These 10 words were the title of an essay I’d been writing in the months prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Once the pandemic hit, our collective attention-span became laser-focused on how we would attack and survive the disease. The subject of anti-Semitism, or any issue of race hatred for that matter, all of a sudden seemed off-topic.
Until this week.
At “Reopen Illinois” rallies in front of the Thompson Center in Chicago and the state capitol, protestors proudly held up signs with swastikas on them. One was accompanied by the words “Heil, Pritzker.” Another took the hatred a step further holding a sign that read: “Arbeit macht frei, JB.”
The “JB” stands for J.B. Pritzker, who is the Jewish governor of Illinois and one of the co-founders of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
The German words “arbeit macht frei” mimicked the words that were inscribed on the gate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where over a million Jews were slaughtered. Translated into English, the expression means “work sets you free.” That expression on that gate was a grisly Nazi trick; a verbal accessory to mass murder.
Just as I will never fully understand how human beings willfully carried out the Holocaust, I’ll never understand how 75 years later a human being can paint a sign with a Nazi symbol and those words — and march with it in public. It doesn’t seem real.
But it is real. And the fact that these people were flaunting such vile rhetoric in my home state made my stomach that much sicker.
The title of the article I’d been writing was inspired by my lifelong astonishment that anti-Semitism still exists and manifests itself in real ways every day. In America, no less.
I don’t have any relatives that perished during the Holocaust. Yet in my early 20’s, I had visceral anger about the fact that it actually happened — and from there my curiosity grew about why.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed many Holocaust survivors. I’ve listened to their brutal pain, as well as their towering strength.
I’ve interviewed the author of Schindler’s List and survivors who were saved by Oskar Schindler. In 1998 I visited Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation and reported on its effort to memorialize every last survivor’s oral testimony on video.
Only a few years later, I found myself working for the Anti-Defamation League in Chicago — proudly placing articles like this one on editorial pages throughout the Midwest.
Yet after all of those experiences, as well as my own personal dealings with anti-Semitism, its existence still confounds me.
Of course, I know full well where all of the tired old stereotypes come from. I’ve read and studied plenty on the subject. But all of that has only had the effect of making me more incredulous.
In my life experience, which includes living in seven different states, Jews are some of the most generous and charitable people I’ve ever met.
As Americans, we are encouraged from a very young age to work hard in order to achieve our dreams and earn the life we want to live — while at the same time giving back to our country. For generations, Jews have been doing both of these things at high levels.
Yet anti-Semitism continues in America. We even hear tone-deaf comparisons from elected leaders. Just a week ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ohio State Senator Andrew Brenner (R) publicly compared his state’s health department to Nazi Germany.
Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) publicly singled out the Jewish community last week in a stern rebuke to New Yorkers about not following social distance rules. The mayor may not have had any ill intent when he sent his tweet, but he also must be aware that over half of all hate crimes in his city last year were against Jews. When called on his wrong-headed tweet, he quickly apologized.
Some will say that the protestors are not promoting anti-Semitism; they’re just lodging grievances against government decisions and using Nazi Germany as an analogy to make their case. This is ridiculous. If you’re that angry about government in America and you think its actions reflect fascism — then use the word “fascism.” Stay away from the Holocaust altogether.
Of course, the recent examples cited above are just the ones that are most visible. If you want to see official statistics on how anti-Semitic acts (and other violent hate crimes) have increased in our country over the last few years, the Google search will take you less than 10 seconds.
To be clear: hate is hate. Anti-Semitism is one ugly strand of a global disease. One of the reasons I’m proud to be in the ADL family is because its objectives do not just include protecting Jews, but defending against every type of discrimination that violates what it means to be treated equally as a human being.
The concept of people of different backgrounds living peaceably amongst each other never seemed very complicated to me.
The simplest articulation I’ve ever heard of this concept came from an interview I did with a survivor 25 years ago. In her teens, Sylvia Grohs-Martin was imprisoned in three different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before American GIs came to the rescue in 1945. In her last answer to me, the fiery 78-year-old leaned in and boiled it down to the super-obvious:
“You’re red, you’re blue, you’re green, you’re black, you’re a Jew, you’re not a Jew — whatever. Learn to live with each other. This is what I am teaching people, and this is what I can leave to the world.”
Much of people’s hatred or fear toward “the other” is based on ignorance. I would say this is axiomatic, except it’s not. As advanced as our society has become in the twenty-first century, ignorance still abounds — even about ignorance.
Ironically, ignorance can actually become a door to enlightenment. As human beings, we’re preternaturally wired to be fearful of the unknown. But once we come to understand something that we’d previously perceived to be a threat, its demystification has the power to evaporate the fear.
The other driver of hate — and the one that’s far more sinister because it signifies a mind already made-up — is the age-old concept of scapegoating: Finding a convenient target to direct blame for whatever else is actually causing a person’s pain.
All of this brings me back to the 10 words in the title, and the question posed by the last four: Do you hate me?
Of course, this query is not literally about me. It’s about anyone who uses the excuse of others being different to display their hatred.
And for those that do, the real question becomes: what or who is it that you really hate?