November 5, 2023
Over the last four weeks, I’ve been asked a lot: “how are you?”
And my instinct is to say what I usually say: “I’m ok.”
But over the last four weeks, I’ve been forced to grapple with a challenging truth:
I’m not ok. None of us are ok.
On October 7th, we witnessed the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. And in the weeks since, the ripple effects of Hamas’ terror attack have unleashed a wave of antisemitism here at home and around the globe that is unlike anything I’ve seen in my life.
The images and stories would be horrific enough on their own, as our hearts break for the lives taken and those still held hostage. And we also know that as Jews, we carry with us specific generational trauma: for me, I can’t help thinking about the stories I was told growing up about my grandparents, who somehow survived the Holocaust in hiding and on the run — and their families, who weren’t as lucky.
We don’t need to directly compare October 7th — or this broader moment — to the 1930s and 40s to recognize that it still triggers deep trauma in us as a Jewish people.
And students like you are on the frontlines. Many of you reported feeling unsafe and scared at school and on social media, unable to trust the people you expected more from right now.
What you’re experiencing aligns with what other Jewish students – and the Jewish community more broadly – are facing across the country and around the globe. Since October 7th, the ADL and Hillel have both tracked hundreds of antisemitic incidents in the United States, from graffiti, to graphic violent threats, to direct assaults. The FBI director testified before Congress last week about “historic” levels of antisemitism. And we’re seeing the same trends around the globe.
We should be clear: people have a right to criticize the Israeli government, its policies, and its actions. I certainly have. But in far too many cases the past four weeks, what we’ve seen goes well beyond criticism of Israel into overt and explicit antisemitism.
When Jewish people, organizations, and property are targeted or threatened because of the actions of the Israeli government, that is antisemitism. When Jewish students are deliberately isolated and shamed because of their religion and their connection to Israel, that is antisemitism.
We also must understand that this resurgent bigotry didn’t come out of nowhere. We were already dealing with crisis level antisemitism and broader hate-fueled violence and extremism –which has become increasingly normalized in our politics and our society, manifesting in a variety of dangerous ways.
Six years ago, neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us!” — for a weekend of deadly violence that was rooted in antisemitism and white supremacy. And in the years since, those bigoted ideas have moved from the fringe to the mainstream, with politicians, pundits, and others espousing watered-down – but incredibly dangerous – versions of these conspiracy theories.
That normalization has fueled a cycle of violent extremism, including the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States, in Pittsburgh five years ago, as well as attacks targeting the Black, Latino, and other communities in El Paso, Buffalo, and beyond.
All of it illustrates the insidious way antisemitism operates. Of course – like so many forms of hate – antisemitism is a prejudice or bias: hatred against Jews. But what’s unique about antisemitism is that it also operates as a conspiracy theory, rooted in tropes, myths, and lies about Jewish power and control.
Whether it is the lie that Jews are “replacing” the white race through support for immigrants, refugees, and Black and brown communities; or that Jews “control” our media and our government, orchestrating support for Israel; or so many other — perhaps less obvious but still incredibly dangerous – conspiracy theories, tropes, and ideas, antisemitism operates in this insidious way sometimes making it harder to identify and call out.
Now let’s also get the rest of the bad news out of the way
The polls and statistics tell us that age is among the biggest determining factor when it comes to opinions on antisemitism and Israel. The vast majority of Americans overwhelmingly support countering antisemitism, or support Israel over Hamas, but those numbers decrease somewhat when we look at Gen Z.
An October Harvard CAPS / Harris poll found that significant portions of young voters don’t know the basic facts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the October 7th terror attack. And another recent study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that belief in antisemitic conspiracy theories – such as the Great Replacement and QAnon – is higher among teens than among the general adult population.
This tells us that your experiences and fears are real: you are not imagining things, this is a legitimate problem among teens and young adults, in many ways fueled and exacerbated by social media.
But here’s the good news: you are also uniquely positioned to make a difference right now, as young leaders and activists.
This is a painful moment. And it is a scary one. But in the most frightening times come the greatest opportunities.
So what do we do?
Some will tell us to take off our Jewish stars, or our kippahs, or our mezuzahs, or avoid synagogue or our Jewish community centers, for fear of violence.
Instead, we must live proudly as Jews – being smart and careful, but never shirking from our identities. Terrorism is meant to terrify us, to prevent us from living our lives as proud Jews. We will not let them succeed. Keep showing up, proudly.
Some will tell us that antisemitism is a given – that it is inevitable, that it’s not worth fighting.
Instead, we keep fighting like crazy: to call it out, to educate, to ensure our schools and our governments and our communities are fulfilling their obligations to keep us safe.
Some will tell us to pull back from our relationships with our neighbors – that this is somehow zero sum, and the safety of one community comes at the expense of our own.
Instead, we must build bridges between communities, because our safety is deeply connected. We must hold the complexity of this moment and distinguish those who are ignorant or with whom we have legitimate policy disagreements from those who intentionally hate.
And must recognize that we as Jews are not alone in our fear right now: the Muslim and Arab American communities have also been targeted by horrific hate and violence, and we not only have an obligation to reject that bigotry, but an opportunity to show up in solidarity with one another, even at this painful moment.
Some will tell us to give up on a better future in which Jews – and everyone – can live safely and freely.
Instead, we must put everything we have into creating that future. The rise in antisemitism and other forms of hate and extremism are symptoms of a broader fraying of our democratic norms and values. But we as Jews know we’re safest in inclusive, pluralistic societies, where everyone is treated fairly and everyone is safe, no matter their religion, their skin color, their national origin, their gender identity or sexual orientation.
And it starts with what you’re doing today: showing up here. That alone is an act of hope and faith – believing that a better world is possible.
The coming weeks and months won’t be easy. But the only path forward is through.
So please: keep showing up. Keep living proudly and Jewishly. Please keep fighting – for our community, for all communities under threat, and for the better world we so desperately need.
If anyone’s going to do it, you will. I’m grateful to be here with you today.