In my first two interviews, they sat in separate rooms on different days and said the exact same words.
I didn’t ask them for it. They just said it.
Rabbi Noah Chertkoff and Shay Pilnik each said that it could “get worse before it gets better.”
So I started asking my other interviewees, is it going to get worse before it gets better? They made it unanimous — anti-Semitism in America may be on track to get worse before it gets better, agreed the five thinkers interviewed for this story in separate conversations. At least a few seemed pretty confident about it.
But several also offered silver linings, counter-strategies and the admonition that one should not knee-jerk assume that today’s America is pre-Nazi Germany.
Worse before better
“I do think that things are going to get worse before they get better,” Chertkoff said.
Before becoming a rabbi and taking the helm at Congregation Shalom in Fox Point, Chertkoff worked in Canadian politics. He served as a special assistant to a federal cabinet minister and as the national social action coordinator with the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism.
He talked with me about American politics without naming names.
“We’ve seen a leader in this country who is loose with his words,” Chertkoff said. “He’s using language that has dual meaning, whether he’s aware of it or not.”
“Now that the Democrats have taken the House I’m concerned that he’s going to be more defensive and free with his words than ever before.”
That trend, he fears, could provide oxygen to the fire.
Professor Eric Pullin is chair of the history department at Carthage College. He sees things somewhat differently.
“I’m not a Trump supporter” Pullin said. “I’m offering no defense of the man.”
But Pullin said he does not understand the argument some are making that Trump is contributing to anti-Semitism. The Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting, and other attacks tied to intolerance, occurred before the Trump presidency, he said.
“I think it’s too much freight they’re expecting Trump to carry,” he said.
Shay Pilnik is executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. I once watched him teach a roomful of non-Jewish eighth-graders at Humboldt Park School about the Holocaust and the importance of tolerance.
I’ll never forget how he held their rapt attention.
“I do predict that things might get worse before they get better,” Pilnik said in his late November interview with me.
“The recent uptick of incidents of anti-Semitism in the country and the world are certainly not random incidents that are not tied to each other,” Pilnik said. “Any astute observer must know that we are really dealing here with a trend, a societal trend that touches on the very core of the issue of how humans treat and hear about each other.”
“We see an increase in behaviors of intolerance, tribalism and suspicion of the other,” he said.
The hallmark is hatred of anybody who is not us.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, in fact, has been reporting a growing problem in its annual anti-Semitism census for Wisconsin.
Pilnik continued: “I think that it’s very hard to come to the conclusion that Pittsburgh had nothing to do with this local, national and global trend. You would be blind, practically and morally blind, to say that one thing has nothing to do with the other.”
The Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue is also tied to the American mass shooting phenomenon, Pilnik said, “which really has little if anything to do with the rise of anti-Semitism.”
But that’s not the full story, he said.
“In my view the very core of (the incident) is anti-Semitism,” Pilnik said. “This was a man who knew his targets … and was passionate about destroying Jews and undermining their position in American society.”
The incident in Baraboo, where roughly 30 students in a photo made a Nazi salute (see page 3), is no doubt in a different category than Tree of Life. But the incidents taken together seem emblematic of an anti-Semitic shift.
“Something’s changed in the culture when a group of boys or young men could think that that’s OK,” said Rachel Baum, deputy director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies and a Holocaust researcher with University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
“What struck me about the picture was that the boys were all laughing. It’s not clear to me that they are anti-Semitic.” In this “jocular moment” of “masculine fun,” she said, “this awful thing happens.”
Baum and I sat together on the second floor of the Stahl Center building at UWM, in a large room dotted with circular tables. It’s a thoroughly updated room with outlets for laptops and other equipment beneath the tables, in a historic former museum building, built well before the Holocaust.
Towards the end of our interview, I told her two prior interviewees used the exact same words and I wanted to know what she thought of that. That is, it seems like things could get worse before they get better.
She responded quickly, “Yeah, that’s true.”
A core problem is that organized networks of hate are disseminating their beliefs on the Internet, she said.
Pullin would later raise the same issue: “I think that the way people consume media these days caters to their personal prejudices. Thirty years ago everyone was watching three network news programs at 5:30 in the evening.” It’s just easier today for someone who is predisposed to anti-Semitism to fall in.
With Baum, I shared my own belief on the difference between teens today who would make a Nazi salute and teens of yesteryear who would not. Maybe the difference is that prior generations of young Americans had living parents and grandparents who had fought in World War II, who had rescued us all from the Nazis. With the loss of that personal connection, Nazism loses its tether to reality for a bunch of teens in Baraboo. Defeating the Nazis is not quite the source of personal pride that it once was. It’s just history, in books.
