When the Tree of life shooting happened I was overcome with emotions. I was angry. I was terrified. I was grieving. I was shaken to my core…
But I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I was furious at those outside the Jewish community who were. Despite our continuous calls for people to recognize the growing threat to our community, we had been ignored. I could only hope that the bloodshed would focus Americans to understand what we had desperately been trying to tell them—that threats to our community were real and growing. I felt like American Jews were screaming about our fears of violence, but could only be heard by one another.
After the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I know I am the one who should have been listening. I should have been doing more.
I think about my college roommate, who after tremendous struggles early in life, found peace and joy in her conversion to Islam and in putting on her hijab. Many of our friends struggled to understand, but I understood her completely. Faith has been a source of peace for me, too. I think about colleagues from across my career, and how they rolled up their sleeves and worked alongside me. I think about our president and his hateful rhetoric and cruel policies.
I am proud to see Jewish institutions like the RAC, the ADL, AJC, HIAS, Zioness, T’ruah, and many, many more standing with Muslim communities to fight hate, combat various extremist threats both from inside and outside our communities, and improve relationships between the communities. As hate crimes have risen against both Jews and Muslims, it’s been heartening to see our communities stand together in frightening times. I was deeply moved to see members of the Tree of Life synagogue raising funds and expressing solidarity with victims of Christchurch. On an individual level, 72 percent of Jews believe that Muslims face substantial discrimination in the U.S.
Still, I know Islamophobia is still present among us. I have experienced it within the Jewish community. It crosses my screen regularly, with messages on social media that are steeped in xenophobia, anger, bigotry, and overwhelming fear—messages from accounts that are furious at me for supporting refugees and other immigrants, for naming bigotry against Muslims, for expressing solidarity and shared humanity.
I understand their fear—our fear. Fear is our inheritance. But this response to fear—to hate—is untenable, and it is unjust. I take a deep breath and I write back to the hateful messengers. You do not have an ally in me. These are not Jewish values. Block. Block. Block. I try to make it go away. But it’s still there.
I remember, even 20 years later, hearing Islamophobic comments from one of my Hebrew school teachers at synagogue. There was a racist joke that one Muslim in the Mediterranean was pollution, but 1 million would be a solution. She told us the Muslim kids at school weren’t really our friends and we shouldn’t hang out with them. I called my best friend to make sure my memory hadn’t exaggerated the teacher’s words; she recalled them exactly as I did. They were burned into both our memories. We knew they were wrong. Even today I can feel how angry and ashamed we were. We didn’t know how to deal with the situation, we were only kids. It took years for me to tell my parents—and when I did, they were furious. They wished they had known.
I also remember being targeted by Stop the Islamization of America in 2012, because I was organizing Shabbat dinner events in support of Obama for America. My home address and those of several volunteers were posted on their website, an act attempting to intimidate and silence. I was called a kapo and a Nazi. I am deeply saddened and angry that this organization, defined as a hate group by the ADL, is run by a Jew, Pamela Geller.
I have experienced Islamophobia in my community as a child and as an adult. After the unbearable tragedy of Christchurch, in which 50 people lost their lives, I am asking myself, and all of us, to do more.
First, we must have a zero tolerance policy in our homes, our community spaces and our own minds. We must never allow hate speech to fester in our holy places or our kitchen tables. That doesn’t mean that we shun offenders—it means we talk to them about it. We talk about how easy it is to slip into hateful language and how easy it is for hate to take root in our mind. It’s even easier for hate to take root in times of deep fear, and so we must be more vigilant than ever. We talk about how it feels when we are judged based on assumptions about Jews. We talk about how we can be angry at a government’s policies and their leadership, but it if we hate the people we aren’t living our Jewish values. It’s hard. It’s awkward. It is lifesaving. It is empowering. It must be done.
We need to talk to our kids about what to do when they encounter Islamophobia. They are going to encounter it. Maybe it will be at Passover with a relative. Maybe it will be in the bunk at Jewish summer camp. It is inevitable, and we must discuss it just like we discuss promiscuity, drugs, or bullying. We must tell our kids that it’s wrong, that they should speak up if they can—and talk to us if they feel like they can’t. That it’s a form of bullying and cruelty, and parents need to know about it.
Secondly, we need to understand that we have a dangerous common enemy—the white supremacist domestic terrorist. From Pittsburgh to Christchurch, the white supremacist domestic terrorist is both of our communities No. 1 security concern. Seventy-six percent of extremist murders in the past 10 years in the U.S. were by white supremacists. Hate crimes are rising against both Jews and Muslims, and there is an opportunity to stand together and fight bigotry together.
Thirdly, we must be honest. There are real community tensions. They are driven by war. They are driven by history, from Tunisia to Iraq. Some of it is ancient and some of it is unfolding before our eyes. There is justifiable anger from Mizrahi Jewish refugees, who were stripped of their land, their possessions, their citizenship, and never received compensation from their governments. There are divides that may never be bridged on Israel. There are portions of our communities that will never be friends. If we ignore those histories and those tensions then it will be impossible to build something stronger and more just. We must not only focus on our commonalities, but also have real community dialogue whenever possible. There are places we may never agree, but we can only benefit from increased understanding and conversation.
