Opinion: Why don’t Jews march against antisemitism?

People they take part in a march against antisemitism, at Republique square in Paris, on Feb. 19, 2019.

People they take part in a march against antisemitism, at Republique square in Paris, on Feb. 19, 2019.

Thomas Samson / AFP /Getty Images

I have my white poster board and Sharpie all ready to go. My outrage at the subtle and overt antisemitism in this country and abroad has been aching for an outlet. I know that’s true for many of my Jewish friends.

So ...why don’t Jews march?

To be clear, Jews certainly do march. Rabbi Joachim Prinz marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, as did Rabbi Uri Miller among many other prominent Jewish leaders.

I know Jews who have marched against Asian hate, for a woman’s right to choose, in favor of same-sex marriage, against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Aaron Mostofsky, the son of a New York City judge, took part in the Jan. 6 coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol. He pleaded guilty to felony civil disorder charges and was sentenced to eight months in prison.

Every other group demonstrates publicly. The only requirement appears to be a strongly held belief, with or without good cause, that you are the victim of an injustice. Even tiki-torch wielding white men, apparently frightened of being “replaced” by Jews and people of color, took to the streets in Charlottesville. Before that, the Ku Klux Klan marched, publicly wearing their telltale robes, complete with pointy headwear.

Since the founding of this nation, perhaps with greater frequency since the Civil Rights era, there have been large and small marches, for and against causes, people and institutions.

When has there been a march against antisemitism? Jews march, but we don’t seem to do so on our own behalf, at least not at a large scale in the United States.

I asked the eminent scholar, Rabbi Elliott Dorff this question. “I think that Jews don’t march in part because we are a small population and therefore probably could not amass significant numbers to impress people through a march,” he told me.

Far be it from me to disagree with so learned an intellectual as Rabbi Dorff, but I tend to think our tiny population is not a good enough answer. There are 7.6 million of us in the United States, more than 2 percent of the total population.

It may be because our relatively small population is not monolithic. We are orthodox, conservative and Reform, we are Ashkenazi and Sephardic, we are liberals and conservatives, we are wealthy and poor.

And more than that, there is a huge diversity of thought (two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes).

Any placard drawn for a theoretical march for Jews or against antisemitism would require caveats: “I support Israel’s right to exist (but not it’s treatment of the Palestinian people, although the Palestinian government bears some responsibility there, too).”

Or, “Anti-Zionism (may or may not depending on your outlook) = antisemitism.”

Planning for a “March for Jews” would require a full year of discussion, with commentary going back to Maimonides.

Dorff also said that, “In addition, I think that Jews have learned that other ways of responding are more effective — with legislators, courts, in the media, etc.”

I think that’s true, and I think that comes down to fear. We choose to work within the system, rather than seeking to change it.

The tradition of quietism in the Jewish community goes back centuries. Jews in this country and others have long believed in the adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, though grease in our case would be a bullet to the brain or a deep breath of Zyklon B.

Unlike Black and brown people, Jews can pass. Those of us who choose to dress in modern fashion can go unrecognized as Jews, if we want to. We’ve changed our names to sound goyishe. We’ve moved into suburban homes and joined country clubs and worn the same khakis as Chris and Mary down the street.

We’ve tried (for the most part) to go along to get along, because we’ve learned over the millennia of our diaspora, from Russia to Spain to Germany to Charlottesville and Buffalo and beyond, that if we stay quiet and rock no boats we can make a home for ourselves and our children, though maybe not our childrens’ children because you never know.

We are not without our declarations. My mother proudly wears her star of David in a personal act of defiance against antisemitism. My girlfriend, the daughter and brother of former Israeli soldiers, wears her name in Hebrew around her neck. But our demonstrations are never made bullhorn-in-hand. They’re usually limited to modes of dress that declare our Jewishness.

That is, itself, an act of defiance for a group of people intent on blending in for the purpose of self-preservation. When an ultra-Orthodox man chooses to walk through the streets of Crown Heights wearing the traditional black suit, head coverings and sidelocks, he is being brave enough to declare his Jewishness, and suffer what may come of it.

Jews don’t march because even after decades, even after Ginsburg and Bruce and Hoffman and Prinz and Miller and Bernstein and countless others, we still feel like outsiders in America.

Maybe Jews should march. Maybe that sort of open declaration of our place in this country, our right to exist as Jews, would help us feel a part of it.

I have my poster board and Sharpie all ready to go.

Jordan Nathaniel Fenster is a staff writer for Hearst Connecticut Media. He can be found on Twitter @jordanfenster or reached at jordan.fenster@hearstmediact.com.