On Yom Kippur, a reminder of the need to fight anti-Semitism

Giselle Cohen, Contributing Writer

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Content Warning: This column contains mentions of anti-Semitism and violence

On Yom Kippur this year I was crossing Snelling. I was just thinking about how hungry I was and asking myself how I was going to make it another five and a half hours until the breakfast that evening? Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement for the Jewish people. Often regarded as the holiest day of the Jewish year, many Jews observe it by abstaining from practices like eating and drinking, showering, wearing scents and sex. This usually means 25 hours of fasting and intense prayer. This is the day of the year where you ask forgiveness for the wrongs committed in the last year and reaffirm you will do better in the coming year. We think of people who have died and should be with us, mourning in community. We confess  our wrongdoing.

For me, Yom Kippur is the culmination of nine days of giving and seeking forgiveness among my community. This final day is a day of T’shuvah — of turning — and of remembering. I try to reset for the next year. To turn my sins of the past into being a better person. And to remember those I’ve loved and lost. It’s a beautiful, challenging and holy day endemic to my Jewish practice.

So, hungry and emotional, I was walking back to the CRSL. Now, the intersection of Snelling and Grand is basically on campus — a place I should feel safe, no matter what I’m wearing, even when I’m dressed like a Reconstructionist rabbi, in a flowing white dress, a blue kippah and my Star of David necklace.

But while crossing the street that afternoon, a woman shouted something almost unintelligible out her car window at me. I think it was, “I hope you’re suffering.” How appropriate, I thought, given the nature of the holiday. Do you think she knows I’m a Jew? But she answered my unspoken thought, saying: “Jews, I fucking hate Jews.”

I stepped onto campus and started laughing. It’s Yom Kippur, of course I’m suffering. I am thinking about all of the things that have gone wrong the past year. As a community, we confess and atone and forgive and afflict ourselves to point toward a better, more ethical year. As Jews we focus on making better, different mistakes in the coming year. So the dramatic irony of this woman’s anti-Semitism was just too much to take it seriously.

One woman shouting at me out of a car isn’t that big of a deal. Honestly, having people yell things at me out of a car is nothing special. Usually, it’s for being a woman, not for being a Jew, but hey — what is a world without variety?

But the next morning I was overwhelmed. I was terrified and sad and exhausted. I just kept fixating on that moment. It wasn’t funny anymore. Because the thing is, this type of anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This experience hit me hard because it is tied up with the attack in Halle, Germany that occured on the same day, and the attack in Williamsburg, New York on Rosh Hashana and the 37 percent increase in anti-Semitic crimes between 2016 and 2017. All these things lead to a world that is less safe for me. Tree of Life. Poway. The sum total of these threats is a growing expression of anti-Semitism, fueling white nationalism. And that terrifies me.

That morning after Yom Kippur, it was hard for me to leave my house. I wasn’t certain I had it in me. But my friend was leading an International Roundtable session, and I knew that this hatred should not prevent me from supporting her or hearing what she had to say. So, I prepared to leave my house, and, as I was locking the door, I paused. Then, almost without thinking, ran back inside and grabbed a Kippah. No longer just a religious gesture, I had made wearing a Kippah a political statement like my Star of David. Hatred wins when I become invisible, so I refuse to be erased.

Anti-Semitism is not new. As part of our memorial service on Yom Kippur, we think about the people we’ve lost from our immediate community in the past year, the six million that perished 70 years ago and those persecuted and killed today. We hold space to mourn those massacred for practicing our religion.

But in the United States, this rising anti-Semitism has taken on yet another flavor. As organizer and activist Eric Ward says, “anti-Semitism is the paper upon which white nationalism is written.” It’s rare to find non-Jews who even talk about anti-Semitism, let alone take it seriously. Ward is a notable exception.

But as I was sitting in the five services of Yom Kippur I attended that day, I listened to many different groups of Jews talk about what they regretted the most that year. Consistently, I found myself and others asking for absolution because we did not show up for others, other communities, ourselves. I also find my own fear and victimization erased. Here too is a key dramatic irony: conditional privilege. Anti-Semitism is a real, growing problem — from the swastikas graffitied on our campus, in parks and on synagogues to the propaganda suggesting Jews have horns. Right-wing and left-wing condemnation of Jewish values. Vitriolic hatred of Jews is not relegated to the past of the Holocaust.

In 2017, 58.1 percent of the 1,679 religiously-motivated hate crimes were committed against Jews. That means that, in the United States in 2017, there were 986 anti-Semitic hate crimes. We hardly speak about it. Pervasive and subversive myths exist that encourage and build anti-Semitism. Everything that Fox News says about George Soros is designed to build a false narrative that Jews run the world economy, want a global society and have a dramatic and disproportionate amount of power.

This propaganda leads to absurd questions. But the reality is starkly different than the propaganda. I don’t have horns. No, really, it’s a complete falsehood that Jews have horns — and yet I’ve been asked on public transit by a giggling young woman not much younger than me, “How do you hide your horns?”

So, because of this pervasive anti-Semitism, I am asking you for awareness, asking you to listen critically. Dismantling the horrifying strictures of white nationalism means witnessing and adressing the anti-Semitic acts that form the paper upon which white nationalist ideology is written. Maybe, hopefully, one day these lies won’t be as prevalent. But for now, please be critical of anti-Semitic narratives and stand with us to dismantle white nationalism. I have always been taught to fight hatred and injustice in as many forms as I can. My Rabbi told me that there are three pillars that hold up the earth: learning, social justice and lovingkindness. So the day after Yom Kippur this year, when I could hardly leave my house, I went back inside and put on my kippah. Not just as a symbol of my religion, but as a political statement — to be the contrarian that I am. Anti-Jewish hatred wins when people like me are erased. But I am not willing to stop fighting yet, because forgiveness and atonement both have to come with change.

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