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Last Friday in NYC: Antisemitism and Bigotry Here and Now

Last Friday, someone tied a confederate flag to the front door of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (see, for example, the news article at this link). This horrific act shocked me. It was the first time ever that I personally felt what it might have been like to see the antisemitic graffiti and the Nazi swastika soiling Jewish businesses and homes in the early days in Germany as Nazism was beginning to rise.

“The Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. This week it was paraded through the Capitol and this morning it was used to vandalize the Museum of Jewish Heritage in our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.

When I finished my Master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I accepted a job for the Israeli Government in Hamburg, Germany, while doing my PhD in psychology there. I had an intense need, and an equally intense dread, that compelled me to see for myself what this place was, how these people, who nearly destroyed my people, lived. At the time, many of the generation of former Nazis were still around, as were my parents, the survivors. Old men in their neat suits and old polite women stood next to me in the clean and orderly German subway, and in line at the local supermarket. I tried to not be touched by them, the questions, ‘who are you, what did you do’ , hanging like a dark aura around them.

The old German plumber who came to my apartment to fix a problem said to me: “what Germany needs right now is a dictator!” because inflation and unemployment were rising, and especially because of the “Auslaenders”, the “foreigners”, the Turks and the children of the workmen who were not naturalized citizens. When a residence housing Auslaenders was attacked by skinheads, my landlady, a German professional, educated woman, told me: “these are just a few Hooligans, not a real problem to worry about!”  I reminded her, who had been in her twenties when the Nazis rose to power, that the same had been said about Hitler and his followers at the time.

Complacency toward hate and discrimination only emboldens it.

This time in American history can be an opportunity to right many wrongs, to correct generational inequities, and repair the relationships across the diversity of the American people. But everyone has to take part in the fight for justice and safety for all. As Martin Niemoeller, a prominent Lutheran minister in Germany who was imprisoned by the Nazis, wrote:

Photo credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

We have to learn from history, we have to make better history for our children, we must not minimize the threat of hatred in all its forms in America these days, nor the magnitude of the effort needed to create a better world together.

Irit Felsen

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