Islamic extremists are a real threat to our global community. We must tell ourselves and our children a hard truth. There ARE Muslims who wish us harm, and Muslims who share an ideology of hate. There are extremists in the world. This is also true of some Christians. This is also true of those with no faith. The overwhelming majority of Muslims fear the same extremists we fear, whether they be white supremacists or jihadists. We can be angry and afraid of those who wish us harm, but that is no reason to hate and fear Muslims across the world or in our neighborhood. No reason to cross the street in our hometown or turn our backs on Muslim refugees suffering at the hand of ISIS. We should welcome both at our collective table. Engaging in hatred of Muslims does not make us safer; it strengthens the hand of extremists across the world that wish our community harm, whether they be white supremacist or jihadist. Some of us, including me, are more comfortable talking about the threat of white nationalism than corners of Islam that oppress us. We need to talk about it all. Within that honesty, we can fight hatred.
Islamophobia is bad for Judaism and our community. If you care about Jewish continuity you should fight for inclusivity. We should never let the specter of anti-Semitism change who we are. Even in our hardest moments, even when we face hate, we cannot allow hate to change us. That is an existential threat, not just to our safety, but to who we are and the culture we fight to preserve.
We can choose to weaken extremists by creating partnerships. We can join spaces where people seek understanding and partnership, like Salaam Shalom or the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council. Regardless of tensions and community disagreements, we can make a choice not to give in to blind hatred. We can set a standard for our community, and our community can become the standard for others. And perhaps even more importantly, we can privately say no to hate whenever and wherever it rears its head. That is a meaningful first step—perhaps the most radical one of all.
When I was growing up during the early 1990s in Canada, the Holocaust seemed very far away.
As far as Canadian Jewish childhoods go, mine was fairly typical—Hebrew school, loving (if slightly overprotective) parents, a strong community. My hometown of Montreal was home to the world’s largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel and New York City, and for good reason: While our language divide in Quebec might belie the stereotype of the perfectly harmonious Great White North, it was a relatively comfortable, safe, and multicultural place to raise a family after the horrors of Europe.
I knew my grandparents had gone through something terrible—we talked about it at home, the confusing family tree that was missing entire branches, with distant cousins strewn across the Diaspora. As a very young child, I remember asking about the tattoo on my grandpa’s forearm. But it was so long ago and very far away. Nazi troops and scrambling for fake papers seemed utterly disconnected from my reality—the elderly man with the thick Slovak accent who would kick a soccer ball with me and wore suspenders every day, the tough Hungarian woman who made the best chicken paprikash.
My parents never told about my grandpa’s nightmares, or my grandma’s antidepressants. Why would they? I was a kid and all I needed to know was that they survived, and they loved me. We were a close family and I was proud of my heritage, but conversations about trauma and horror and depression were best whispered, if held at all.
Over two decades after their deaths, I now wish I had known more.
Last year, at age 32, I was diagnosed with depression. Only after I started talking openly with my parents about my own mental health did I learn about the history of mental illness in my family.
Saying “my grandparents survived the Holocaust, therefore I’m depressed” is ridiculous. But during my lowest periods, their experiences were a constant specter. They had survived unimaginable hardship—I was raised in an upper-middle-class home in the heart of a large and vibrant Jewish enclave, in a country known for its prosperity and safety. What right did I have to be depressed? I didn’t just feel like I’d let down my long-deceased grandma and grandpa—I felt like my self-indulgence was a betrayal of their legacy.
The Holocaust unsurprisingly left deep psychological wounds in many of the Jews who survived it. Rather than healing over time, research shows the psychic injuries are being passed down and living on, even as the number of survivors dwindles.
Since the late 1960s a subfield of psychology has sprung up around the impact the Holocaust has had on its survivors’ descendants. Some studies conclude that there is a biological element to this—that trauma, starvation, stress, and other factors can alter the genetics of not just survivors but their children, putting those kids at higher risk for mental disorders like depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
If that kind of biological cause and effect can be hard to relate to, Yael Danieli’s years of research brings the effects of trauma into a situation the stereotypical Jew would be intimately familiar with: the child-parent relationship itself.
Danieli, who is the co-founder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children as well as the International Center for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, is one of the leading scholars on inherited trauma. In numerous papers and books, she’s written about her findings on how the Holocaust affected its victims’ mental health in the years and decades that followed. Many developed mechanisms to cope with what they’d lived through. Some developed depression and fear of the outside world (seeing themselves as victims), while others stressed almost compulsive achievement for themselves and their families (seeing themselves as fighters); some, especially those who lost spouses and/or children, became emotionally numb, and a fourth group tended to deny that the Holocaust had any long-term effect on them, rarely spoke to their children about it, and were glad to have made it out alive (Danieli dubs them “those who made it”).
