I am a Jew. I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, attended a Jesuit college, know The Lord’s Prayer and The Nicene Creed by heart and have never been inside a synagogue for any other purpose besides watching a friend or relative get bar or bat mitzvahed, but still I am a Jew. This is because Jewish blood flows through my mother’s Jewish veins irrespective of her conversion to Christianity, just as it ran through the veins of her parents, secular Jews who went to temple about as often during their adult lives as I have. Their parents were raised in the Jewish communities of Baltimore and New York City near the turn of the century and their parents’ parents were emigres from central and eastern Europe; my grandfather’s forbears hailing from Germany and my grandmother’s from the Ukraine.
Both of my maternal grandparents died before I had reached an age at which I could fully appreciate the extent to which anti-semitism and World War II had effected their lives, but I did have one experience after their passing which now, a dozen years later, sheds light on the amount of distrust and fear they still felt at the dawn of the 21st Century. After their death, as we went about the business of cleaning up my grandparents’ condo, my father discovered a steamer trunk underneath my grandfather’s bed and found, upon opening it, that it was filled with silver ingots. Unable to comprehend at fourteen years of age why someone would keep what was surely tens of thousands of dollars with of silver hidden under their bed, it was delicately explained to me by my mother that the bedroom silver was a precautionary measure taken by her parents who had lived through the Holocaust and had a deep mistrust of centralized institutions.
They had seen what happened to their extended family in Germany and in the Ukraine and they were frightened by the prospect that something similar could happen in America. At the time, I couldn’t understand how anyone living in the 1990s could be fearful of a strain of anti-semitism as virulent as those that let to the Holocaust and the pogroms of Eastern Europe, but today I understand that fear. During a week in which a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon shot and killed three innocent people outside of a Jewish assisted living facility outside of Kansas City (ironically and tragically, all three victims that were killed in the shooting were self-avowed Christians) and a Pro-Russian organization began circulating flyers demanding Ukrainian Jews register themselves if they don’t wish to be deported, how could I not?
Judaism, more so than any other spiritual denomination in the modern world, is both a religion and an ethnicity. Passed down through the generations matrilineally, any child born to a Jewish mother is ethnically Jewish from birth, just as a child born to parents of Irish descent is ethnically Irish. From that point on, a person of Jewish descent can choose to join whatever religion he or she pleases, but their status as being ethnically Jewish is non-negotiable. It is a matter of genetics, not belief systems.
When an armed pro-Russian separatist group in eastern Ukraine begins distributing fliers outside of a Donetsk synagogue, demanding that all Jews give them their, “ID and passport … to register [their] Jewish religion, religious documents of family members, as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to [them], including vehicles.” it is directed at the Jewish race more than the Jewish religion. Just as Russia’s incursion into Crimea hinged on ethnic tensions between the Ukrainian government and the ethnically Russian population of the region, this anti-semitism in the Ukraine–by both Pro-Russian and Pro-Ukrainean factions–is feeding off of a centuries old conflict.
I know that we would all like to think that the genocidal horrors of The Holocaust were enough to ensure that such systemic anti-semitism could never happen again, but recent events and polling numbers suggest otherwise. In the BBC World Service’s latest country rating poll, only 1 out of ever 5 people asked reported having a positive opinion of Israel, while more than half of them held a negative opinion of the country. Meanwhile in Greece, an almost unbelievable level of anti-semitic bile has been spewing from the mouths of the country’s neo-nazi Golden Dawn party, which officially threw off it’s label as a harmless fringe group when it captured 21 of the 300 seats in the Greek parliament in 2012. And, to be clear, when I say neo-nazi, I mean neo-nazi. Just yesterday, the party’s chief overseas strategist Ilias Panagiotaros told Australia’s 60 Minutes thatAdolf Hitler was, “a great personality, like Stalin.”
Now, it is my deep and fervent hope that the reports of fliers being distributed in Donetsk are exaggerated and that these actions have been carried out by a small group of rogue activists whose views do not speak for the majority of pro-Russian supporters in the Ukraine or for the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which is the name the country’s pro-Russian separatists have given themselves. However, we cannot take this sort of blatant anti-semitism lightly, especially when it is happening in such a fragile part of the world. There is no climate that bigotry and hatred loves more than one sporting a sinking economy and a crumbling government. It is hard for us here in the United States, a nation which is Israel’s staunchest ally, to envision the anti-semitic threats like ones made in the Ukraine becoming realities, but I would encourage us all to heed the words of George Santayana that are emblazoned on the base of the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial’s sculptural representation of the agony endured by the victims of the holocaust: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.