“Burton” isn’t a traditional Jewish surname. My grandfather was born Moshe (Milton) Bergstein. He grew up in Harlem in the 1920s along with his younger brother Levi (Louis). Louis aspired to become a sports journalist, but he knew a Jewish-sounding surname wasn’t going to get him on New York radio. So he changed his name, and his older brother – wanting to share a family name – did so with him. Louis Burton went on to have a distinguished career in New York sports journalism.
This history is not unique to my family.
In the 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement, Gregory Peck plays New York journalist Philip Green, who is surprised to learn that his secretary changed her name after being rejected for jobs with her Jewish surname. Green goes undercover as a Jew to research anti-Semitism, and discovers discrimination against us in housing, employment, services, and even within his own family. Several Jewish Hollywood producers didn’t want to make this film, fearing repercussions. Actors turned down the lead role. The film was a surprise hit at the box office and received many honors, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Jewish “defense” organizations, like JCRC in 1944, were created in this context; to unite our community in standing up to the socially acceptable anti-Semitism of those times. And when, over time, it appeared that anti-Semitism in America was in retreat, our focus shifted to other forms of defense and advocacy.
With expressions of anti-Semitism gaining in frequency (with multiple hate incidents of swastikas in schools last month alone), we can no longer say that anti-Semitism is in retreat. There has been a notable spate of violent attacks on Orthodox – i.e. “visibly” – Jewish people around New York City recently, along with incidents of Jews being harassed for wearing Star of David necklaces and other Jewish identifiers at some progressive marches, or being tossed out of an Uber for speaking Hebrew. Still, we can appreciate that the current experience of anti-Semitism in the US remains substantively different from the experience of many on the receiving end of rising hatreds and bigotries. Most in the Jewish community (ie, those presenting as White and straight) have generally not shared the experience of those in our community and others who were stabbed in the streets for holding hands with a same-sex partner, or had the cops called for sitting while Black in a Starbucks, or got screamed at by a customer for speaking in Spanish.
But here are some of the alarming realities we are facing here in the US: In several races around the country, neo-Nazis – espousing the removal of Jews from public service or even the country – are running for office. Disturbingly, these candidates are polling as high as 5, 10, and even 20 percent. Thankfully, local Republican parties are moving to vigorously denounce and expel these folks. While no one is anticipating – yet – a victory for these politicians, it is becoming acceptable to say: “yes, I know this candidate expresses these anti-Semitic views, but I’m still considering him as an acceptable candidate for public office.”
On the Democratic side, in various races we are seeing candidates openly acknowledge disturbing debates in their political circles about the very legitimacy of a Jewish state. These candidates are firmly asserting: “I support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.” But, it is becoming acceptable in certain spaces to espouse anti-Semitic notions about Israel (For a cogent articulation of the distinction between legitimate criticism of the policies of the State of Israel and the slippery slope that leads to left-wing anti-Semitism, read this excellent Washington Post op-ed by Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah).
My point is this: even amidst the recent wave of populism, and with rising expressions of hatred and bigotry of all forms, we – the Jewish community – aren’t (yet) as vulnerable and marginalized as we were in the 1940s. Nonetheless, we are seeing something insidious: the normalization, once again, of anti-Semitic expression in significant parts of our society.
Toward the end of Gentleman’s Agreement, Green’s fiancée describes herself being sickened by an anti-Semitic joke at a party. But she did nothing to challenge it. The lesson in this movie – and in this moment – is that silence condones bigotry.
Our charge today, and the charge of all decent people, is to not be complicit through our silence, and to confront and challenge anti-Semitism – and all forms of hatred – wherever and whenever they appear. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our fate is inextricably bound with that of other marginalized minorities, as one expression of bigotry fuels so many more. We must unite as a Jewish community, in solidarity with our partners, to make it socially intolerable to hold these views. Our failure to do so puts us at risk of becoming an America where, once again, our personal defense may come at the expense of proudly displaying our Jewish identities. That must be unacceptable in our great nation.