When I was in graduate school, I spent a summer in Berlin, and one night, the woman from whom I was renting a room invited me to a dinner party with some of her friends. They were lovely people, they all spoke English, we were having a delightful time, and then the British guy at the table started telling a joke about a Jew.
Finally I spoke up. “I’m Jewish, just so you know.”
“Oh, you are?” he said. I don’t look especially Jewish, but I also don’t not look Jewish. I think it had simply just never occurred to him that anyone he associated with would be Jewish. “Well, it’s not, like, a Jewish joke.” He was genteel, educated — and seemed almost offended at the notion that I would take offense to his humor.
Certainly, the "joke" wasn't violent, or scary — just sad. I'd lived most of my life in a relative bubble of diverse, open-minded people of all races and religions. We did not tell jokes that were racist or anti-Semitic. It felt especially pointed to hear an anti-Semitic joke in Berlin, a city that seemed eager to prove it had fully reckoned with its Nazi past.
And it was one of those things that makes you think: Oh, so this is how they talk about us when we’re not around. I thought about this dinner party recently, because this election has brought into the open all of the things that people used to be too polite to say when they thought Jews might be listening. It turns out that we were naïve to think that they weren’t thinking them anymore. It turns out they've been thinking those things all along — and this election emboldened them to bring their hate and vitriol out into the open.
Until this election, it was relatively easy to pretend that anti-Semitism wasn’t really a thing in this country anymore; true anti-Semites were on the fringes of society, reviled for their extreme views. Jews were fully integrated into the fabric of American society, full stop. To think of ourselves as a minority, or in need of protection, seemed almost laughable.
Of course, this is also how Jews in Weimar Germany felt. They were not in need of protection, because they had fully integrated into the fabric of German society, full stop. Except, of course, not.
White women may have voted for Trump, but Jewish women did not. We have seen this before, and we know what this means, and we are scared.
And no one is laughing now — not after an election in which the anti-Semitism unleashed on social media, aided and abetted by the Trump campaign, has laid bare the true sentiments of an uncomfortably large number of people. The campaign itself tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton next to a Star of David with the words "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever" on a background of a pile of money, and then denied that it had anything to do with Judaism. After a profile of Melania Trump was published in GQ, Trump supporters attacked the Jewish writer of the piece; Melania later said that she didn't control her fans, and in any case, Julia Ioffe had "provoked" them. The Anti-Defamation League calculated that more than 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets had been sent between August 2015 and July 2016, with over 800 journalists becoming the target of attacks.
The anti-Semites have found each other, and they encourage each other, and they are no longer on the fringes.
White women may have voted for Trump, but Jewish women did not. We have seen this before, and we know what this means, and we are scared. Certainly, Jews have long been a reliably Democratic voting bloc, but still, according to a New York Times exit poll, 71% of Jewish voters chose Hillary Clinton and 24% voted for Trump. In other words, more Jews voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 than voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — despite Trump's Jewish son-in-law and now-Jewish daughter. I often saw Jared and Ivanka invoked on Twitter by defenders of Trump, who would make the argument that Trump himself couldn’t be anti-Semitic because his son-in-law and daughter were Jewish. But that argument is a red herring; Trump’s rhetoric of appealing to the bitter and the disenfranchised allowed the circumstances for anti-Semitism to flourish. And as for Jared and Ivanka? Jared wrote an op-ed in the New York Observer, which he owns, defending Trump; he has been denounced by his extended family for invoking his grandparents' experience in the Holocaust to support his father-in-law.
Today is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," when synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were vandalized in Nazi Germany — "spontaneous" violence in response to the assassination of a German diplomat in France by a Polish-French Jew. Nearly 100 Jews were killed that night. It was the culmination of five years of anti-Semitic incidents and increasingly restrictive laws against Jews. But by then, the canary had already died in the coal mine.
And now, my discomfort at a long-ago anti-Semitic joke seems almost quaint. This morning, anti-Semitic graffiti — a swastika and the words "Sieg Heil 2016" — was found on a storefront in South Philadelphia. There's little doubt in my mind that this won't be the last of its kind for a long time. The rhetoric that this campaign enabled — about Jews, Muslims, Latinos, black people, Asians, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, women — is not going to recede quietly into the background. It's incumbent upon all of us who believe in equality, empathy, understanding, and true freedom to fight it.
Kristallnacht was in response to the assassination of a German official in France. An earlier version of this article misstated the cause of Kristallnacht.