…and then they came for us

Photo credit to Jessica Vealitzek, a resident of Lake Zurich.

The past few years have seen a sharp increase in the amount of anti-Semitism permeating our communities, but this is nothing new.  I remember back in 1987 when I was 13, someone spray-painted swastikas and other things all over a newly erected Holocaust Memorial in my hometown of Skokie. I asked my father “why do they hate us?” He said “as long as we’re Jews, they’re always going to find a reason to hate us.” Growing up in a strong Jewish community, I never quite understood what he meant. Skokie served as a bit of a “bubble” of Jewish culture on the Chicago Northshore. Most of my classmates at Niles North were Jewish and, like me, fairly sheltered from this narrative. 

My world changed in 1992 when I enrolled at DePaul University. Slowly, I began to see what he meant. People would make comments, off-color jokes, and absurd assumptions. Hurtful stereotypes that I thought were long dead were presented to me in no uncertain terms as alive and well. One night, I returned to my dorm room and a swastika was urinated in the carpet outside of my door. Someone on my floor called it a joke and told me to laugh. After a school administrator told me to not make a big deal of it, my bubble was officially burst. For a bunch of elementary school students in Lake Zurich, their bubble just the other day was burst when someone vandalized their school with a swastika. 

Anti-Semitism isn’t a new or partisan issue. It didn’t start in this White House or with “inclusive” groups denying us entry into parades because of Israel. It’s been around forever and will linger as long as we continue to abide by it. 

What scares me is as we lose more survivors of the Holocaust, more people deny it happened. Some quick data points, according to a 2018 study conducted by Shoen Consulting, 45% of Americans could not name a single concentration camp. 41% of respondents, and 66% of Millenials, had no idea what Auschwitz was. A third of Americans thought that less than two million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, when the actual estimates are closer to six million. The Anti-Defamation League put out a report last year that showed a 150% increase in anti-Semitic attacks when comparing the years 2013 and 2018.

How do we combat this? How do we stand up to the hate? It starts with education. We must show the world that this hateful narrative throughout our history has led to countless attempts to destroy us. We need to educate our neighbors about this atrocity, lest we be doomed to repeat the horrors of the past. Too often, particularly with the younger generation, we’re seeing these tropes played out again and again in the form of misguided attempts at comedy.

The “innocent” jokes come from a very dangerous place. It seems that white supremacist and anti-Semitic movements are gaining ground around the world, in particular with the Gen Z demographic. Popular online personalities have been thoroughly documented trying to make their comedy more “edgy” by including anti-Semitism in their language. One Youtuber that has 102 million subscribers has gotten in trouble multiple times for attempting to use jokes regarding holocaust denial in his videos. A few years after he rose to fame, the Pepe the Frog memes, which are openly homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, etc., spread in his wake. I’m deliberately avoiding naming him, because I would rather not give a platform to his message, but the point I’m trying to highlight here is that what starts as a seemingly innocuous joke can often lead to the normalization of hate. We speak out against this in no uncertain terms, stop indoctrinating the next generation in prejudice, and show the world that we’re not going anywhere.

This upcoming session, I’m introducing legislation to better clarify anti-Semitism. While it won’t stop people from hating us, it’s a start. I promise you that as long as I’m in office, hate will not be tolerated. I’ll call it out wherever and whenever I see it. We owe it to our children to stand up for marginalized communities, and set a positive example for the next generation.

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