Jewish Americans live a dichotomy, enjoying success and privilege and at the same time being subjected to antisemitic hate and suspicion. Mark Fefer, DWT's Head of PR and Strategic Communications, shares his insights into the two-sided heritage of Jews and how we all—Jews and non-Jews alike—need to be mindful that antisemitism is not an historical artifact but an ongoing and present danger.
Being Jewish can put you in an odd place in the diversity conversation.
We're only 2% of the U.S. population—a fraction of even other minorities. And we carry a long and painful history of persecution over many centuries.
But are we, in diversity parlance, underrepresented? Most definitely not. We are overrepresented—wildly overrepresented—in almost any professional field you can name: medicine, law, business, journalism, science, the arts, professional sports. (OK fine, professional sports management….)
We are an extremely privileged group. We feel it ourselves. Jews have had such success and acceptance in this country, it almost feels like a dream. And yet. Antisemitic conspiracy theories proliferate. Comedians openly express suspicion of Jews on national television. Our schools and synagogues are surrounded by security fencing and armed guards.
As we enter Jewish American Heritage Month, it's a good time to consider the effect this discordant heritage can have on your Jewish co-workers, business colleagues, and friends. It may seem strange that Jewish people, who seem to have been blessed with every advantage imaginable in this country, who now walk with seeming ease through the corridors of wealth and power, could at the same time be so anxious and hypersensitive to anything they perceive as antisemitism.
The reason—at least part of the reason—lies in what our entire history has taught us: that today's privilege quickly becomes tomorrow's nightmare. The Jews of pre-World War II Germany were also comfortable, successful, and assimilated. A lot of good it did them.
Last month was the holiday of Passover. It celebrates the Israelites' liberation from Egyptian slavery. It also recalls our descent into slavery, as recounted in the Torah (aka the Hebrew Bible). As the book of Genesis comes to a close, Joseph has impressed the king of Egypt with his wisdom and been installed as a powerful viceroy. He's brought his extended family down to Egypt too and they've taken residence in a rich and bountiful part of the country. The Jews have it made. Then the book of Genesis ends. Years pass, and as the book of Exodus opens, we're told that "a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." This new king is worried about these Jews. They've grown too strong, too numerous. He's suspicious of their loyalty. And only a few verses later, we've been completely enslaved.
This isn't just a foundational story—it's actual history that's happened to us across countries and continents. Not always slavery, but expulsion, ghettoization, and murder.
There are many, many strains of antisemitic hate. There's religious animosity. There's a belief in Jewish racial inferiority. There's resentment of the way Jews cling to the authority of their own tradition and resist majority culture. One of the most common kinds of antisemitism arises from paranoia about Jewish power. We saw it again last month when former President Trump was indicted. Instantly, his supporters made it known that this was all a scheme being orchestrated by the Jewish philanthropist George Soros. It's a kind of trope being heard more and more in this country and it's always a sure sign of authoritarianism on the rise.
Yet with all this, we still enjoy tolerance and security that my murdered grandfather in Lithuania could never have thought possible. And not just tolerance! According to recent data from the Pew Center, Americans look more favorably on Jews than any other religious group.
Several years ago I started wearing my kippah, or skullcap, in public, in a city (Seattle) where that's extremely rare. And I can tell you it's prompted nothing but positive interactions. I can't count the number of people, of all colors and walks of life, in all kinds of settings, who've greeted me with "Shalom" or otherwise shown approving interest. I was walking to the train the other day when a guy leaned out his car window and shouted: "Hey, what do I gotta do to become Jewish, man? I like you guys's business!" And drove off.
This is, for many of us, a Promised Land.
But that memory of slavery—which the Torah exhorts us, over and over again, to keep fresh in our minds—remains. It's the wolf at the door that helps drive Jewish ambition. It inspires the progressive politics that characterize the vast majority of American Jews. And it makes us an important part of the DEI conversation. As you engage with the Jewish people in your professional life—and it's likely there are some—this two-sided heritage is one to bear in mind.