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Living in a Bubble? (June 2016)

I was heading out of town last week when the news broke about an anti-Semitic incident at Gibbons Middle School in Westborough.  I was dismayed, as I'm sure all of us were, but I can't say that I was totally surprised.

     I have to commend Amber Bock and the Westborough educational leadership for what appears to be a textbook response to the incident.  They contacted the police, notified parents and the community and got in touch with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  Even though this incident was likely perpetrated by students who thought they were committing a harmless prank and had no idea of the symbolism and the history behind the swastikas they drew, the school system reacted swiftly and appropriately.  Such was not the case, unfortunately, in a few similar incidents earlier this year at a middle school in Newton.

     I wasn't surprised because we are witnessing a rising number of such incidents locally and nationally.  Incidents directed not only to Jews, but to other minorities as well. A few days ago the Globe reported that middle school students in Arlington had directed racist texts to a child of Indian origin at their school.  The article mentioned an incident in March with anti-Semitic graffiti in bathrooms at the same school.  Such expressions are, of course, not limited to school students.  The same article referred to another incident in March in which an 84-year-old Arlington woman received a Ku Klux Klan badge in the mail after she published a letter in the Globe criticizing Donald Trump's initial reluctance to disavow David Duke, a former Klan leader.

     The ADL, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents, documented an increase in reported incidents from 2014 to 2015.  Recently they revealed that the number of reported incidents so far this year has almost matched the total number for 2015, at the half-way point of the year! 

     I have been thinking a lot recently about anti-Semitism, as I recently finished one of the most comprehensive books on the subject that I have ever read.  Entitled The Devil that Never Dies, it was written by Daniel Goldhagen, who has penned a number of books on anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and genocide.  I had the privilege of meeting Daniel recently when the Jewish Student Union at the Phillips Academy in Andover, where I am the Jewish Chaplain, brought Daniel to speak for our annual Yom Hashoah program. 

     The Devil that Never Dies is about the rise of global anti-Semitism.  It is a hard book to read, as it paints a very bleak picture of the ubiquity and the increase of anti-Semitic attitudes and actions throughout the world due to, among other things,  globalization and the advent of social media and the internet. 

     Daniel describes an unofficial moratorium on anti-Semitism in the Western world in the post-Holocaust era.  It has been unacceptable, and in some European countries illegal, to express anti-Semitic views and sentiments, in the wake of the Holocaust.  He argues that that moratorium has more or less come to an end, hence the significant rise of such expressions by public officials in many European countries on the political left and the right. He also argues, convincingly, that the lines between anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel expressions are quite blurred, and that they often overlap.

    I believe the increase in anti-Semitic expression and events should be seen in the context of an increasing fear of the Other-any who are different from ourselves-in Europe and in the U.S.  The recent vote in the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union is a manifestation of this as well.  I am also of the opinion that repeated statements against Mexicans and Muslims, among others, by a presumptive presidential nominee has helped to create an atmosphere in our own country in which people with views against any racial, religious and/or ethnic groups feel that the public expression of these views, which they may have harbored and previously expressed behind closed doors, is now permissible. I wonder if this atmosphere has trickled down to our middle schools, hence the drawing of swastikas in notebooks and on bathroom walls.

     I read and hear about increasing anti-Jewish incidents and expression in other places-France (, Sweden, elsewhere.  American Jews have been relatively sheltered in this regard; it feels like we are living in a bubble-hence the title of this column.  I hope this is not changing, but I am concerned-hence the question mark.

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784