The recent desecrations of headstones at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and Missouri are more than a casual act of anti-Semitism. They are a transgression against the sacred legacies beneath the soil, the stories, the passions, the miseries and the celebrations remembered by the tombstones.
Hearing about the 539 headstones that were damaged and toppled at the at the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia last weekend, less than one week after as many as 200 headstones were toppled at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, brought a memory from almost 20 years ago rushing back to me.
When I was in college in 1999, I traveled with other students through the Ukraine to lead Passover Seders with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, speaking through a translator with many of the villagers we met. At one of these villages, as we sat in a cold, damp synagogue waiting for the Seder to begin, we spoke casually with a twenty-something Jewish man, who was bemoaning the limits of living in a small, rural town. When I asked him why he didn’t move, his face got stern and fell. He responded: “But who will take care of the Jewish cemeteries if I leave?”
His sense of responsibility to the history of this place, to the generations of Jewish families from that Earth, startled me awake. It was the first time I truly understood diaspora, felt its power and significance in my bones. That was his Jewish homeland, just as America is mine.
The recent waves of cemetery desecrations in the US, along with the multiple waves of bomb threats against Jewish institutions, brought this story rushing back for me. While it has always haunted me, it now feels like a gift, a key to understanding and making meaning in this startling time.
That’s why the desecration of those memorial stones hurts so much. And that’s why Trump’s seeming implication that it could be Jews behind these anti-Jewish attacks shakes me to my core. This is a truly disgusting form of victim-blaming. Only a person who is so cynical, so divorced from basic morality and decency, can make such a claim.
The negligence and contempt from the Trump administration for Jews, Muslims, immigrants, queer people and all those vulnerable in this alarming new reality in the US seem to truly know no bounds.
Sure, President Trump has come around to offering lip service condemnations of these anti-Semitic acts. But these words ring hollow while in the meantime, he appoints white supremacists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites into positions of power. It’s an understatement to say his actions betray his words.
What alarms me most is the silence and even the cooperation that the Trump administration is enjoying from many in the mainstream American Jewish community. It is alarming when Trump points to support for Israel as evidence that he is not anti-Semitic, but even more alarming and sickening when it is Jewish leaders who excuse his anti-Semitism because of his support for Israel.
The possibility of being both anti-Semitic and pro-Israel is not new. Some Jewish institutions have long worked with apocalyptic Christian Zionist John Hagee, another “friend” of Israel, who has repeatedly said he does indeed believe that the Jewish people are going to burn in Hell for all of eternity unless they abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity. There is hardly a more deeply anti-Semitic notion than that.
Earlier this week, Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog told fellow Knesset members that Israel should prepare to welcome American Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, just as they did in the wake of anti-Semitic acts in France. Instead of working to ensure the safety of Jews worldwide, Zionism posits a state of the Jewish people as the solution to anti-Semitism. But nearly 70 years on, it should be clear to most people of conscience that safety does not come from an ethno-nationalist state or at the point of a gun.
A telling recent moment was when alt-right leader Richard Spencer stumped a rabbi in Texas by lovingly comparing Israel to the kind of ethno-nationalist state that he wanted to build here in the US. But Spencer wasn’t praising Israel out of love for Jews, but rather out of contempt for both Jews and Muslims. For white supremacists, Israel performs two valued functions — it is a place to which US Jews can relocate, fulfilling the white supremacist desire to see a US without Jews, and it also fits with their Islamophobic lens as a state on the front lines of fighting against what they describe as “radical Islamic terrorism.” Islamophobia has long played a key role in building and sustaining public and US government backing for Israel, but the Trump cabinet is moving it from the background to a centerpiece of their policy, relying on a dangerous mixture of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy that leaves us all at risk.
I recall learning in rabbinical school that Jews have made the mistake, time and again, of cozying up to power until the last possible second, believing that it would lead to safety. The truth is, it never has.
What US Jews need to do instead is cozy up to each other and to our neighbors. Those of us in the Jewish community who are scared and uncomfortable in Trump’s America. Those of us who are full of reverence for the terrifying ordeals and ruthless treatment of Jews. Those of us who participate in the institution of whiteness in the US, mistakenly seeing that as a route to safety and security.
Those of us who see the mistakes made by generations before us, and are willing to learn from them to rely on what we know works: solidarity, mutual support and resilient communities.
This is the mistake I made in asking that young Ukrainian man to turn his back on his village.
As Suzanne Schneider wrote in The Forward last week: “Jewish life flourishes in pluralistic societies within which difference is not a ‘problem’ to be resolved, but a fact to be celebrated. The alliance of right-wing Zionists and the ‘alt-right’ should not be viewed as an abnormality, but as the meeting of quite compatible outlooks that assert — each in its own way — that the world will be secure only once we all retreat to our various plots of ancestral land.”
In this age of rising anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy in the US, who will take care of the cemeteries? People of conscience who see that our safety as a community is dependent not on walls, militaries and checkpoints, but on building mutually supportive and powerful communities, reclaiming safety, and working toward justice together.