It Has Happened Here
As a Jew, I have lived my whole life with the ominous cold comfort of the words, “It can’t happen here.”
It’s what my parents told me when I was a child, and they had to first explain the Holocaust to me. It’s the conceit that has lived behind every casual remark minimizing anti-Jewish violence, or non-Jews explaining to me that antisemitism lives in the past, or isn’t important compared with the suffering of other oppressed groups.
I live in Brighton, New York, a suburb of Rochester. My town trends politically liberal, and our Town Board is composed of five Democrats, and a Democratic Town Supervisor. As a political progressive, born and raised on the left, this suits me fine.
Then in May, as conflict in Israel/Palestine again erupted into violence and bombardment, and my family and I were waiting daily to hear from our Israeli relatives to ensure they were safe, a Town Board member decided to take to Facebook to express her views.
Robin Wilt shared a picture of herself with Linda Sarsour, an activist who has praised convicted terrorist bomber Rasmea Odeh, and consistently demonizes Israel, promoting the false blood libel that Israel is engaging in “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians (there are actually more Palestinians now than when Israel was established, and they have a longer life expectancy).
Wilt included the hashtag #FreePalestine, which is the shortened version of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” The not-so-subtle subtext here is “Jew free.”
As a proud believer in Jewish liberation, this was incredibly painful. But I had met Wilt before (indeed, I voted for her), and I did not believe she was an avowed antisemite.
I know that Wilt has made an effort to be religiously inclusive in her time on the Town Board, and is an advocate for racial justice. Perhaps this was simply her way of expressing solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people, and concern for their human rights.
I invited her to a virtual town hall on anti-Jewish racism, in hope of finding common ground. Hundreds of local Jews reached out before, during, and after to express their concern and need to hear from Wilt that she was not hostile to Jewish peoplehood, and understood that the Jewish nation is a de-colonial indigenous sovereign nation whose continued existence is vital to the future of the world’s oldest surviving persecuted minority.
To say it was an epic failure would be an understatement.
I want to be clear that I do not think Wilt hates Jews in a conscious way. I think she has absorbed ideas about who Jews are through living in a society that perpetuates antisemitism.
These ideas lead her to treat Jews in ways that make them less safe, and accord them less respect than other persecuted minorities.
These ideas include: the myth that Jews are white, the myth that Jews are wealthy, that myth that Jews are European and therefore the Jewish State is colonial, and the myth that anti-Jewish oppression is historical and not current.
I unpacked these ideas at some length in the town hall, and explained why they are false and harmful. It was my hope that she would acknowledge that this was a different perspective, and that she heard our concerns and valued Jewish safety.
I was deeply disappointed that she did not respond this way, but rather took the position that we shouldn’t follow her on Facebook if we don’t like her posts.
Anti-Jewish hate is on the rise around the country, and rhetoric that denies our peoplehood, denies our danger, or treats us as villains (oppressors, colonizers, etc.), places a target upon our backs.
The winds of change are blowing, and historically that means my people must once again fear for our place, our rights, and our very lives in a non-Jewish country, while simultaneously being told we don’t need a Jewish one.
Lauren Deutsch, Esq. is an attorney with a background in gender-based violence litigation, professional activist for reproductive justice, health equity, and immigrant rights, proud Jewess, and parent of three, living in Brighton, NY.