Worrying About Antisemitism on Memorial Day Weekend 2021
On the eve of Memorial Day someone hung the above sign on the fence at the end of our driveway.
I was shaken. Truth be told, frightened. Friends who saw it were appalled.
In my neighborhood in Philadelphia every other house seems to have a “Hate Has No Place” sign and here was this sign, on my house. American exceptionalist that I am, I had filed the stories of the previous weeks’ surge in antisemitism in a corner of my psyche, expecting the wave to pass over. But there that sign was, looking very much like the “Jude” painted on the storefronts in Germany, right on my fence in West Mount Airy. What to make of it?
I, who teach law, stressed to my children that my generation in the United States was the most secure Jewish generation ever. But then what did this mean, the “Jews” spray-painted over the “Black Lives Matter” sign? Was it personal? Why our house? I published an article at the Algemeiner almost a year ago on the Jewish imperative, derived from the Torah, to support the Black Lives Matter movement; but nobody could have troubled themselves to have sought my address months later to hang that sign at my door.
The big red letters spelling “Jews” poured salt on the irritations of the last week; such as the inability of Bernie Sanders and certain other progressives to bring themselves to condemn outright the immediate recent outbreak of antisemitism for what it was, choosing instead to dilute it with platitudes condemning hatred of all kinds. For me, who was taught by my grandfather that the lowest day for American democracy had been when the New York State Legislature expelled five elected socialist legislators in 1920, the statements by these “progressives” suddenly radiated their own whiff of antisemitism. With this sign on my door, their liberalism seemed depthless — exclusionary — played to the press, not a reliable morality. I’d voted for Sanders once. But now things were suddenly concrete and words mattered.
The police advised me to install surveillance cameras. My Catholic friend suggested a community vigil in front of my house. It did not seem to me to rise to the level of a cross-burning.
But then, others in my family thought differently. Maybe it wasn’t antisemitic after all. Maybe its point was that Jewish lives mattered. The same night, just four blocks away, the large “Black Lives Matter” sign by the Germantown Jewish Center had been defaced with just the “Black” sprayed over and replaced with “Jewish.” Look closely at the sign hung at our house and it reads, “Jews Matter.” Maybe. Then, days later, we saw “Jewish Lives Matter” spray-painted in the same hand on the lamp pole on our corner.
It is likely that there was nothing personal about the sign at all and probably nothing antisemitic. We live on a through street with heavy traffic. Our fence was illuminated and a convenient place to hang the sign where it would be seen.
But that is to miss the point.
When I was a child, my father, a veteran, would take me to 72nd Street and Riverside Drive on Memorial Day mornings to watch the veterans march up to the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. On October 29, 1942, my father, then just 17, had been inducted into the Navy. I know this, because that very day he wrote to his rabbi, Herbert Goldstein, with the news, because against the advice of many who had advised him to downplay his Jewishness, my father had used a recommendation letter from the rabbi. My father concluded the letter, “I wish that many others of our people could enjoy the experience that I did, and I think that then much of the talk that we hear from among our own people with reference to the Jewish question would be squelched, and we would all be better off.”
He went off to the Pacific and fought the war. A Jew from New York, he told me many times of the abuse Blacks suffered on ship. It changed him more than experiencing kamikazes.
But whatever that sign meant, there I was on Memorial Day 2021, 80 years after the letter, wondering, with the others who saw it, what that “Jews” in red paint over “Black Lives” revealed to me of what it was to be deeply Jewish and deeply American.
Howard Langer is a founding partner of Langer Grogan & Diver. P.C., a firm in Philadelphia specializing in consumer protection and antitrust law. He teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania.