I’m Worried About Raising My Son As Jewish In A Time Of Resurging Anti-Semitism

Matt Greene
·Author of Jew-ish: A Plea
·6 min read
Young happy couple embracing their newborn with care and love. Father and mother with infant on the hands. Family and baby care vector concept. (Photo: Ponomariova_Maria via Getty Images)
Young happy couple embracing their newborn with care and love. Father and mother with infant on the hands. Family and baby care vector concept. (Photo: Ponomariova_Maria via Getty Images)

The week before my son was born I got a phone call from my dad. He hit the ground running.

“We need to talk about circumcision,” he told me by way of greeting.

“What about it?” I asked him innocently.

“Well, what are your plans?”

We didn’t have any plans. My partner is not Jewish. Nor – technically – is my son. It had never occurred to me that we might get him circumcised. I still can’t eat calamari without crossing my legs. I told my dad this, but not in these words. A pause bled down the line. “And I suppose you won’t be giving him a Hebrew name?”

We’d thought about calling him Ezra until my partner, Imogen, had done a little research. Ezra was the guy in the Old Testament who gathered all the Hebrews together to tell them it was time to quit it with the shiksas. Again I didn’t use these words. “No,” I said.

Assimilation, at one time or another, is a topic of conversation in most Jewish families, viewed variously as a goal, an inevitability, a cloak of security, and, at the extreme end, an existential threat. Existential threats are something Jews know plenty about. We’re primed to see them everywhere, like passing clouds that conspire to spell the face of departed loved ones.

In recent years, while the eye of the UK’s media has been trained on the left, a resurgence of right wing anti-Semitism offers a more credible challenge to Jewish existence.

Amid the media circus and false Tory handwringing over the Labour anti-Semitism scandal that led to the EHRC’s damning recent verdict on institutional bias in the party’s disciplinary processes (no small charge but a discussion for another day), some even viewed the prospect of a Corbyn-led government in these hyperbolic terms. But in recent years, while the eye of the UK’s media has been trained on the left, a resurgence of right wing anti-Semitism offers a more credible challenge to Jewish existence.

On 27 October 2018, Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire with an automatic weapon during a Shabbat service, killing eleven congregants. Minutes before the attack he’d posted on the far-right social media site Gab in reference to his belief that caravans of dangerous illegal immigrants, funded by Jewish interests intent on subverting the makeup of his homeland, were marauding over the US-Mexico border: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

This same belief, that Jews are an enemy within, working with foreign powers to undermine US sovereignty, was on display in Charlottesville, Virginia the previous year, when white supremacists with tiki torches marched through the town as part of a Unite the Right rally chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

The march had been inspired by the ascendance of Donald Trump, whose Argument for America, his closing statement before the 2016 election, was punctuated with anti-Semitic whistles, not so much dog as wolf, about “global special interests” who “control the levers of power in Washington.” (In case this was too subtle the words played over images of Jewish philanthropist George Soros, the Jewish former head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, and the Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein.)

Four years later it was these same white supremacists, namely the male-only, neo-fascist militia the Proud Boys, that Trump instructed to ‘stand by’ during a nationally broadcast presidential debate.

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Trump may have lost the subsequent election (though at the time of writing he’s still to concede) but Trumpism is not confined to Trump. And anti-Semitism is not confined to Trumpism.

Across Europe, parties like Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Netherlands’ Forum voor Democratie, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik and Austria’s Freedom Party have gained notoriety and achieved electoral success promising to stand up to subversive foreign influences that are polluting their democracies, influences that more often than not are coded as Jewish.

Some of these parties, as in increasingly common on the radical right in Europe, where the proximity to the Holocaust has damaged the brand of overt Jew-hating, launder their anti-Semitic rhetoric with concomitant displays of disingenuous philosemitism: exalting Israel as a Europe’s frontier against the Arab world, and in some cases winning Jewish support.

But these views stand alongside Holocaust revisionism, minimisation, if not outright erasure, like the type exhibited by Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s co-founder and former leader, and current member of the German parliament, when he described it as a “speck of bird poop” in the nation’s history.

And all this at a crucial moment in Jewish history when the generation who lived through the Holocaust – what few that did – are dying off and the Holocaust itself is passing from first-hand to collective memory. From personal experience to historical record. And simultaneously, pseudo-historical debate.

Whether or not he chooses to identify as Jewish, ultimately it won’t be my son’s choice to make.

In the end we didn’t have our son circumcised. His Jewish identity is, ultimately, something he’ll have to decide on for himself when he’s old enough to understand what being Jewish means. But when we talk about assimilation, as it’s clear to me my dad was when he asked the question, what we’re really talking about, I believe, is security. To identify as Jewish and to comport yourself in such a way that others too may identify you as Jewish continues, in 2020, to carry an element of risk.

The trade-off for retaining this visibility is heightened vigilance and living behind barriers; Jewish sites of worship, Jewish cultural centres, even (or especially) Jewish primary schools all have tall walls to keep them apart from the spaces that surround them. And perhaps the corollary is true: that assimilation requires a sacrifice, of visibility, yes, but also of something less easy to name, less easy to let go of.

I don’t share my parents’ (admittedly slight) concern that in raising my son as Jewish-adjacent or Jewish with a small J and a big ish I’m breaking with the past in a way that can’t be repaired, but I do have another concern – because sometimes the clouds really do look like a face. That whether or not he chooses to identify as Jewish, ultimately it won’t be my son’s choice to make.

Matt Greene is author of Jew(ish): A Plea. Follow him on Twitter at @arealmattgreene

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.