What We Can Do When We Can’t Do Anything


Elana Goldenberg

I have always felt safe knowing that I live in a country where my religious freedom is a priority. The First Amendment clearly lays out that each citizen of the United States is guaranteed the right to freely practice their religion. Being a Jew in America, I am without a doubt part of a religious minority. Just over 1 percent of Americans are Jewish, and our world makeup at 0.2 percent is even smaller. If Jewish populations are so infinitesimal, why are we subjected to so much discrimination? Why do political groups and other religious groups constantly have to target us? What did we ever do to deserve anti-Semitic oppression?

There is no simple answer. We’ve been persecuted for as long as we’ve been a people. We were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. The Babylonians destroyed our holy Temple. We were expelled from Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Austria, and Ukraine-the list is endless. We faced brutal anti-Semitism from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Being treated horribly, because we are “inferior” or different, is a significant part of our history.

Jewish women face anti-Semitism in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jewish women face anti-Semitism in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When it seems like the violence is beginning to settle down, when it feels something worse could not possibly occur, we are attacked again. It happened last April at the Jewish Community Center (JCC)–in our own home. It happened in January in Paris. It happened just two weeks later in Argentina. It happened about a month ago in Copenhagen. It happens so often, and my awareness is so heightened now, that anti-Semitism feels like the new normal.

And it shouldn’t.

It is so painful to hear about a shooting that happens at a synagogue or a school. I hate the knot that forms in my stomach when Mr. Clauer, our high school principal, spends the three minutes at the end of prayers telling us about an anti-Semitic event that occurred earlier that morning or the evening before. I can’t stand that these tragedies are becoming so regular; they happen almost once a month now.

Nevertheless, it is important that we hear about these awful incidences. These are other Jews, our sisters and brothers. The truth is hard to hear, but it is much worse to ignore it altogether. Not everyone has the same First Amendment freedom that we do as Americans. Even if they do have supposed religious freedom, it may not be as well-defended as it is here.

I recognize that I live in a community where the label “extremely sheltered” would be an understatement. Even after the shooting by a KKK-member at the JCC (April 2014), I hardly ever feel unsafe here because of my religion. There are policemen and security guards everywhere looking out for me. I’m not afraid to walk into the synagogue on a Saturday morning or run at the JCC after school, but I do know that there are Jews in other communities and other countries who don’t enjoy these same luxuries.

Members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church protest the Jewish people. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church protest the Jewish people. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a perfect world, everybody would get along. Anti-Semitism would not exist. Jews would feel safe in their own countries, wherever they may be. But it’s pretty clear that we have a long way to go before this can happen. It is so difficult when it feels like there is nothing we can do about it. After all, we’re only 0.2 percent of the world’s population.

In the meantime, we can appreciate what we have. I know, you’ve heard this a million times in a billion different contexts, but this time, take it seriously. Be grateful that you can put your Menorah in the window without any fear at all. Don’t take for granted the fact that you can wear a kippah in public and the worst that will happen to you is that you’re asked what that little hat is. We are so lucky to be living in a country where Jews are portrayed in such a positive light.

And I, personally, could not be more thankful for that.