'It's coming back, you know'
Issey Roquet/The Globe and Mail
Racism, intolerance, hatred – at 17, Sarah Farb finds her elders were right to worry. But she hasn't lost hope
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Every Friday evening, my otherwise non-observant Jewish family gathers for Shabbat dinner. It's hosted every week by my grandmother. We light candles, say a prayer or two and then dig in, eating our food over lengthy discussions of politics and history as news blares through the television in the next room. This week, I suspect the topic of the "alt-right," the growing chorus of fascists and racists who have assembled together in the outskirts of the Republican Party, will surface again.
For almost my entire 17-year life, my grandparents, and likely all Jewish members of their generation, have made remarks about a resurgence of racism in Canada and the United States. Countless times, I have brushed past a table at a luncheon, dinner or family brunch, and heard an elderly person utter, "It's coming back, you know," to a semicircle of old friends. I had always dismissed this negativity as the aging moans and groans of a generation affectionately dubbed "the complainers" by their successors.
"They just don't understand," I told myself. "The world has changed and they can't possibly have the same faith in this New World that I do."
But the rise of Donald Trump and the manifest hatred that festers among legions of his supporters make me re-evaluate those passing conversations. Could it be I was the one who didn't – or couldn't – understand?
Fleeing the poverty and raids of the Old Country, both sides of my family came to Toronto and New York several decades prior to the Second World War. They settled, as everyone did, in the lowest slums of each city and with unfathomably hard work, gradually moved northward. By 1945, two of my great uncles had fought as Allied pilots in Europe and my family's stories and perceptions of the New World were ones of triumph and success. But, in 1946, a new group of Jews sailed to these shores. They were the survivors; the sole remaining shards of broken families, loves and spirits, which had been shattered by the Holocaust. They arrived having been herded into the centres of their villages and into the squares of their cities, stuffed into food-less, washroom-less, uninsulated cattle cars and delivered into work camps or death camps, depending on their luck. Harbouring a trauma as consuming as it was unimaginable, they stepped foot onto a new land, hearts buried in the morbid mud of an old one.
As German Jews will tell you, the Nazis were not a major group before around 1929. It was a fringe group, like the KKK, which often held small rallies under bridges or in living rooms. In the wake of the War Guilt Clause and global recession, many Germans – agitated, desperate and uninformed – began searching for a saviour and a scapegoat. The Nazis presented Adolf Hitler, who then presented the Jews. The rest, cruelly, is history.
Recently, I sat in my school library and watched, paralyzed, as a group of white men made a "Heil Hitler" salute toward a leader named Richard Spencer in Washington. They cheered violently as my people were referred to as a "soulless golem" controlling the media. Juxtaposed to the prosperity and safety my family felt (and still feels) in Canada, I had thought anti-Semitism was dead. Really, it was just lurking in the shadows, growing as the day got worse, as the night got darker, and had finally slithered up from underneath that bridge. "How did I miss this?" I asked myself.
But asking a 17-year-old, fifth-generation Canadian to detect the early stirrings of anti-Semitism is like employing a thermometer to detect an earthquake. I wasn't wired for it, wasn't familiar with it and had never genuinely felt it. My grandparents and my friends' grandparents, however, are the true seismometers. As in the hours before a rainfall, they felt it in their bones; they knew what to look for because they had experienced the sensation before. Only they could sense that unchanging form of insanity as it brewed. For me, over the course of a three-minute video, all those instances of shrugging off their parlour-talk, of nodding absent-mindedly at their conspiracy theories, suddenly morphed into pronounced regret.
No, I am not trying to liken Trump to Hitler, and no, I am not suggesting another Holocaust is imminent. I am, however, noting this fight – the fight against overt racism toward Muslims, Latinos and African-Americans – has now become personal. Now, members of my community are obligated not simply to defend others, but also to work with other minorities to defend ourselves. Together, we must educate and inform. We must implore our governments and our community organizations to reach out to the disenfranchised members of our society – an electoral demographic previously overlooked and thus permitted to grow. We must facilitate an environment that is the antithesis of prewar Germany, never leaving anyone behind, wanting or directionless.
I remain a proud Canadian and I remain in love with the ideals and constitutional values of the United States. I will always want to stay here, even in politically chaotic times such as these.
So, at this week's Shabbat, I hope we keep talking about that video and all the other horrific videos, tweets and swastika graffiti that have followed. I hope we acknowledge the truth in that phrase, "It's coming back."
But, most of all, I hope my family, and minority families across both countries, recognize this frightening reality still warrants unity and hope, not resignation and remorse.
Sarah Farb lives in Toronto.