The State Department official said he knew me as the girl who applied for asylum in my own country, and to him it may have seemed like a joke. But to me, this was anything but. I used this desperate measure in order to make my government live up to its responsibility to protect my right to live a religious life, to preserve my cultural identity, and to allow my children and I to be who we are without fear of persecution. Kosher slaughter has been outlawed in my country since 1937, and a bill is now pending in parliament that would ban even the import and serving of kosher meat in spaces partially or fully funded by the government. Circumcision is also under threat; it is one of few issues in Swedish politics where the Left and Right find common ground. In Sweden today, home to 15,000 Jews amidst a national population of roughly nine million, publicly displaying Jewish identity through symbols or dress means putting yourself at risk of verbal or physical harassment. Synagogues are heavily guarded and Jewish children play behind bars and heavy metal gates. My government has failed the Jewish minority, as they failed my family for generations, so I turned to the world out of anger and sheer desperation.
I believe that the state of a society can be judged by how it relates to its Jews, as we have always acted as the canary in the coal mine for all of Western civilization. What you read about in the news are no isolated instances of violence, no random bunch of folks in a deli, and no simple conflict between countries. This is a historical clash of civilizations, and everything I have done in these past years have been attempts to find out on which side of that clash the world is choosing to stand.
This was not the first time my son had been singled out as a Jew, nor will it be the last. From bullying at school to armed guards at his synagogue, he knows to equate Jewish life with fear and a lingering threat of violence. This is a given for any Jew in Europe, and it has taught us all to alter our lives to deal with this reality. But the events of the past year have driven us beyond the point where alterations keep us safe. The eye of hate has been fixed on us and there is no longer a place to hide.
The State Department official in Washington insisted that this is not 1939, and while he may be right, his use of the Holocaust as the litmus test for persecution allows new and evolved forms of anti-Semitism to fly well beneath the radar. Human rights violations should not have to be quantified. The reaction to these violations should not be dependent on their likeness to other crimes. Nor should any lack of likeness be used as an excuse not to act. It may not be 1939, but the sky is falling and Jews are, in record numbers, making the choice between flight and assimilation, neither choice guaranteeing safety. This is a question of neither chronology nor ideology, but of the universal truth that freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and that we in the name of human decency must never be neutral between them.
Shortly after U.S. forces liberated Buchenwald, the inmates put up handmade signs with the words “never again.” Since then, those two words have become synonymous with the promise made by the world to remember how we got there, vowing never to return. But now, a mere 70 years later, the promise of eternal remembrance has turned into a strategy of doing nothing until it is safe to say that there is nothing left to do. In 1914, Europe was home to 10.5 million Jews. Today, there are 1.5 million, and the ongoing pogroms are causing 29 percent of European Jews to contemplate emigrating—no longer trusting that anyone in the Diaspora is willing to help them. I am one of those Jews, having to give up on the dream that spurred my great-grandparents some 200 years ago. So, while we may utter the words “never again,” they are not an all-encompassing incantation, nor do they apply only to circumstances identical to those we’ve already experienced. “Never again” does not merely mean never again allowing another Holocaust, but never again being blind to evil, no matter what form it may take. Remembrance is not simply a phrase, but an action, and a solemn responsibility.
Just last year I got it in my head to find out what became of the boys with the boots and the blank, icy stares. I was hoping against hope that they were crawling on the underbelly of society and that somehow the world would make sense again if only their life would reflect the terror the caused me to feel. But of course that wasn’t the case. The boys with the boots are fathers, businessmen, and local politicians. Someone loved them enough to be their wife; someone looks to them for guidance and support. They are not broken, nor are they lost, and there would be no righteous conclusion to my story.
As I was comforting him, my son asked me if we could just stop being Jews. It’s too hard, he said, and I just want it to go away. With those words, I felt as if I had fallen through a black hole into history. We have had this talk before, I have cried these tears before, the hatred may be wearing a different outfit now but the death we are dying is no less dark.
I teach my children about right and wrong, trying to instill in them a faith in good always triumphing over evil. To me these are no fairytales, but values to live and die for. As I write this, I wonder if the world still believes in these ancient truths, and if there is anyone willing to keep the promises made at the gates of hell 70 years ago. If not for the Jews, then because this is an attack on each and every one of us, where we as Jews merely act as a first line of defense in a war that won’t subside once we’re defeated.
I now travel with a plain, black suitcase, and my children are no longer allowed to walk outside with any visible Jewish symbols. These may seem like small choices to some, mere adaptations, but it’s the small things that eventually get to you. It’s the many small details that, stitched together, create a chain of fear that ties you to the ground.