The April 13 fatal shootings of three people outside Jewish community centers in Kansas is clearly horrible. It’s obvious to conclude that Frazier Glenn Miller, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who shouted “Heil Hitler” from the back a patrol car after his arrest, is anti-Semitic. Both of these labels transcend opinion; they’re facts. Denying that Miller and his actions are atrocious would itself be terrible — a belief that only the most radical, hate-filled people would dare make. So, I won’t waste precious printing space passionately arguing that Miller is a despicable human being; you already agree.
But, I’m betting that many readers view this as an incredibly rare story — a fluke and statistical anomaly that says absolutely nothing about anti-Semitism, a formerly enormous problem that 2014 America has managed to conquer and expel from existence.
Not so. Anti-Semitism, essentially defined as hatred and prejudice of Jews, is alive and well throughout today’s land of the free. Though violence such as Miller’s may be quite rare — hence why it made headline news worldwide — ugly Jewish stereotypes and misconceptions are widespread.
Let’s explore my own experiences. As a proud Jewish girl, born, raised and currently living in South Florida, it may be easy to assume that my life’s been pretty easy, devoid of anti-Semitism. After all, Florida has the third highest percentage of Jewish residents among all states and Broward County has the 12th highest county population. From kindergarten to fifth grade, my public school teachers often incorporated Hanukah — or Chanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukukukakakahh, take your pick — into Christmas parties. My middle school social calendar was filled with bar and bat mitzvah celebrations every other week. And none of my high school classmates batted an eyelash or told me I’d go H-E-double-hockey-sticks for frequently attending Shabbat services at my beloved temple.
I was, and am, accepted — at least on the surface. But saying that anti-Semitism is dead is almost as offensively inaccurate as claiming that racism is dead. Steven Speilberg’s Academy Awards don’t establish an end to centuries of anti-Semitism any more than President Obama’s election indicates that we’ve conquered racism. Anti-Semitism is alive in a subdued form, spread through stereotypes presented as jokes and slurs disguised as cheeky nicknames. I’ve been “complimented” for not “acting JAP-y” (translation: like a Jewish American Princess), “having a normal-sized nose” and “not being too cheap.”
The brand of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Sunshine State’s southeast counties isn’t the same violent, undying hatred of the Nazis or even war-era America. It’s spread through gossip and quick judgments. I can breathe easy knowing that it’s relatively unlikely that I’ll be physically attacked for wearing a Star of David necklace, rocking my natural Jewish curls or tossing around Yiddish words. But I will still be judged for it — often assumed to be cheap (my 18 percent tips at restaurants beg to differ), materialistic (ahem, Target is my favorite store) and neurotic (OK, maybe that’s a smidge true, coincidentally.)
And when I step outside the comfort of the warm South Florida sun, the stereotypes and misconceptions shine brighter. A few weeks ago, on my flight up to rural New York, my seatmate was an overly friendly town local.
After making general small talk, he stunned me by asking if I believe in God because I “seem like a nice Christian.” I bit my tongue, hating the insinuation that Christians have a monopoly on goodness, before politely replying, “Well, I’m actually Jewish.”
The resulting silence was palpable. “Jewish,” he repeated softly, like the word was part of a foreign, mystical language, a word his mouth was highly uncomfortable forming. “So you killed Jesus.” The last bit wasn’t a question. The fact that I, Jodi Tandet, personally killed Jesus was as factual to him as John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln.
He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the flight, hiding behind a book. I wonder what would have happened if I had told him that the reason I was even on that flight was for a job with Hillel, a Jewish organization.
When I recounted my experience, which truly shook me up, to a Jewish friend, Sarah, she simply nodded. “Yup, get that all the time.” Sarah was born and raised in Texas and now lives in Tennessee. The anti-Semitism she hears isn’t just small biases; they’re full-blown misconceptions, ranging from the notion that Jews have horns — an assumption that my dad’s freshman college roommate shared — to the idea that Jewish politicians worldwide are secretly scheming to overturn all governments and take control. For Sarah and many of my other Jewish friends whom I met at a Jewish sleepaway camp, camp was the only time to escape anti-Semitism, a refuge from being the lone token Jew in their classes, schools or even entire towns.
And stereotypes and hate-filled speech extend to more than just words. In 2012, almost 60 percent of the 1,166 anti-religious hate crimes reported to the FBI were anti-Jewish. Perhaps some of the perpetrators share the sentiments of Marionville, Mo. Mayor Dan Clevenger who said he “kind of” agrees with Miller, the Kansas shooter.
“There are some things that are going on in this country that are destroying us. We’ve got a false economy and it’s — some of those corporations are run by Jews because the names are there,” Clevenger told KSPR, an ABC affiliate in southwestern Missouri. “The fact that the Federal Reserve prints up phony money and freely hands it out, I think that’s completely wrong. The people that run the Federal Reserve, they’re Jewish.”
The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates Jews being freed from slavery in pharaoh-ruled Egypt, began the night after the Kansas shootings and Yom HaShoah, aka Holocaust Remembrance Day, is April 28. The Holocaust and Egyptian history may be in the past, but anti-Semitism is still present. In fact, this sentence you’re reading right now is a late edit, as while I was writing this piece, news broke that Jews in Donetsk, Ukraine were given leaflets that ordered them to “register” with the pro-Moscow militia that’s taken over the city.
Fortunately, the leaflets, distributed outside a synagogue during Passover, were soon deemed fake. But their warning to “Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality” that refusal to register would result in citizenship revocation, forced removal from the country and confiscation of property, echoed similar, very real, messages issued in Donetsk when it was occupied by Nazi German.
I’m not writing this to propose that Jews, who make up around 0.2 percent of the worldwide and 2 percent of the American population, are as widely and horribly discriminated against as other minorities. As an able-bodied Caucasian, I understand that I am protected from many prejudices that other people face. But I am proposing that readers think a bit more about their actions before off-handedly labeling any girl in leggings a “JAP,” referring to an overbearing parent as “Jewish-y” or assuming that anyone who owns a menorah is out to destroy Christmas. Your average America may not be a neo-Nazi, but a quick search online for Nazi propaganda ads reveals that today’s anti-Jewish stereotypes aren’t terribly far off. Hate is hate, no matter how hilarious a fake prop nose may seem.