Sisterhood Blog

Anti-Semitism In My Own Back Yard

By Johnna Kaplan

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When I woke up last week it seemed the local (that is, Connecticut) news was full of stories about unlikely dangers in our midst. First there were moose, bears and other wild animals prowling the streets. And then there were anti-Semites.

I’d seen a few articles about the ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents for 2011 when it was released almost two weeks ago, and noticed that it found acts of anti-Semitism were down by 13% nationally but up in my state as well as in neighboring Massachusetts. But for whatever reason — upcoming election? devastating super-storm? rocket attacks on southern Israel? — it didn’t seem like the most pressing of news stories over the following week.

But when the Audit belatedly reached some Connecticut papers (here and here), I couldn’t avoid it any longer. One incident, involving a swastika spray-painted on a synagogue, happened in the town where my parents live. Another, in which a young Jewish child was told by a classmate, “Your family deserves to be killed,” took place in a bucolic town ironically known in Colonial days as the “Parish of Judea.”

In some parts of Connecticut it seems every third person is Jewish. Other places in the state once had many Jews; their names can be seen fading on the brick walls of erstwhile dry goods stores. These places have mostly retained just enough Jews to keep a shul or two open, just enough so that no one finds us strange. In the less populated areas, Jews are more exotic. Revealing your Jewishness there can feel like pulling a rare tropical bird out of your handbag.

I’ve lived in all of these types of regions, and never experienced anything other than acceptance or benign confusion, of the “Oh, so do you go to the Jewish church?” variety. But the new statistics made me wonder if I should be more concerned.

The 2011 incidents that make up the ADL’s findings include 27 instances of “harassment, threats and events,” 14 acts of vandalism, and two assaults. That makes a total of 43, up from 38 the previous year. That’s a lot, but when I saw the numbers I was instantly torn between muted shock and a feeling of eh, that’s not so bad. It may be a particularly Jewish brand of cynicism, but when I hear that attacks are on the rise, I find I’m often relieved that at least there haven’t been pogroms.

It should be said that the ADL’s numbers are likely low; the organization only included incidents that were reported to them. They also don’t include the vast thicket of racism that is the Internet, or, except in certain cases, “criticism of Israel or Zionism.” Nor do they mention any possible increase or decrease in reporting itself.

It’s hard to isolate just which part of the Audit is the most worrisome. Is it that so many of the incidents involve “children, adolescents and teenagers…both on and off school grounds?” Or that where I live, a state recently found in one amusing experiment to possess a misleading reputation for being “rich” and “haunted,” will now be forced to add “anti-Semitic” to that list? Or that the states with the highest number of incidents are the ones with the highest number of Jews?

That last fact isn’t news, of course. It’s long been known that, at least in the U.S. (the Audit includes reports from 45 states and Washington, DC), anti-Semitism is highest where the most Jews live. The ADL calls it a “consistent trend.” Yet every time I see it written somewhere, I wait for some bigot or would-be provocateur to suggest — or outright state — that hatred of us is our own fault.

In the end I suppose I’m left wondering what, as a resident of one of the two states where attacks on Jews rose last year, I should be doing about it. Educating people? Taking self-defense classes? Fleeing to North Dakota and passing as a white person with a funny name? This is obviously part of a larger question, an age-old dilemma with no easy answers. It just looked slightly different on Tuesday, when suddenly I viewed it not as a problem for the whole world, but for my tiny state.

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