Everyone remembers the first time they encountered religious, ethnic or racial hatred. For me it was long ago on a Sunday morning, shortly after the sun came up, on a lonely stretch of highway in rural Pennsylvania. My parents, three younger siblings and I, along with our wire-haired terrier, were heading west in our old Dodge station wagon on the first leg of a summer cross-country vacation. I was sitting next to my father in the front seat when our Montgomery Ward tent-camper, hitched to the back of the car, began to wobble dangerously. My father, a very good driver, calmly pulled over to the shoulder, climbed out to investigate and discovered the trailer tire was flat. This was a problem: We had a spare car tire, but none for the trailer.
A car pulled over behind us, and a gangly, craggy-faced man got out. In an unfamiliar twang, he offered to help my Dad patch the tire. When this didn’t work, he suggested that we drive to the next town and look for a gas station that might be open on Sunday. “Everybody’s a’ church,” the man explained, adding matter-of-factly that if we did find someone to help, we should make sure to “Jew ’em down.” I don’t recall if he said this within my earshot, but I do remember that my father, looking pale, jumped into the car, closed and locked the door, and took off, flat tire and all, without even saying goodbye to the man.
I asked what was wrong. “We’re Jews,” he said, and after he explained what the expression meant, he said he had felt we were vulnerable on the nearly deserted road, maybe even in danger. As we limped along, he occasionally peered into the rearview mirror to see if we were being followed. A conversation ensued between my parents about whether the man had recognized us as Jews and used the slur knowingly, or if he had been ignorant of its significance. My father, who had faced antisemitism growing up in Brooklyn, believed the man had used it deliberately; my mother thought that was not necessarily so. I secretly agreed with her but was nevertheless relieved when we got to a town, because after all, my father, who was never scared, had been scared.
In the annals of hate, this incident was a nothingburger. We were Jews with blond hair and blue eyes who looked like any mainstream white American family, and we were never in real danger.
But still, it was my first introduction to the language of hate—and the palpable fear it evokes—and it stayed with me. I became more attuned to the hundreds of words and expressions people commonly use to degrade one another on religious, ethnic and racial grounds. I also learned something about my parents and how different people react to the same event.
This first encounter came to mind recently as I was helping lead a workshop about antisemitism for employees of a public television station. During the program, I was reminded how all of us have a unique story to tell about our encounters. Some Jewish participants, who grew up in religious neighborhoods where people dressed in ways that made them recognizable as Jews, had experienced antisemitism their whole lives; others were struggling to come to terms with it for the first time. There were those who were afraid for their safety or for that of a family member attending synagogue, while others were primarily upset by antisemitism in schools and on campuses. Some people were troubled by antisemitism on the far right, others by its manifestations on the far left. Nearly everyone, including non-Jews, was perplexed by the spread of antisemitic language and pro-Nazi sentiments online, in schools and, in fact, everywhere. Overall, there was a great hunger to talk about antisemitism together in a safe space and to understand its complexity—and ways to combat it.
Moment takes our mission to help do this very seriously. Our Antisemitism Project includes our Antisemitism Monitor (the incident tracker curated by Ira Forman, the former U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism); signature investigations into selected incidents (“Deep Dives”); and numerous MomentLive! programs on antisemitism—all available at momentmag.com/antisemitism. Says Deborah Lipstadt, the current special envoy. “I admire the way Moment has handled the analysis and fight against antisemitism, charting a very, very solid course, not hysterical, not under writing but just hitting the right notes.”
In this issue, we try to keep hitting the right notes as we take you inside TikTok, the fast-growing
Chinese-owned app that Congress has just banned on government devices due to security concerns and that is mesmerizing American teenagers, who spend an average of 99 minutes on it each day. In “The Good, the Bad and the Algorithm,” Deputy Editor Jennifer Bardi explores the proliferation of antisemitism on TikTok and what can be done to combat it. In “From Zero to Hate in Just a Tik and a Tok,” Social Media Manager Andrew Michaels recounts how it took him less than four hours of watching TikTok videos recommended by the app’s much-vaunted algorithm to be shown ones that expressed outright hate. Tricia Crimmins introduces us to a different side of TikTok, profiling some of the young Jews who have amassed large followings by using the app to showcase aspects of their own Jewish culture and identity.
In “What Are Sayanim?” we investigate a conspiracy theory that, at its most toxic, claims that all Jews can be activated by the Mossad to become Israeli agents. This story began as a mention last May in our Antisemitism Monitor—“Eighty-nine-year-old Jewish man allegedly pushed to his death from an apartment block, but police have ruled out antisemitism.” Digital Editor Noah Phillips dug into the incident, which occurred in France, and learned that there were indeed links to antisemitism, at which point the story became one of our “Deep Dives.” His reporting shines a light on the blurred line between facts and conspiracy theories and makes clear how the far right and far left often share and spread the same antisemitic memes.
Fortunately, there’s fun reading in this issue too! Last fall, I had the opportunity to interview Bruce Springsteen’s drummer, Max Weinberg, when we gave him a Moment Creativity Award. As it turns out, Weinberg’s very Yiddische childhood in northern New Jersey, aka Philip Roth land, deeply influenced his understanding of music, prayer and how to live. (You can watch the unedited interview at momentmag.com/max-weinberg.) In “Talk of the Table,” you’ll learn how to whip up traditional,
climate-conscious meals from extra ingredients and leftovers that would otherwise go to waste. (In tasty news, “Talk of the Table” was just named Best Food Section of a Magazine by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, beating out many of the great foodie magazines!)
The smorgasbord of topics continues. In “Opinions,” we turn to the possible implications of Israel’s new
far-right governing coalition. Our columnists offer sharply contrasting views on the subject. In “Moment Debate,” Union of Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman consider the question, “Will changing the Law of Return harm Israel-diaspora relations?” “Visual Moment” previews a new documentary film about the Jewish partisan resistance in the forests of Eastern Europe during World War II, and “Literary Moment” includes a review of a new Allegra Goodman novel and a book about the rise and fall of the Sassoon mercantile dynasty. There’s more, too, and, of course, more great Moments to come throughout the year. Stay tuned!
One thought on “From the Editor | First Encounters of a Hateful Kind”
I think you and your mother were probably correct that the man helping you didn’t recognize you as Jewish. I think it’s likely that it was simply his was of saying “talk them down on the price.” Disgustingly the phrase “Jew them down” was used in many parts of the US in this way. Obviously, it is antisemitic because it equates Judaism with cheapness and money hoarding. But it’s a phrase that non-Jews would use with other non-Jews.
I also don’t think your father was wrong to remove your family from that situation. Clearly, this man didn’t know or care about Jewish people enough to not use this phrase. Who knows how he would have behaved had he known you were Jewish? There is nothing wrong with removing yourself and your family from an unknown situation.
There is a lot to ponder in this story. Thank you for sharing it.