Or consider Pullin’s perspective: “We are raising a generation of Americans who are not just historically ignorant but ignorant in terms of culture and current events.”
Pilnik said it’s standard practice that we respect someone who is Jewish; we speak respectfully to someone who is black or Native American. If these common sense practices are set aside in our culture, he said, “we run the risk of embarking on the journey that the German people took about 100 years ago.”
But as you might expect of any school district in 2018 America, the Baraboo school district has responded to its sudden spotlight with apologies and dismay. “We … understand the moral responsibility we have to be relentless in our work to create a culture in which racism is not tolerated and where every child and adult is treated with respect and dignity,” said District Administrator Lori Mueller in a Nov. 14 statement.
“Together as a school family, we will take this one step at a time and we will engage, learn and grow to be the Baraboo we all strive to be.”
There’s hope, said Pilnik, of HERC, which seeks to promote values of tolerance, dignity and respect toward all human beings.
“The majority of Americans, I firmly believe, agree with the mission of the organization that I’m fortunate to lead.”
“This is a country that invited immigrants like our community’s founders to come here,” he said. An Israeli transplant to Wisconsin, he feels America is unique.
“I believe that the silent majority of Americans is alarmed, is repelled by what is happening.”
Pullin, at Carthage, said it would likely take decades of cultural change for Americans to have to seriously start worrying about something along the lines of a Holocaust or ethnic purge.
Baum, who teaches college classes on the Holocaust, said German Jews had a faith in their place in society. “We do too, but I think ours is deeper,” she said.
Professor Michael Jasinski is a scholar of genocide with University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh and was perhaps the most pessimistic of our five interviewees (See story, “The scholar who predicts catastrophe”). Yet even he doesn’t see Trump as a 1930s-style threat.
“He’s not a Hitler. He’s not even a Mussolini,” Jasinski said. “He doesn’t even have a movement. The GOP is not his party. He’s just renting it.”
Jasinski added that our nation’s diversity may be a safety barrier. It would be harder to target minorities in a nation of many who are minorities.
Pullin is definitely not raising the “Nazi” alarm. “I think my biggest concern is that Jews … are going to have to trade liberty for security,” Pullin said. He travels a lot and attends synagogue when he does. The difference in heightened security at European synagogues, as opposed to American ones, he said, has been “night and day.”
In Switzerland, for example, he went to a Purim service where he was met by two machine-gun armed guards who quizzed him about Milwaukee Jewry.
Already, in Wisconsin and around the nation, synagogues and other institutions are improving their approaches to security, according to Ari Friedman, director of security and community properties for the Federation.
What’s our best strategy?
Jasinski, the only non-Jew interviewed, applauded the existence of Jewish organizations. If organizations concerned with Jewish welfare didn’t exist in the United States, he’d recommend we create them. He said that such groups did not exist in pre-Nazi Germany.
Likewise, Chertkoff cited Elana Kahn’s work as head of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and efforts of synagogues and other organizations to reach out to different faiths as “the most important thing we can do as Americans.”
Chertkoff thinks a current “drive for purity of ideology in the realm of intersectionality” is harmful and needs to be resisted. One example — we don’t have to agree on Israel to work together on other important social justice issues. Or we risk ceding the ground in social justice realms to those who will use that vacuum to push anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agendas, Chertkoff said.
Pilnik had this to say about education, which accounts for much of his work: “It’s both effective and cost-effective.”
We need to decouple our educational messages from our political agendas, Pullin said.
“I think we’ll have better results if we do that,” he said. In other words, engage in non-politicized education. “What Jews need to do is focus on the content of the past rather than trying to relate it to the present,” he said.
Again without naming names, Baum said “calling the press the enemy of the people, stripping a reporter of credentials should be very concerning to all Americans, but perhaps especially to Jews. It overturns some of the basic premises of liberal democracies and Jews do well in liberal democracies.”
“One of the lessons I think of Nazi Germany is how institutions can fall including the press but also including the judiciary. Looking back we can see how important those institutions are. Our country right now is at a point where we really need to fight for our democratic institutions. My sense is that we don’t take for granted that we won’t have to fight for those institutions.”
“I think the problems are vast and there’s a place for all of us. Some people are great at going door to door and some are great letter writers and some people do other kinds of volunteer work. I just encourage my students to find a place that’s right for them ….”
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Note: To report incidents of anti-Semitism, contact the Jewish Community Relations Council at MilwaukeeJewish.org or contact its director, Elana Kahn, at ElanaK@MilwaukeeJewish.org or 414-390-5736. All reports are strictly confidential.