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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


  1. Hannah R Sherak says

    Thank you so much for your remarks. As a fellow child of survivors, I have found too many among us take a more defensive view, and ultimately exclusionary position: “If I am not for me…” (This sadly, is was Michael Berenbaum’s response when I quoted Niemoeller regarding the need for survivors to address current US immigration policy.)

    I believe we are safe only when we protect others whose existence is more imminently or gravely threatened than is our own.

  2. Tammy Forstater says

    Thank you Dr Felsen for articulating what so many of us are thinking and feeling.
    Tammy Forstater

  3. Oscar Sladek says

    I am a survivor of the Holocaust and wish to thank you for sharing your comments. We must be alert to anything that reminds us of days in the past that became threats to our very survival. We shouldn’t sit back and ignore any threats or expressions of anti-Jewish hatred and bigotry. We must stand up and not cower behind closed doors as we hope this will simply fade away.

    As a child in Europe, I witnessed members of my community express their trust in my country’s government while anti Semitic attacks were taking place. We cannot afford the price of silence once again! Our Jewish communities must organize, under capable leadership, and have plans in place in the event self defense and protection are needed. We cannot sit back and expect others to defend us.

  4. Lea Tenenbaum says

    Thank you for pointing out again the gravity of turning a blind eye to problem of hatred. However, once again I am hopeful that when we can learn to develop an understanding for those unlike ourselves within our own communities and even more insular social circles, it may have a ripple effect to those truly outside of our affiliations, associations spreading to those of other race, nation, religion and beliefs. However, that will not solve the problem of the lone wolves who identify with extremists who due to their individual mental/psychological issues are able to misguide enough numbers to create a “movement.” Yes, you stated it so well, “the magnitude of the effort needed”.

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