Once I knew a woman named Laura. Her light brown hair and hazel eyes were unremarkable in white American society. She told me a story–this was in 1975–about something that had happened to her in college at Ohio State a year or two earlier. She had been asked out by a young man who drove them to a party some ways out of Columbus. At some point, she happened to mention that she was Jewish. The young man abandoned her and she ended up walking the twelve miles or so back to town.
I had lived near Columbus while quite young and had strong family connections with the area. I had never seen nor heard of such a thing–I knew that my grandfather, in the 1920s, had been instrumental in keeping the KKK out of the Ohio American Legion with a speech that specifically mentioned Jews. Though I knew that racism against African-Americans was still rampant, I had thought that (especially in the wake of the Holocaust) anti-Semitism had receded there–and in the United States as a whole.
Of course, I was wrong.
The code words and phrases of anti-Semitism, and actions as disgusting (and worse) as those of Laura’s date, have grown even more and more common, especially over the past decade or so, signs of a growing confidence in acceptance of (at leas)t a veiled hatred of Jews. “George Soros funded” is one of the phrases most common, referring not to the man but to a mythical international Jewish conspiracy of wealth. There are plenty of others. If we want to, we can recognize them, but most of us ignore them (even when spoken by a member of Congress). The anti-Semites certainly do.
Most of us don’t want to face anti-Semitism, especially among those who otherwise seem our allies and even friends. What we can’t see and don’t hear (or that we can excuse as something else), we want to believe, can’t be what it, most unfortunately, actually is.
In 1933, Germany’s biggest movie star, Conrad Veidt, was forced to fill out a new form demanded of the film industry by Joseph Goebbels demanding that people self-identify by “race.” Veidt, whose wife was Jewish, put down that he was, too. Within the month, the couple had left the country for England, where Veidt would later donate a large part of his fortune to the British war effort, and then for the United States, where he would establish a new film career playing Nazis, most famously Major Strasser in Casablanca. He was instrumental in showing on film the evils of the fascist mentality.
My wife, too, is Jewish. And I, too, would leave any country where anti-Semitism became government policy. Veidt is becoming my role model. He helped make visible a scourge on humanity; the rest of us need to do the same.
Laura, wherever you are, your small story of an invisible aspect of your being becoming visible with nasty results has stayed with me for almost half a century. Just because Jews aren’t always “visibly Jewish” (whatever that phrase, fraught with its own anti-Semitic ramifications, means), we can’t ignore the real and pervasive hatred of Jews that, though often also “invisible” in American society, drives too many political agendas, both left and right.