This morning I put on my gym clothes, hopped in my car and to drove to my local Jewish Community Center (JCC) for a Monday morning workout. As I approached I noticed two police cars had barricaded the entrance. I rolled down my window. A police officer approached me waving his hand.
I showed him my JCC card.
“The JCC is closed,” he said.
“An incident?” I said, hoping that my suspicions would be wrong.
“This is unbelievable,“ I told him. “I’ll turn around and go home.”
A quick glimpse at my smartphone confirmed my suspicions. As reported by the Philadelphia affiliate of NBC, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the Siegel JCC. As of noon, according to Brittany Horn of the Wilmington News Journal…” programs have resumed following yet another bomb threat at the Siegel Jewish Community Center in Talleyville.”
The previous day antisemitic vandals desecrated 75-100 graves at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery in the Wissinoming section of Philadelphia. Various public officials condemned these antisemitic acts, which have increased exponentially since the election of Donald J. Trump, whose responses to antisemitism and Islamophobia have been tepid, insufficient or non-existent. Here’s how the Anne Frank Center reacted to the recent wave of antisemitic acts in Philadelphia "Jewish graves in Philadelphia now vandalized. Stop this incubator of #Antisemitism and other hate. WE BEG YOU @POTUS @realDonaldTrump." They went on to write:
We are sickened, sickened, sickened. More Jewish gravestones were found today vandalized today, this time in Philadelphia. Mr. President, it’s time for you to deliver a prime time nationally televised speech, live from the oval office on how you intend to combat not only #Antisemitism but also Islamophobia and other rising forms of hate.
For me, this news is a back to the future moment. I grew up in an era during which Americans practiced antisemitism much more openly. Back then housing covenants existed to prevent Jews from moving into certain neighborhoods. As a consequence, Jewish people often lived in enclaves to protect themselves and their children from the ever-present threat antisemitic abuse. Despite this isolation, I, like many Jewish children of that era, experienced antisemitism, especially at the public schools I attended. Kids on the bus liked to make fun of my larger than normal nose and called me “dirty Jew.” In junior high, a gang of classmates forced me into the bathroom and pushed my head into a toilet and flushed it.
“Not even that,” one of them said, taunting me, “will clean you up, you dirty kike.”
I picked myself up and faced them. They pointed at me and laughed.
“If you tell on us we’ll beat you to a pulp, Christ killer.”
I said nothing. They left. I dried my head, and wondered how I would make my way through the rest of my secondary schooling.
That day set the foundation of my social resilience, which has given me the courage to move forward in a wide variety of challenging circumstances here in America as well as in Europe and West Africa. Since that fateful day, I experienced other acts of antisemitism but as time passed they became less intense and much less frequent. I would always be “different,” but perhaps I would learn to swim in the American mainstream. Eventually I made my way to college, the Peace Corps, and graduate school, where I studied anthropology, a discipline with a long history of combating racism and ethnic and religious intolerance.
Anthropologists, as I wrote in my most recent blog, have a long history of critiquing beliefs in cultural superiority. In a climate of profound racism and ethnic bias, Franz Boas, the founding father of American Anthropology once wrote: “The existence of any pure race with special endowments is a myth, as is the belief that there are races all of whose members are foredoomed to eternal inferiority.” In the early part of the 20th century Boas spent much of his professional life demonstrating the conceptual and evidentiary weaknesses of scientific racism and religious intolerance. Indeed, subsequent anthropologists have built an ethnographic record that demonstrates that “others” have much to teach us about living in the world.
As the recent uptick of hateful acts suggests, however, the scourge of racism, ethnic discrimination and religious intolerance is still with us and President Donald Trump remains morally disengaged from the social poison his candidacy and presidency, which, lest we forget was based upon messages of divisive hate, has unleashed—desecration of Jewish graves, the killing of an innocent immigrant in Kansas, the vandalism and firebombing of Mosques and African American churches, the airport detentions of people who are black or brown or have the “wrong” names or practice the “wrong” religion.
This profoundly disturbing set of events can be linked to Trump’s silent response to white nationalist antisemitism, ethnic intolerance, racism and Islamophobia—the core principles of his presidential campaign, which solidified his base of support—a support based in large measure on messages of hate.
Is this what Americans have become in the alternate reality of Trumpism?
At this crossroads of American history, it is hard to know what the future holds. It is powerfully clear that no set of “alternative facts” will alter the ever-increasing demographic diversity in America, which in coming generations will become more and more profound. And yet, President Trump refuses to see the world—or for that matter—our society as it is. This disconnect, which has brought us back to the future of openly expressed hated, is likely undermine the American social contract.
Who is the enemy of the people?
If hate is the result of “taking our country back,” there won’t be anything left to take back. The time for complacency is over. Hate is spreading far and wide. It’s time to take to the streets. It’s time to resist.