For the month of October, Bustle's #blessed series will explore how young women are searching for meaning, finding connections to a higher power and navigating spirituality in 2017.
In August, when white-supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville to oppose efforts to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee. they carried torches in hand and chanted (among other racist, anti-semitic and hateful things), “Jews will not replace us.” When they congregated the next day for a Unite the Right rally featuring noted white supremacist Richard Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, supporters waved flags with swastikas and even wore t-shirts quoting Adolf Hitler.
For Alix Kozin, 20, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the show of Nazi regalia struck fear in her heart. As the descendant of Holocaust and Inquisition survivors, she knew what these symbols meant for her family, and says that the recent resurgence of visible anti-semitism has opened wounds that should have healed generations ago. “It’s part of the trauma that’s been passed down,” she tells Bustle. Though anti-Semitism has always played a part in her family’s history, Kozin says she was raised to feel like those days were over.
Now Kozin sees herself as part of a generation of Jewish millennial women in America who are navigating a new era of anti-Jewish hate. Since the presidential election, anti-Semitic incidents such as harassment, vandalism, and assault have spiked. In 2016, nearly 30 percent of the 1,266 incidents targeting Jewish institutions and individuals took place in November and December. These incidents continued into 2017, with another 541 occurring in the first three months of the year, representing an 86 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents compared with the year before, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate nonprofit that tracks anti-Semitism in the US.
For millennial Jewish women, the visibility of this vandalism, destruction, and neo-Nazi symbolism in Charlottesville and at other recent right-wing, white-supremacist rallies has been a wake up call to the hatred that exists outside of their accepting communities. “The visuals, the pictures, everything that’s been so clear — there’s no looking away,” says Emma Shakertchi, a 27 year-old living in Brooklyn.
In the wake of Charlottesville, President Trump was criticized for emboldening white supremacists and neo-Nazis by criticizing “both sides” for the violence in Virginia. In response to the death of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed when a white nationalist drove his car into the crowd, Spencer and Duke praised President Trump’s statement for laying equal blame on left-leaning activists. But, the fact is, the Trump administration began appealing to the anti-Semites long before Charlottesville.
During his presidential campaign, Trump courted white supremacists with comments about Mexicans and Muslims before moving to overt anti-Semitism, according to Heidi Beirich, the Intelligence Project Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Days before the election, the campaign released an ad featuring prominent Jewish figures, calling them part of a “global power structure,” which tapped into a form of “ancient discrimination” against Jews, Beirich tells Bustle.
“When it’s on the margins of society it’s bad. When it’s coming from the White House, it’s terrible.”
Until recently, Trump’s inner circle was filled with staffers with anti-Semitic ties. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, oversaw anti-Semitic coverage at the website Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign, and Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s former deputy assistant, had been previously linked to a Nazi-affiliated group in Hungary. Despite these dog whistles, 24 percent of Jews voted for Trump, while 71 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, according to exit polling from the Pew Research Center.
“[Trump] is mainstreaming fringe hate ideas. As horrific as it is to have neo-Nazis, you’d think that was a discredited ideology,” Beirich tells Bustle. “When it’s on the margins of society it’s bad. When it’s coming from the White House, it’s terrible.”
Many millennial Jewish women, and especially those who are Jews of color or immigrants, have long been aware of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in the U.S. Yet, the presence of Bannon and Gorka in the White House, along with the uptick in white-supremacist rallies like the one in Charlottesville, make it “more shocking because it’s coming from these institutions,” Faith Fried, a Senior Legislative Associate at the National Council of Jewish Women, tells Bustle.
The increase in anti-Semitic incidents may suggest that anti-Semitism is a latent force that will only become more prevalent and aggressive. But according to Rabbi Alana Alpert, a rabbi at Congregation T’chiyah in Michigan and the Director of Detroit Jews for Justice, “The real question is: Are some people who weren’t anti-Semitic before becoming anti-Semitic? Or, are hate groups where anti-Semitism was part and parcel of their ideology just getting more air time [in the media]?”
“Either way, it’s clear that anti-Semitism is now more of a thing that we can look at directly and talk about directly” she tells Bustle.
