“You’re not a member of a minority group in America — you’re white.”
“You should let others take the lead in the fight against white supremacy — their pain is worse than yours.”
“You can’t be victims of racism — Judaism isn’t a race.“
American Jews hear these words frequently, but unfortunately we know they aren’t true, though we certainly wish they were. Recent events have shown these words to be mere platitudes, repeated by people who don’t know or understand or who refuse to acknowledge the lessons of history. Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise in the United States. We have seen synagogues vandalized and people beaten in Los Angeles and New York, just because they were Jewish, and the Department of Justice states that 63% of religious hate crimes in 2019 were acts of antisemitism.
Of course, this is not a new problem in the United States. During World War II Jewish refugees seeking asylum boarded ships bound for the U.S. but they were turned away because of antisemitic immigration policies. More recently, in 2018 an antisemitic white nationalist murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in 2019 a domestic terrorist killed a woman at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. World history teaches us that for thousands of years Jews have been targeted for discrimination and violence.
When my husband and I travel we always make it a point to explore the history of our Jewish ancestors. For us that means visiting synagogues, historical Jewish sites and Jewish museums. What we have found on these excursions has often been disturbing. Here’s some of what we learned …
During a visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, we found the building surrounded by armed carabinieri, or Italian police. This historic synagogue is always guarded; it was the target of a terrorist attack in 1982 in which two men sprayed rounds of bullets, killing a 2-year-old and injuring another 34 people. Such measures are not unusual in Italy. On a later visit to Milan we had to make reservations, show ID and pass through a metal detector to enter a synagogue. Milan’s Jews were exiled in 1597, not to return until the early 1800s.
We also learned that Rome has had a Jewish presence dating back to 200 B.C., long before the diaspora (the dispersion of Jews outside of their historic homeland) sent them traveling around the known world looking for a home. In 1555 a Papal bull ordered all Roman Jews to reside in a crowded ghetto, surrounded by walls the Jewish community was forced to fund, and revoked all the rights of the Jewish community. Since Jews were only permitted one synagogue in the ghetto, the five existing temples, which followed different cultural traditions, merged into one. Further prohibitions against Jews included being forbidden to own property and being restricted to professions in the rag trade, except for a few trained doctors who were not permitted to treat Christians. Such discrimination continued until Rome became part of Italy in 1870. Italy initially refused to round up Jews during World War II, but the Italian Jews became victims of the Nazis when Germany occupied Italy in 1943.
Venice’s ghetto, highlighted in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” had certain commonalities, like being locked behind walls every night and restrictions on profession. We walked the streets of Venice’s historic Jewish section with a guide who gave us an understanding of how Jews lived in this city of canals. Venice’s ghetto was established in 1516, and the two bridges connecting it to the rest of the city were guarded at night. The word “ghetto” actually originated in Venice and meant the “section of the city where Jews are forced to live.” Jews had to wear yellow badges or hats and were locked in behind the walls every night. Venetian laws restricted Jews from certain occupations, like manufacturing, while their success as doctors, merchants and bankers resulted in increased prejudice against them, especially since moneylenders played a key role in the Venetian economy.
On a trip to France we discovered that the history of Jews there traces back to the Middle Ages and that persecution came in waves. While Jews were emancipated during the French Revolution, in 1894, the “Dreyfus Affair” led to another rise in antisemitism. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an artillery officer of Jewish descent who was unjustly convicted of treason and spent more than a decade in prison, including being deported to the notorious Devil’s Island. His innocence was not officially established until 1906.
The Nazis invaded France in 1940, and by October persecution of the Jewish residents began. By the end of World War II, 25% of the Jewish population in France had been killed, mostly in concentration camps. The older people we met in the hotels, shops and restaurants of Paris were lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they had been among the cheering crowd when the Nazis marched into the city.
In Spain we learned about the country’s long history of discrimination against Jews. The “Massacre of 1391” resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Jews by their neighbors when they refused to convert. In 1478 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition to consolidate their power as the heads of a strictly Catholic nation. In 1492 — the year that Columbus sailed from Spain and found a “new world” — Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Edict of Expulsion which ordered all Jews in Spain to either leave, convert or be executed. The Inquisition remained the law in Spain until 1808, when Napoleon abolished it.
We also took an illuminating tour of Jewish sites in Barcelona including Montjuic (Jewish Mountain), whose name likely comes from the location of the ancient Jewish cemetery. The guide pointed out the outer walls of certain buildings included stones bearing Hebrew writing. During the Inquisition, the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery had been removed and recycled as building materials. While the Inquisition is long over, these walls serve as a permanent reminder of hundreds of years of persecution of Spain’s Jewish population. The image of the tombstones in the walls of the city haunts me. The thought that people hated the Jews enough to want to erase them so completely is chilling.
Before Jews were expelled from Spain, or forced into ghettos in Italy, they were subjected to centuries of persecution in England. Jews were not allowed to hold land, and Jewish children could not inherit their parents’ money. When a Jew died, his money reverted to the Crown.
The Magna Carta was signed in 1215, but the freedoms granted in that document did not apply to Jews. Instead, 75 years later, King Edward I of England issued an Edict of Expulsion banning Jews from the country. Centuries passed before Oliver Cromwell, in 1656, arranged for Jews to be allowed to return to England and practice their religion. Since then they have been accepted into British society. During a visit to a synagogue in London, followed by lunch at an authentic deli, someone asked my husband if he could take part in a minyan, the traditional group of 10 Jewish men needed for prayers. At the time, it was refreshing to be in a place in Europe where Jews had been safe during the Holocaust, but in recent years, London has seen a terrifying increase in antisemitic actions.
On a visit to Botswana, we took a short side trip to Capetown, South Africa. At a local museum we discovered Jews were among the early settlers when the Dutch East India Company founded this city. During the 1800s a steady flow of Jewish immigrants arrived from Central and Eastern Europe and England. Our group was pleased to view an exhibit at the Jewish museum that showed many Jews were allies in the fight against apartheid. Even Nelson Mandela said, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on the issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” Despite these strong words, the fear of antisemitic terrorism meant that we had to show IDs and pass through a metal detector to enter the museum and synagogue.
The Bible tells of the enslavement of Jews in Egypt, and as we have learned on our travels, Jews have been the targets of persecution throughout recorded history. Even in the Middle Ages, though church policy was to protect Jews (because Jesus was Jewish), they were tortured and killed because they were blamed for the Black Plague. At the time there was no understanding of how disease spread, so Jews became scapegoats.
Today, we are facing a rise in antisemitism in the United States and around the world. History has been twisted once again. Some groups have claimed that Jesus wasn’t Jewish in an effort to turn Christian groups against Jews, and Jews throughout the diaspora are being blamed for the actions of Israel. When you look at our history, it should come as no surprise that we are frightened. Many of the allies who we marched with against racism and AAPI hate, and for social justice, seem to have turned their backs on us.
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to so many countries. The people are almost always friendly and welcoming, and I love learning about the history and culture of each place. It saddens me to realize that everywhere we’ve gone we’ve found evidence of the persecution of Jews throughout history. Our visits to these historic and often tragic Jewish sites explain why I and my friends in the American Jewish community feel unsafe as we see antisemitism rise in this country. History teaches that even the most civilized countries can swiftly turn into places where Jews are threatened, even by those with whom we have recently been friends.
DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.