What Do You Hear?
Written By: Avie Silver, JFS Board Member
A five minute response presented during a Leadership Delaware Inc. panel discussion on “The Intersection of Race and Leadership.”
When I was 16, I travelled to Poland with 6,000 Jewish teenagers from around the world. We spent a week visiting the sites of some of the greatest atrocities of the Holocaust. We visited Majdanek, a death camp 5 miles outside the city of Lublin, Poland. At the far end of the camp there is a crematorium with five ovens; to the right, the city of Lublin, clearly visible just below the horizon.
We walked in and out of the crematorium. We walked alongside the mass grave and climbed to the dome of an adjacent building. We stood there, silently. The sun was setting. I stared as the shadows of our bodies were cast onto the 10,000 tons of human ashes that lay below. I turned around and looked past the crematorium to the city, and thought about all the people who said they didn’t know.
They could smell the burning flesh and brushed the ashes from their coats, but they didn’t know.
The silence was deafening.
I have been asked to share my experiences with racism, but I am white. I do not face the racism that so many others deal with every day. There is no box for me to check when asked what kind of American I am. I check Caucasian, because I am, though many would classify me as “other.” But if there were a box that said “Jew” … that opens up a whole different conversation…let me tell you why.
A quick recap of Jewish history:
- Biblical Times: The Jews were slaves in Egypt; the Jews were defeated in Israel; the Jews spent a lot of time wandering with no place to call home.
- 1492: Queen Isabella & King Ferdinand order the killing and evacuation of all Jews from Spain during the Inquisition.
- 1516: The word ghetto (gèto) was introduced when all Jews in Venice, Italy were rounded up and forced to live in a specific area with laws that only applied to Jews.
- 1821 to 1906: Anti-Jewish pogroms ran rampant in Russia. Jews being blamed, terrorized, rounded up and murdered.
- 1903: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published for the first time. This text, an entirely fabricated Russian publication, implicated Jews in a plot to take over the world.
- 1920: Henry Ford republished The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper in Dearborn, Michigan.
- 1935: The Nuremberg Laws in Germany decreed that Jews were a race defined by birth and blood rather than a religious or cultural community, and more rights were stripped.
- 1938: On Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues in Germany were destroyed.
- 1939: More than 900 Jews seeking refuge in the United States on a luxury liner from Germany were denied entry by Cuba, the United States and Canada, and sent back to Europe, in what became known as The Voyage of the Damned.
- 1939-1941: The Holocaust. Six million Jews were murdered.
- November 29, 1947: Israel was granted independence by the United Nations.
- America in the 1940s through the 1970s:
- Quotas limited the number of Jews allowed entrance to colleges.
- Anti-Semitic covenants prohibited Jews from residing in certain neighborhoods.
- Employment opportunities were not open to Jews and many businesses including law firms and financial institutions would not hire us.
- In Delaware, a billboard near Rehoboth Beach read “No Jews, No Niggers, No Dogs.”
So how does this affect me?
How have I experienced being Jewish in America?
This is my personal history:
- My earliest memory of anti-Semitism comes from when my best friend’s family had swastikas spray-painted on their house. They lived two doors down from me, in our middle class neighborhood.
- 8th grade: I had to sing a song about Jesus and Satan at my public school’s holiday concert, or choose not participate. There was no middle ground.
- 11th grade: This was the first time I heard the joke, “What’s the difference between a pizza and a Jew? A pizza doesn’t scream when it goes into the oven.”
- 12th grade: Because of my experience in Poland, I was asked to watch Schindler’s List with the 9th grade class at my school, and participate in a discussion afterwards. The movie was stopped in the middle because the students wouldn’t stop laughing.
- In college, I was called a Kike. I was asked to show my horns. (The person who asked was surprised to learn that I didn’t actually have horns.) My very presence offended someone because they believed the Jews killed Jesus.
- In 2004, I moved to Delaware and was often told I was the first Jewish person someone had ever met.
- I’ve been told I need to be saved by Jesus, more times than I can count.
- In the workplace, a client once described an experience by saying “That bitch tried to Jew me down.” It was the first time I heard Jew used as a verb.
- In 2016, Jewish Community Center, where my children attended preschool, received weekly bomb threats.
- Then it was 2017. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the President said there were good people on both sides. I remember the video that played on a continuous loop on every news station, every late night talk show, every social media post, with that chant: “Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”
I remember my anger. I remember my fear.
And I remember the deafening silence.
- In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 60% increase in anti-Semitic instances around the country, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since the ADL began tracking such data in 1979.
- In 2018, 11 people were murdered and six were wounded at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. They were attending Saturday morning services on our holy day of rest, Shabbat.
- In 2019, a 60-year-old woman was killed and three others, including an 8-year-old girl, were injured in a shooting at the Chabad Synagogue of Poway in California. That year, the ADL cataloged 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents, an increase of 12 percent from the 1,879 recorded in 2018.
- In December 2019, Sussex County Republican Party Vice Chair Nelly Jordan posted on FB: “What amazes me the most in these theatrical Congress hearings, is to see how many Jews ‘In Name Only’ lend themselves to be in the hoaks (sic) of the pure made up story of Impeachment and the Democrats have woven as spiders catching flies and bugs.”
- In July 2020, DeSean Jackson posted anti-Semitic comments (incorrectly attributed to Hitler) that read, “Because the white Jews knows that the Negroes are the real Children of Israel and to keep America’s secret the Jews will blackmail America. They will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they were. The white citizens of America will be terrified to know that all this time they’ve been mistreating and discriminating and lynching the Children of Israel.”
So, here we are with hate at the forefront of American life again. It feels different this time. There is more communication. There are more open hearts and minds. There are more people fighting for justice for people of color, and treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, and equal rights for the LGBQTA community.
I stand with humanity, listen intently, and speak loudly.
Yet, I still only hear that deafening sound of silence.