“These (post-trauma) adaptational styles (have) thus shaped the survivors’ family life and, in turn, their children’s upbringing, emotional development, identity, and beliefs about themselves, their peers, their societies, and the world,” writes Danieli in her 2016 article for The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, “Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma: Modeling the What and How of Transmission.”
Because our home lives are so influential on who we become, to Danieli, the question isn’t whether children of survivors are psychologically affected by their family’s Holocaust experiences—it’s who will be and when.
Judith Black’s mother was an anxious person.
It’s hard to fault her for that. Like many Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, she scrambled to get false papers that would help her and her young daughter hide from the Nazis. Her husband, Judith’s father, had already been found and loaded onto a train to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Luckily, the three of them survived and found their way to Canada.
“They went through so much. They went through the war, they went through immigration, in the prewar years there was the Depression,” said Black of her mother’s generation. “Generally, they’ve gone through a lot of anxiety.”
In her childhood and teen years, Black found herself tending toward anxiety herself and she soon found she was not alone in feeling the heavy weight of her parents’ Holocaust experiences. In her work as a clinical psychologist, she’s treated several children of survivors. In her role as a board member of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, she has met many more.
“If you have an anxious parent or a depressed parent, it’s going to leave an impact on the child,” she said. “The more anxiety a parent has, the more I think they pass it on, and the more depression.”
The correlation between the trauma a parent experienced and the atmosphere of the home they create for their children seems straightforward. It becomes muddier once those kids grow up and raise their own families.
While there’s been ample study of Holocaust survivors and their children, there’s been far less on the next generation. One study by researchers at Haifa University found that Israeli grandchildren of survivors inherited some of their parents’ anxieties, but the body of evidence is hardly conclusive. (In an interview, Danieli said that while there’s still a lack of hard data, “From my theoretical and clinical standpoint, you could hypothesize that when the grandchildren grow up in second-generation homes with high reparative adaptational impacts and also have had grandparents with a victim or numb adaptational style, they’re likely to be more affected.”)
Some academics take issue with the concept of inherited Holocaust trauma as a whole. Frank Furedi, a sociologist and former professor at England’s University of Kent, has written about his belief that descendants claiming to feel the repercussions of the Shoah in their own lives are trying to make themselves into victims as a way to find meaning. “Increasingly, we explain our predicament by events that happen a long time ago, our childhood or even before that,” he said in an interview. “There is at least a section of families that begin to give meaning to their experience through being a Holocaust survivor. It’s interesting, you look at the discourse by second- and third-generation survivors, it’s almost as if for them, that experience has greater meaning than for their parents, the ones who actually suffered the horrors in the camps.”
Still, speaking to several grandchildren of survivors, it seems possible that those of us born decades after the last concentration camp was liberated are bearing mental scar tissue from what our bubbes and zaydes endured. There’s a sense that the Holocaust is still shaping who we are, for better and for worse.
“There’s something very unsettling about talking about myself as a victim given the obscene privilege of my life and the fact that I’m not a victim,” said John, a fellow 30-something grandson of Holocaust survivors. “My grandparents went through hell and I’m very reticent to present myself as someone who is even an intergenerational victim of trauma, because in the grand scheme of the world we live in, I’m beyond privileged.”
On the surface, John is everything a grandparent who came from immense suffering could hope for: A Toronto-based lawyer, he’s happily married with a young child and a close relationship with his parents and siblings. All four of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, but like me, he only learned of their experience—of hiding, of exile, of losing loved ones—in dribs and drabs over the years.
“I would fall into the category of someone whose grandparents were like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ On my mom’s side, there was never a word to be spoken about the Holocaust, which had a significant impact on my mother,” he said. “My mom didn’t know she had a half-brother. She didn’t know that, she found that out when she was an adult. That’s fucked up.”
Despite his success, John has found himself suffering from intense social anxiety. He recently began seeing a therapist (he asked that his last name not be used, due to ongoing stigma around mental illness having a negative effect on his career). “I think there’s a lot of reasons one becomes anxious and I don’t want to unfairly attribute this to my parents, but part of it is growing up in a house and family where the narrative was always that danger is lurking around every corner,” he said. “I don’t know whether my parents think about that as a Holocaust thing, but now, with some benefit of hindsight, that’s what I believe.”
Our survivor grandparents are almost all gone. The memory of the Holocaust, too, is tragically fading. A recent survey found 49 percent of American millennials couldn’t name a single concentration camp. In Canada, that number is 52 percent. The horror of genocide is dim enough that Holocaust deniers are thriving online and getting the occasional meeting with a congressman or two.
Even as the new wave of anti-Semites attack both physically and digitally, the scabs of the old wounds are still there. The past, as William Faulkner said, isn’t over. It isn’t even past. For those of us who grew up with intimate evidence of the Holocaust in the form of beloved flesh-and-blood parents and grandparents, whose worldview shaped the homes we grew up in, Judaism’s bloodiest chapter literally lives on in our DNA.