“You don’t look Jewish,” is something you hear when you have red hair, freckles and not a particularly large nose. To some, I don’t meet the stereotype of what being Jewish “should” look like. For this reason, I’ve heard antisemitic comments all my life, but nothing could have prepared me for this moment.
To be clear, this piece is about antisemitism — not about Israel, Hamas or any other geopolitical disaster. It is about what it feels like to be the target of hate and violence. It is about the depth of fear and pain that is consuming me and my community. It is about using communications to speak up for yourself and others. It is also about racism.
Race is a deeply complex concept that is bigger than skin color, and as this last month has shown, antisemitism must be included in the conversation. While many Jews have the cold comfort of being able to blend into white spaces, antisemitism is nonetheless part of many of our lives. Remember a few years ago when neo-Nazis and the KKK stormed Charlottesville, Virginia, with Tiki Torches shouting “Jews will not replace us”? It was a familiar chant with a long history that Jews know all too well.
The election of former President Donald Trump in 2016 released a Kraken of antisemitism along with other forms of racism, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. He did not invent any of those ills, and since his loss in 2020 it’s gotten worse. We have seen what happens when
there is a permission structure granted for the ugliest of human behavior from a position of power. If Jews in America got lulled into thinking they were safe, the Trump years were a wake-up call that confirmed that we are still “other,” still despised and still an easy target.
Since that day in Charlottesville in 2017, the graves of my grandparents have been defaced and spray-painted with swastikas. The temple my family belongs to has received several bomb threats, including this September on Rosh Hashanah. This past week, a fellow student on the campus where my son is finishing up his college studies threatened to “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews.”
I have been in the communications industry as a professional since 1992. I chose to focus on nonprofit organizations and social impact work because I wanted a career in which I could make a positive change on the world; not just for Jews, but for everyone.
It’s not easy work, but it’s more important than ever that we as professional communicators step up and use our skills, passion and connections to address what is so obviously broken in the way antisemitism is held apart from other forms of racism and injustice. The past month alone has seen a 400% increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.S., and also in Canada, Europe and South Africa. Our fear is not unfounded.
Let’s start by naming antisemitism as a threat and recognize that it’s part of the work of DEI. Part of my contribution to my agency’s DEI committee was the addition of “religious discrimination” to our statement. Just like it’s ridiculous to leave the burden of eliminating racism to people of color, everyone — not just Jewish people — needs to denounce antisemitism unequivocally when they see it.
We can also take particular care to combat misinformation and disinformation. Last year, The Polarization Pendulum, an analysis of 100 million tweets from over 18 months found the “shifting popularity of antisemitic” tropes on Twitter. When you consider this along with the fact that “extremist anti-Jewish hate is not acted on,” according to this study from the Center for Countering Digital Hatred, it’s evident that antisemitic messages are accepted across the world’s most influential social media platforms.
Data shows that online attacks against Jews in the U.S. correlate with conflict in Israel. We must convey that no matter how people feel about the war, hating Jews is not — nor will ever be — a valid response. The clarity and leadership of Rev. William Barber has been a rare exception, as he wrote in the Guardian, “Moral movements for justice have always refused to take on the tactics of those who choose to terrorize.”
Fighting antisemitism is consistent with human rights and an inclusive society. Do you know that research shows the Americans with the most antisemitic beliefs also support the most serious violent threats to democracy? I especially want to ask my fellow progressives why so many of them are silent. As Dana Milbank of The Washington Post wrote last month, “what a lonely time to be a Jew in America.” Many of us feel so abandoned when we have stood up for the safety, rights and dignity of other communities.
The work is also empathizing with your Jewish colleagues who are really struggling right now. I’m a lifelong New Yorker with a tough exterior that rejects vulnerability, but I cannot express what it has meant that some non-Jewish friends and colleagues of all races have reached out to. It is not taking political sides to show compassion. I still tear up from a friend’s text: “I bear witness to your pain and loss. I’m extending love.”
There’s a lot of work to do, but communicators are particularly well-equipped to help address the growing threat of antisemitism. It is incumbent on all of us to use the tools of our trade to fight this ancient hatred, and in turn make society better for all of us.
Jennifer Hahn is chief client officer at Fenton.