This article originally appeared in the February 17, 2022 Concord Monitor.
I was born Jewish on February 19, 1939, at Claremont General Hospital. My Stevens High School classmates included seven Jewish kids out of a class numbering just over a hundred. Our numbers were more than double the percentage of Jews in the United States at that time, which was about 3%, and more than nine times the state’s Jewish population of about .75%. Since then, the numbers have diminished in Claremont but grown nationally, from about four million to 7.6 million, while the national percentage has dropped to about 2.4% and New Hampshire’s percentage has remained about the same.
Was there antisemitism in Claremont back then? I have no doubt that the answer is yes. Prejudice exists everywhere. Did it affect us as children and teenagers in our small New Hampshire city? Not that I recall. I do not remember feeling that I lived in a hostile environment or that I was treated differently on account of being Jewish.
Jewishness can come about in two ways, by birth, as in my case, or by choice. Judaism does not seek converts, but whoever converts to Judaism is considered fully Jewish, with no asterisk next to his or her name.
As with other faiths, some Jews are observant while others are not. I fall somewhere in the middle. Whatever the case, I learned when I was in high school that it’s not easy for a Jew to become un-Jewish. I was working part-time as a chauffeur for an elderly widow named Mrs. Newell. On Sunday mornings, I would transport her and her friend, Miss Baum, to the Episcopal Church on Broad Street. One fall afternoon, driving between Newport and Goshen to view the foliage, Mrs. Newell and I got to talking about religion, and she said, “Joe, I haven’t known many Jews in my life.” Then, after a pause, she added, “Except Miss Baum, of course. She’s Jewish.”
Like all forms of bigotry, antisemitism is a way of thinking that demonizes a group, whether by reason of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. Antisemitism can cross international borders, as in the case of the man who recently travelled from England to a synagogue in Texas, where he held the rabbi and members of the congregation hostage for eleven hours. Or it can be home-grown, as in the case of the Pennsylvania man who murdered eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018.
Jew hatred can also show up in the form of constitutionally protected hate speech, such as when the Proud Boys marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” or when people deny that the Holocaust happened. But truth is truth, despite the disturbing belief among some nowadays that it isn’t.
Antisemitism may or may not be motivating public school officials when they adopt measures to “protect” students. As an example, one of the most compelling books dealing with the Holocaust is a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel named “Maus,” written by the son of Auschwitz survivors and published more than thirty years ago. Last month, a Tennessee county school board voted unanimously to ban the book from its classrooms on account of its “inappropriate” content.
Inappropriate? What’s inappropriate is not teaching about the Holocaust and racism and antisemitism and bigotry of all kinds. In 2020, under a law sponsored by Keene State Senator Jay Kahn, New Hampshire became the fourteenth state to require genocide education in public schools. (In fairness, Tennessee does teach 5th graders about the Holocaust.) But the 2021 “Freedom from Discrimination in Education” law, despite its innocuous name, represents a step backwards by imposing constraints on what New Hampshire’s public school teachers may say. (The law is currently being challenged in New Hampshire federal court).
I grew up in safe times. I still feel safe, but times in America today are not what they were. In a recent column, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a Jew, wrote chillingly that “our luck in America may have run out.” On a more positive note, combatting antisemitism is high on the Biden Administration’s policy agenda. The President’s nomination of Deborah Lipstadt to serve in a new position as the State Department Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism is finally on track for bipartisan confirmation. (Her courtroom victory over British writer David Irving over whether he was a Holocaust denier is the subject of the 2016 movie “Denial” starring Rachel Weisz.)
In 1790, President Washington wrote these words in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham … enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
It’s not just about Jews, however, or any other group that encounters prejudice in today’s America. As Washington understood, it’s about the principles on which the United States was founded,
I don’t believe that our luck has run out, but I do agree with what Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wrote on the same page as Bret Stephens’s column: “If you’re not afraid for our country, then you’re not paying attention.”