“I think a lot of the sentiment right now is white versus black, and Jews are kind of an afterthought, in my estimation.”
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Sarah Rushakoff encountered “a lot of ignorance” about being Jewish, but never anticipated being as fearful as she is today. Though she went to school with other Jewish kids, when Rushakoff was around six or seven years-old, another child asked her if there were horns under her hair. “It’s something I assumed they were taught in their church or their home,” she tells Bustle. “A lot of people tried to ‘witness’ to me, to proselytize to convince me that I should be like them — ‘can I get a witness’ kind of thing. I was really mad and offended when I was younger, but then as I got older I was just like, ‘you’re barking up the wrong tree.’”
Now 37 years old, Rushakoff feels like the white nationalists “would rather I didn’t exist along with a lot of other people.” She says she worries that the anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville will continue to grow, given that the Trump administration has only been in office for eight months. As Memphis reckons with its own Confederate statues, “I think a lot of the sentiment right now is white versus black, and Jews are kind of an afterthought in my estimation,” Rushakoff says. “But, it makes me really frightened because it’s like a domino effect. If these monsters are given license to hate people, they’re not just going to stop at one kind.”
“I’m constantly torn between my identities. Should I be fighting the good fight for Asian representation? Queer rights? Women rights? Standing up for my religion?”
For Dzana Ashworth, 25, the rise of anti-Semitism and racism under Trump has been “really upsetting” because it makes her feel like she has to choose between her identities. Growing up in Portland, Ashworth, who is Filipina, was adopted by a white Jewish family and attended a Jewish youth group and camps growing up. Raised in the Reform sect of Judaism, she met some of her closest friends in the Jewish community.
While many of her friends felt like their youth group was “the only place where I can be myself,” Ashworth didn’t feel that way. “I was the brown person in all white situations — I grew up in a family of all white people...Everyone was like ‘why are you brown and Jewish?’ There was that immediate othering,” she tells Bustle. Now, with the rise of anti-Semitism, “I’m constantly torn between my identities. Should I be fighting the good fight for Asian representation? Queer rights? Women rights? Standing up for my religion?” Ashworth wonders.
As the rise in anti-Semitism this year has pressed millennial women to examine their Jewish identities more closely, they’re also faced with confronting how their faith does — or does not — align with their progressive values.
Both Ashworth and Rushakoff identify as Jews culturally, though they imbue their lives with Judaism in different ways. Rushakoff has Judaica around her home, “like books and tchotchkes,” while Ashworth attends a synagogue where the Rabbi is also an Asian woman. Americans in their age rage are, as a whole, less religious than their parents and grandparents’ generations, according to the Pew Research Center. In Rabbi Alpert’s view, that doesn’t mean that they are less spiritual, rather they’re “passionate and deep.”
“I think it’s not about being less interested in religion, it’s about less willingness to conform. There’s so much oppression in institutions,” Rabbi Alpert tells Bustle. “We have this generation of millennials that are not willing to put up with messed up gender stuff or race stuff — there’s not a lot of places for them to go where they don’t have to put up with that stuff.”
Further, for millennial Jews who grew up in stricter religious communities, the values of those communities may make them feel alienated from the faith “because they’re not welcomed by their queerness or their critique of Israel, and they’re turned off by the difference between the espoused values and how they’re treated,” Rabbi Alpert adds.
On Israel, some millennial Jews may diverge with their congregations because of their critique, as Alpert says, or because they simply don’t feel strongly about the issue. As the debate over Israel becomes increasingly heated among activist causes, such as in the Women’s March or Black Lives Matter movement, progressive millennial Jewish women may find themselves having to address an issue they feel ambivalent about. “I don’t feel a connection to Israel as my homeland because it’s just so mired in controversy and violence on every side,” Rushakoff says. “It’s so uncomfortable I try to avoid it.”
“Jews have a great history of standing up for those who can’t.”
Shakertchi, who identifies as queer, says she’s experienced a sense of alienation because the Judaism she was exposed to in formal settings was both heteronormative and focused on the experiences and customs of Ashkenazi Jews, those of Eastern European descent. While her mom’s family comes from Eastern Europe, Shakertchi’s father’s side is Mizrahi, which refers to those descended from the Middle East and Muslim-majority areas, North Africa, and parts of the Caucasus and Asia. “There’s been institutionalized racism from Ashkenazi Jews to Mizrahi Jews,” Shakertchi tells Bustle. “I pass and read as white and Ashkenazi, but my family has had similar experiences to people who are read as Muslim.”
