Been having trouble sleeping lately. Maybe it’s because I just saw the Broadway production of “Leopoldstadt,” British playwright Tom Stoppard’s powerful new drama about the fate of his Jewish relatives in Austria before World War II.
Or maybe it’s because I read that police last week thwarted a plot to bomb New York City synagogues. Nationwide, antisemitic crimes were up 34 percent last year. Jews are now more than twice as likely to be hate crime victims than are Muslims or Blacks.
Or maybe it’s because Donald Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago recently with an openly antisemitic hip-hop celebrity and a Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi. Leading members of the former president’s party have been slow to condemn that meeting.
Or maybe it’s because, only weeks earlier, Trump had warned American Jews to “get their act together” and give him more credit for his support of Israel. (They voted against him by more than 2-to-1 in 2016 and 2020.) The remark echoed an antisemitic canard that American Jews have a “dual loyalty” when it comes to Israel.
Or maybe it’s because Kyrie Irving got a measly five-game suspension last month from basketball’s Brooklyn Nets after he promoted a film that accuses Jews of worshipping Satan, masterminding the African slave trade, controlling the media and seeking global domination. He later apologized.
Or maybe it’s because Fox News and other conservative outlets have been giving lots of attention to the so-called “replacement theory,” which holds that Jews want to replace white people with blacks and Hispanics — apparently as part of that global domination thing. You may recall that fatal 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
Or maybe it’s because a Republican U.S. congresswoman alleged that recent California wildfires were caused by space-based solar generators financed by the Rothschilds, a storied Jewish banking family, to clear land for development. Absurd as it was, the remark sent #JewishSpaceLasers trending on Twitter.
Or maybe it’s because mere mention of financier and philanthropist George Soros has become an antisemitic trope for the political right, much as the name Rothschild did more than a century ago.
Or maybe it’s because people are showing up at school board and other civic meetings demanding that course materials aimed at reducing religious and racial hatred be removed from classrooms. Or that evangelicals and other conservatives are asking that America be officially declared a “Christian nation.”
Or maybe, to be frank, it’s because I don’t really know what to do about all these strange occurrences. Denouncing them merely gives antisemitism more exposure, more oxygen. But silence isn’t really an option.
That’s because antisemitism is different from other forms of organized hatred. For one thing, its victims are often prosperous, patriotic, educated and assimilated — not an immigrant horde of “rapists and murderers and drug dealers,” as the former president once described another beleaguered group.
In addition — as noted by Hannah Arendt, the author and political philosopher who fled Germany in 1933 — the usual goal of bigots is to weaken, disenfranchise or enslave a target population. But with antisemitism, she wrote, “the end game is genocide.”
For ages, antisemitism has served as an early warning system for civil society, the canary in the coal mine of democracy. When slurs and physical attacks against Jews are on the rise, it’s often a sign that the country is headed for more serious trouble.
That’s the lesson I, a non-Jew, took from Tom Stoppard’s play. Leopoldstadt is Vienna’s historic Jewish neighborhood, where Stoppard’s family ended up after their homes in pleasanter districts were seized by Austrian authorities. Hardly any of Leopoldstadt’s residents, or Stoppard’s relatives, survived the wave of antisemitism that swept the country in the 1930s.
Nor did the First Austrian Republic, the country’s earliest attempt at democracy. It died in 1934 after an elected right-wing prime minister, with strong public support, established a fascist dictatorship and essentially merged the country with Nazi Germany.
At least 65,000 Austrian Jews, one-third of the pre-war population, were murdered over the next few years, while another 125,000 were forced to flee. And that was in just one relatively small, prosperous and famously cultured country where Jews had lived since the 3rd century.
No wonder I can’t sleep.