* This article appeared in the February 27, 2020 Concord Monitor
Every day seems to bring a new report of anti-Semitism – not just in other countries but in the United States as well. And for good reason. Jew hatred has infected our country, in Pittsburgh and Poway synagogues, in Monsey, New York, and in a New Jersey kosher market, to cite just a few recent examples. At a certain point a series of events becomes a trend, and history tells us that it can get worse.
My father, Frank Steinfield, was born in Chelsea in 1891, a year after his parents and brother arrived in this country. His father, for whom I am named, changed the family name from “Pollock,” and moved to Claremont a decade later. They were the second Jewish family in a small town of about 6500, and they spoke Yiddish at home.
The Steinfields became part of the community, but there was no synagogue, so my father celebrated his bar mitzvah in Springfield, Massachusetts, where another branch of the family had settled. Not long after, he left school to help support his family, and a few years later he and his brothers started a small factory alongside the Sugar River. Decades later, he helped turn his boyhood school into Temple Myer-David. He was an observant—though not strict—Jew, and a devout Republican.
My mother grew up the 1920s, in Littleton and Berlin, the daughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jews with the less obvious name of Firestone. She married my much-older father, raised my sister and me, volunteered for the Claremont Red Cross, and drove us to Boston to visit relatives, see plays, and buy shoes.
How lucky I was to grow up in mid-50s Claremont. Like most Jews in predominantly Christian communities, we lived with a dual identity, at the same time both integrated and “other.” That duality never felt like a disadvantage, if anything the opposite. As I believe was true in my father’s case a half century earlier, and in my mother’s in Coos County as well, I did not suffer the pain of anti-Semitism.
I have come to the conclusion that the party in which my father believed, as it currently exists in the person of Donald Trump, is not good for minorities, including the Jews. I am fully aware that many people, including Jews, will not agree with me, and I also know that generalizations are dangerous and often wrong. But the evidence, if not overwhelming, is at least troubling.
The president likes the idea of people coming here from Scandinavia but not from “shithole” countries. Putting aside the fact that the country’s leader expresses himself so crudely, we need only turn back the clock to the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, not to mention the 1930s. How many of our ancestors came here from Norway? Can anyone say, with a straight face, that we still welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
He has said that Jews who support Democrats are “disloyal” to their faith, as if the Torah were a partisan document? To weaponize religion for political purposes is to demean it.
When anti-Semitic white nationalists marched in Charlottesville and announced “Jews will not replace us,” did he condemn them and reject their support? He did not. He said, instead, “There are two sides to a story” with “very fine people” on both sides. That’s just wrong. Some stories have only one side and the people on the other side are anything but fine. Does he understand that his words have consequences? I think he does.
He calls himself “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” Some of his best friends are Jews, though you wouldn’t always know it. Last December, speaking before the Israeli American Council in Florida, he warmed up by referring again to the Jewish “dual loyalty” and then hit his stride. “I know you very well. You’re … not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me. Some of you I don’t like at all.” Republican leaders, meanwhile, either say nothing or respond by calling his bigoted comments “inappropriate” or “not what I would have said.”
A recent insult is of a somewhat different kind. I refer to Trump’s decision to award the presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a “morally corrosive and politically cynical act” to quote David Remnick (New Yorker Feb. 6). I’m not aware of any overt anti-Semitism on Limbaugh’s part, although the ADL’s Abraham Foxman once accused him of for making a “borderline anti-Semitic remark” about Jews and money, to which Norman Podhoretz responded by calling on Foxman to apologize for saying such a thing about “so loyal a friend of Israel as Rush Limbaugh.”
Many Jews believe that being strongly pro-Israel means, by definition, that the person is not anti-Semitic. I take no position on that question, and, to be clear, I do not say that Limbaugh is anti-Semitic. But his homophobic and racist statements, heard by millions of listeners, are easy to find. A college friend of mine says I once told him that you can’t be prejudiced selectively. I don’t remember saying that, but I do believe it.
Ultimately, the growth of anti-Semitism in America raises a profound challenge to our country’s ideals, and we as Jews have a special obligation to speak out against intolerance, whether against us or any other group. In a recent Wall Street Journal article (Feb. 15-16), Rabbi Meir Soloveichik wrote in praise of Abraham Lincoln that “America is an exceptional nation only if it remains ever loyal to the covenant of its founding.” That covenant was never stated more succinctly than by that exemplary Republican president who, in his Second Inaugural Address, sought to “bind up the nation’s wounds with malice toward none.”
I first heard those words growing up in a tolerant New Hampshire community. They remain words for our time.