It was quite the weekend: At the end of January, I represented the local Jewish community at public events not once but twice. My first opportunity was at the 2017 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, where I spoke briefly as part of a panel on poverty. The next day I dropped by the Spokane International Film Festival, where I introduced the delightful Israeli comedy-drama “The Women’s Balcony” and facilitated a post-film discussion. In both settings, but particularly at SpIFF, where Jewish and non-Jewish audience members alike added meaningfully to the discussion, I felt honored to represent my strong and vibrant community.
The Inland Northwest’s Jewish community may be small, but it’s still diverse and, in many ways, mighty. Our community’s battle, in the 1980s, against the Aryan Nations remains a point of special pride. Members of the Jewish community were instrumental in the creation of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which eventually bankrupted neo-Nazi Richard Butler’s North Idaho-based hate group. Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark recently retold this dramatic story, which is starting to become something of a local legend.
Legends capture universal truths, which means the conflicts that give rise to them have a tendency to come around again. After the conference and the festival, I looked at dozens of articles and status updates on Facebook about President Trump’s executive order concerning immigration. A Jewish friend had written a statement that included this passage: “If you can’t support my Muslim brothers, sisters and neighbors, then I don’t want your support. I don’t ever want you to tell me how sad the Holocaust was and what a miracle it is that ‘my people still exist.’” The Trump administration announced its directive on refugees and immigrants on Friday, Jan. 27, which was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Not long after my friend posted this message, someone hacked her account and began churning out anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi statements under her name. It might seem like a small offense in the larger scheme, but these days a lot of small offenses are adding up to an increasingly frightening climate. My mother, a Holocaust studies scholar, wrote recently about my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor: “It hurts my heart to remember what Oma, who was not involved in or with politics, used to say: ‘It could happen here. Maybe not the same way. But be careful.’”
Some of my Jewish friends in Spokane have warned me that anti-Semitism is roaring back with a vengeance, right here in the U.S., and that before long American Jews may have the kind and degree of problems European Jews have been dealing with for a while now. One described a synagogue in France as a quasi-militarized zone that included barriers topped with barbed wire, installed for the protection of worshippers. The scale of these security measures obviously dwarfs the modest police presence Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom regularly employs.
I hoped that these predictions were hyperbolic. Now it’s hard to know what’s true, what’s likely, and what’s possible. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” Mark Twain probably didn’t say, though the quip is often attributed to him. No matter; it feels too true right now.
Conditions don’t have to be identical to previous waves of destructive populism to raise serious concerns. After all, no two political situations in history will ever be exactly the same. Whatever the truth beneath all the spin and interpretation may be, I’m alarmed at the state of things in the U.S. — more alarmed than I’ve ever felt.
At the same time, I’m encouraged by the recent and ongoing mobilization of activists, at airports and in the streets, in protest of the executive order. I’m encouraged by those who still try to build bridges across yawning political divides, but also by those who are building local movements to protest injustice. As I commented to another friend recently, these efforts represent the America I love, am proud of, and want to defend. For me, that’s the America worth fighting for.
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