When the Trump administration instituted a ban on six Muslim-majority countries back in January, “there were people in my family that were afraid to go on trips and go to the airport, even though they’ve been citizens for decades,” she says. Now, by finding community with other Mizrahi Jews, Shakertchi says she feels more deeply rooted in Judaism. “I think it’s because that missing piece is making more sense,” she tells Bustle.
As with any religion, some aspects are understandably less appealing to progressive millennials. However, the desire for social justice, for instance, is consistent with both progressive millennial values and the teachings of Judaism, and that has galvanized many young Jewish women who were perhaps not always in touch with their heritage.
In this divisive political moment, millennial Jews are also finding community through activism, with activist spaces skewing younger than synagogues, according to Rabbi Alpert. They’re also feeling called to activism by Jewish values. According to Fried, the Torah, Judaism’s central text also known as the Old Testament, teaches Jews about “welcoming a stranger, the pursuit of justice and that we are all made in the image of G-d.” Even for Millennial Jews who feel only culturally connected to the religion, “Jews have a great history of standing up for those who can’t,” Fried says.
For Dara Fineman, 28, part of her identity as a Jewish woman is not being afraid to be vocal about injustice, given the community’s history of persecution. Fineman says she always felt a sense of “otherness” as one of the few Jewish families in El Segundo, California in the 1990s, with a background that is both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, which refers to Jews descending from the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East and North Africa. Growing up, Fineman was surprised when her friends would speak nonchalantly about how “‘people got killed’” in the Holocaust. “I’d be like, ‘woah, my people got killed,’” she says.
“If we don't support immigration to America, especially Muslims and Latinx people who are fleeing dangerous situations at home, we are turning our backs on people just like our ancestors.”
“My dad used to say when I was growing up, ‘this is the longest Jews have been in any one place without being kicked out or killed.’ I’d be like ‘this is America. Jews are safe in America.’ And, my dad would be like “that’s sweet,” Fineman tells Bustle. Given these experiences, Fineman isn’t surprised by the “brazenness” of white nationalists. She says she sees it as an opportunity for white Jews to acknowledge their privilege and to take a stand against racism “to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Rushakoff, too, see parallels between her Jewish identity and how the Trump administration is walking back the rights of immigrants today. A few years ago, she says she didn’t feel the “the responsibility to be active and outspoken” that she feels today. “As American Jews, if we don't support immigration to America, especially Muslims and Latinx people who are fleeing dangerous situations at home, we are turning our backs on people just like our ancestors,” she says.
Some have wondered if President Trump would condemn anti-Semitism because his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism to marry her husband Jared Kushner, a senior advisor. Unfortunately, despite the fact that CNN went so far as to call her "America's Most Powerful Jewish Woman," Ivanka's influence hasn't actually been that strong. A White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day left out any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism. In April, Trump condemned anti-Semitism, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's National Days of Remembrance to little fanfare.
While Trump has faced criticism for failing to condemn anti-Jewish hate out front, his administration has been undoing efforts to fight white supremacist groups behind the scenes. Earlier in the summer, the administration revoked a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a group that de-radicalizes neo-Nazis. “The federal government has essentially abandoned its role in stopping these efforts...it means these people can run rampant,” Beirich says.
It’s unclear if the visible anti-Semitism of Charlottesville has hit its crest, or how long it will take to undo the consequences. “You look at the polling. 25 percent of the public is diehard pro-Trump. It doesn’t mean they are white supremacists, but it means that his behavior hasn’t disqualified him. He’s riled them up,” Beirich adds.
As Jewish millennial women fear more anti-Semitism in the months ahead, it is their heritage not of oppression, but of perseverance that is lighting the path of resistance. “The media liked to portray Jews as slowly walking towards the fire,” Fineman says. “We have been the victims, but we do not lay down without a fight. We are loud, we fight back, we are outspoken.”