Anti-Semitic tropes and the conversations that follow

I imagine that by using the term “anti-Semitic tropes” in this lead, you will expect to read a piece about events swirling around Capitol Hill. But I’d like to take a moment to share some insights from a different incident closer to home.

Last Saturday night, minutes after coming back online post-Shabbat, I became aware of a piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section declaring that “a shocking number of Jews have become willing collaborators in white supremacy.” And much as I try to read everything with an open mind, I was immediately triggered when, five sentences in, the author proclaimed Jared Kushner along with several others to be “kapos.”

That Shoah-related term refers to, per the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “a concentration camp prisoner selected to oversee other prisoners on labor details. It is often used generically for any concentration camp prisoner to whom the SS gave authority over other prisoners.” I hate when I see this term used by some to refer to others in the contemporary Jewish community for political purposes.

Recognizing that I was triggered, I made a point of checking my judgment before reacting. I reached out to several people – folks whose wisdom I value – for a gut check: Was my reaction to the overall piece just mine, or was it as awful as I thought? Did it merit a response? And how quickly?

Within 90 minutes on Saturday night the answer was clear: Yes, it was as offensive as I thought. In fact, some of our member agencies were already drafting letters to the editor. But the piece was gaining traction on social media, with some highly complimentary reviews. Within hours, this was going to be on people’s doormats. We needed to act quickly and nimbly, to share our concerns and shape readers’ understanding of the problematic assertions in this essay.

With input from trusted colleagues, I tweeted a thread and shared this Facebook post naming some of the worst problems with the essay. I knew that my posting would preclude publication of a letter from me with the same points; an editor would perceive this as previously published content. But I also knew that my colleagues at ADL New England and AJC New England would be making their own articulate cases to the Globe, which devoted their entire letters to the editor section to negative reactions to the piece on Wednesday.

My post went viral, with over 100,000 impressions in 24 hours, driving the kind of discussion we had hoped for. We used that post in response to inquiries from civic and faith leaders with openhearted curiosity about our take on the essay, and with those who had praised it online. These honest exchanges yielded rich lessons for us.

In speaking to that other anti-Semitism conversation this week, Rabia Chaudry and Wajahat Ali – two Muslim activists and journalists from whom I am learning, and who are eagerly seeking out the Jewish community to help them in their own learning – wrote: “Different communities hear words differently and we all need to listen, engage, and communicate with one another to understand why.”

Their insight resonates as we’ve been reminded once again that the words that wound us so deeply can be in a language more private than we realize. We’ve been struck by how many well-educated and informed people outside of the Jewish community were unfamiliar with the term “kapo” – a word that sends chills down our spines. We’ve had many a conversation over the years explaining the history of “blood libels,” “dual loyalty,” and other anti-Semitic tropes with otherwise knowledgeable friends who are appalled once they learn the toxicity of these terms. We leave the conversations with reassurances, not needed but nonetheless given, that not only will they never use those terms in the future, but they’ll be sure to challenge those who do.

The trust that allows for these open exchanges with friends also creates the space where they help us to understand the all-too-frequent assaults on their dignity and humanity. They teach us the language of their hurts; to decipher dog whistles containing tropes offensive to their communities, which enhance our understanding of their experience and strengthen our ability to stand with them when they need us.

The very thin silver lining from that despicable Boston Globe piece is that it exposed anti-Semitic tropes to the light of day and opened up the space to have conversations that differentiate between the actions of individual Jews and the collective accusation of our people. We’re grateful for the heartfelt conversations this has led to – ones in which we can ask our partners how they experience unfolding events and learn something new from what we hear.

And those are the conversations that enrich us all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy