As most Mainers celebrate Christmas in their homes and churches, I’ll be engaged in another annual pastime, Jewish Christmas. The American ritual, dating back at least to the 1930s, consists of eating Chinese food and watching a movie.
If Hanukkah and Christmas coincide, as is the case this year, my family will light the menorah and say the prayers. We’ll express our thanks for reaching this season and remind ourselves of the fight for religious freedom we won against the Romans that the holiday commemorates.
In general, this country has been good for the Jewish people. The American revolutionaries who waged an anti-imperialist war and wrote the Constitution believed in the free practice of religion. Having seen the religious violence that plagued Europe, and having been influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, our national progenitors wanted to create a land without an official religion overseen by the state.
Even before the constitutional convention, Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom proclaimed that telling people what to believe was not only wrong, but would corrupt both religion and government. As creatures with reason, we all must be able to reach our own conclusions about matters of divinity and faith. Thus Virginia law stated that people “shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
But despite this long commitment to free practice of religion, at times anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head in the United States.
Restrictive covenants in housing deeds kept Jews and racial minorities from being able to buy homes in particular areas.
Among America’s elite institutions, there were efforts to limit the number of Jewish students admitted. Harvard rejected a quota but adopted a plan that dropped a competitive exam in favor of requiring greater geographic diversity, leading to fewer Jewish students.
During the 1930s, the American Bund, a Nazi group, ran summer camps for children and training camps for adults. At a 1939 rally in Madison Square Garden of 20,000 people, attendees wore swastikas on their arms as speakers preached white supremacy and railed against “job taking Jewish refugees.” Insinuating that President Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish, the Bund mangled his last name, calling him “Rosenfeld” and proclaiming that the media was controlled by “the hands of the Jews.”
Now, violent anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States.
Anti-Semitism goes beyond tthe torch-bearers chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville and the murderer who, motivated by anti-Semitism and xenophobia, killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
A month ago, a 27-year-old white supremacist was indicted for plotting to bomb a small synagogue in Colorado. This man hoped this would be just the first bombing he would carry out and, while denying the Holocaust happened, wrote on Facebook, “I wish the Holocaust really did happen” and, said Jews, “need to die.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism, reports that “White supremacists in the United States have experienced a resurgence in the past three years, driven in large part by the rise of the alt right.”
The alt-right in Maine mirrors classic movements of hate. Their toxic stew typically includes false connection between immigrants, illness and economic harm; the invocations of George Soros and other rich Jews as purported puppetmasters who hurt average Americans; the seemingly innocent claim that all they want is to preserve western civilization; and a tolerance and even welcoming of Holocaust denialism.
However, President Trump’s executive order regarding anti-Semitism on college campuses was the wrong approach to confronting these developments. It focuses on boycotts of Israel, not anti-Semitism and the alt-right, and it “defines the Jewish people as a nationality for purposes of federal civil rights law.” My nationality is American, and any other definition divides American Jews from our fellow citizens.
Whatever tradition you are celebrating this holiday season, we can and should resolve together to confront and turn away from hate, and to cast lights that bring joy and hope for a more loving future.