamation League has ever reported.

And the rise is not just among the illiterates who populated the Charlottesville protests. The number of anti-Semitic incidents nearly doubled last year in schools and on college campuses. For the second year in a row.

Most of the nearly 2,000 such acts go unnoticed, unreported by even local media. Which may be why no less prestigious a publication and sensitive a commentator on Jewish life than the New Yorker ran a headline commenting on “The Return of Anti-Semitism to American Life.” Thankfully, the story went on to say that Jewish Americans are able to tell you: It never went away.

What we are reminded of by the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville is that in America — where there are more Jewish people than anywhere else in the world — learning about anti-Semitism is part of a Jewish child’s education. It was part of my wife’s education. She remembers her father — a Reform Jewish Cantor — telling her where she should not go for fear of people who did not like Jews, who were prepared to do her harm. And Pittsburgh reminded her that her father had been right.

After more than a quarter of a century with my wife — attending Shabbas and celebrating the holidays with her family — I have come to realize I’ll never really know what it means to be Jewish in the way my wife is Jewish, what Rabbi Martin Buber called a kind of “memory” each of us carries in our bones, a history of experience that not only informs but deserves respect.

And it is that respect that I believe is most lacking today, that “attention” Arthur Miller said in “Death of a Salesman” that “must be paid.” It’s absence is evidenced every time someone says the Holocaust was a long time ago and wonders why “Jews don’t just get over it.” It’s evidenced every time a politician responds to a tragedy such as Pittsburgh by suggesting there is “blame on both sides” or that “both sides” of the political rhetoric are to blame.

Two years ago, right-wing media and politicians attacked the ADL as anti-Trump for criticizing a political environment in which white supremacists go unchallenged and Steve Bannon — "a man who presided over the premier website of the Alt Right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists” — assumed a top position in a presidential administration.

And two years later there is Pittsburgh. And my wife is reminded of how wise it is for an American Jewish girl to be afraid.

Clifton Jolley

C​lifton Jolley is a writer and president of Advent Communications in Ogden.