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The Life of a Jew in America


The Life of a Jew in America

By Ari Halbkram

This article originally appeared on


From On Monday, eleven Jewish Community Centers across the country were targeted with bomb threats. Outside St. Louis, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated: over 100 tombstones were overturned and damaged.

When I was a young child, long before Columbine—long before Americans lived in the frightening threat of everyday terrorism—I had terrorism drills at my Jewish day school. My fellow students and I were told to hide along walls in classrooms, behind heavy doors containing tiny windows filled with razor wire to keep attackers from breaking through. Such is the life of a Jew in America.

Throughout my education, I was exposed to writings, music, film, paintings, and conversations all representing a modern instance of how bad things get when an ethnic group is persecuted for their heritage and bloodline. I witnessed first-hand people telling me the Holocaust wasn’t real — people who callously and carelessly threw around the word “fake” — just as easily as I witnessed people with tattoos on their arms who proved how real it was. Such is the life of a Jew in America.

Back in high school, in suburban New Jersey, our school’s brick walls were frequently adorned with Anti-Semitic hatespeak and swastikas, oftentimes less than 500 feet from where we kept our Torah. I was a member of a generation who’d been taught that it was better to sacrifice oneself to save that Torah, and the graffiti reminded us that the threat was real. Such is the life of a Jew in America.


I have been privy to taunts and gestures of anti-Semitic hatred that run the gamut from casual to malicious, in academic, personal and professional facets of my day. Such is the life of a Jew in America.

During Jewish holidays, it’s quite commonplace to see law-enforcement on the urban and suburban streets of the country, not only to assist people as they cross busy highways, but also to show support and protection from those who seek to harm us. While the allusion (or perhaps illusion) of safety is nice, it’s also disconcerting and discomforting. Such is the life of a Jew in America.

I was told not to worry when photos emerged during the campaign of men and women offering the Nazi salute while wearing MAGA hats or Trump shirts. When white-power, anti-Semitic and Nazi propaganda flags were shown waving alongside Trump iconography, I was told it was an outlier, that it wasn’t indicative of anything larger or more insidious. In fact, I was told this by very dear friends. Such is the life of a Jew in America.


When Trump and his like-minded allies and supporters stirred up rhetoric about Obama’s hesitance to use the phrase “radical Islam,” I argued that it’s dangerous to associate the word “radical” with an entire ethnic, religious or racial group. Such an association, repeated over and over again, starts to condition people into believing a wider-ranging implication. When Trump and his allies and supporters lob hateful, despicable vitriol at brothers and sisters who exist across the spectrum of sexuality and gender, I stand up and shout over them: those so-called “troublesome” or “dangerous” people condemned to the margins of society are the  oppressed, not the oppressors. When Trump and his allies and supporters attack the entire Black Lives Matter movement for the violent actions of a handful of people, I reiterate that a whole group can’t be judged on the merits of its worst exceptions.

The difference now is that in this situation, as acts of racial, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-transgender, anti-female and anti-Semitic violence grow across the country, Trump has done nothing of substance to attack and denounce the actions of these people, has never labeled them as terrorists or as threats to our society. Instead, he focuses his energy on tweeting about SNL or actors with whom he disagrees; he complains about fake news one minute, while spouting his own fake news the next. Such is the life of a person of color, a woman, a homosexual, a transgender, a foreigner, a brown-colored citizen, or a Jew in America.

I want to be very clear: when I first started talking about this stuff a year ago, I was told to relax because Trump wasn’t aligned with these violent people; they were aligned with him. I complained at the time that it wasn’t just about association, but rather malicious omission. It was about being silent while others raged. It was about doing nothing to denounce the words of hatred and acts of violence being carried out in general, but especially when they accompanied his name. Trump had that responsibility then, even just as a candidate, and he has the responsibility now as president. When racial tension escalated during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama held an event specifically to address heightened tensions and ways to work around them. I was there; I stood there and listened to him talk about it. Don’t tell me a candidate doesn’t have a responsibility to make a statement when something bad is happening. Now that he’s President, Trump’s malicious omission is even more glaring. His soft-peddled words and passive inaction are searing.

I count myself fortunate — more fortunate than so many of my brothers and sisters — to be white, straight, male, well-employed and not lower-classed in this country. I had very little choice in the matter when it comes to most of those characteristics. This reality affords me systemic benefits that I do not deserve, I didn’t work for, and I did not earn through merit, and I will spend the rest of my life believing in, and fighting for, equality and equalization. But don’t tell me that inaction in the light of hatred isn’t part of the problem. Don’t you dare call my sensibilities in the face of hatred some kind of bleeding-heart liberalism. What some would wrongly cite as a character flaw, I would call out-and-out patriotism. This is happening to my community, and it’s happening to too many other communities, and there are still people who feel they have the right to tell me I shouldn’t be afraid.

Well, I am afraid. And any time you side with his behavior of malicious omission and feckless inaction instead of speaking out against it, you contribute to the problem and you make me more afraid.

You better believe I am afraid, because such is the life of a Jew in America.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

– Martin Niemöller


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