The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The attack at a Texas synagogue shakes our expectation of what the U.S. is meant to be

A member of law enforcement is pictured on Jan. 16 following the hostage incident at Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Tex. (Ralph Lauer/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Roya Hakakian is the author, most recently, of “A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.”

This past Saturday, as I watched images of FBI agents pacing the perimeter of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Tex., after a terrifying hostage standoff, I felt strangely glad that my father wasn’t alive to witness the scene. At the end of his life, he took great comfort in thinking he had delivered his family to safety by immigrating to the United States.

Violent, bigoted acts such as the one in Colleyville are more than isolated tragedies for immigrants who have fled their homelands seeking religious freedom. They shake our expectation of what the United States is meant to be. However naively, we come here expecting to work hard — not to be haunted by the very forces that drove us from our countries.

Roya Hakakian discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

Antisemitism chased my father out of a small Shiite village in central Iran, where he was often pelted by rocks en route to school. When I was a child in Tehran, in the feverish revolutionary days of 1978, I opened our courtyard door one afternoon to show him a black symbol I had never seen — a swastika — scrawled on the alley wall, beside the words “Jews get lost!” He knew then that he would have to move again.

With each new attack on Jewish people in the United States, I wonder why the antisemitism I experienced in Iran didn’t affect me as much as it does today.

In the mid-1980s, bathrooms and water fountains at my high school became segregated for Muslims and non-Muslims. But within a few days, most students refused to follow the rules. They randomly crisscrossed between the stalls, oblivious to the signs, which soon lost their meaning.

In retrospect, I understand the roots of that refusal. Those trying to humiliate us were the same people arresting our classmates’ siblings for political activism, raiding our neighbors’ wedding parties, sniffing the breath of guests for the scent of alcohol, subjecting them to public lashings if they detected it. The antisemites we students loathed were the officials at whose hands my fellow citizens were suffering. There was consolation in our solidarity — in objecting to those who segregated some of us and tyrannized the rest.

Late last year, after the chief rabbi of the Iranian Jewish community toured the United States, many disbelieved him when he claimed that Iranian Jews were free to comfortably practice their faith. Indeed, the regime wants the remaining few thousand Jews in Iran to stay, for it routinely points to their existence as evidence that its objection to Israel is targeted at Zionists, not toward all Jews.

In fact, if Jews feel any safety in Iran, it’s because the discrimination they’re subjected to — which, among other limitations, prevents them from rising to top positions in academia or government — is part of the larger malady afflicting the entire society. If there is a silver lining in living under authoritarianism, it’s that it can inspire people to forgo prejudices and unite in shared misery. It’s no surprise that Iranians rank among the least antisemitic people in all of the Middle East and North Africa.

In contrast, when my U.S.-born son found a swastika — at the same age as I once had — in the boys’ bathroom of his elite New England middle school, there was neither the collective disdain I had experienced in Iran nor a meaningful public conversation. The school underwent the same perfunctory motions it does for a fire drill. Before anyone could reflect on the swastika, it had been erased.

James McAuley: Texas synagogue hostage situation reminds us that we must prioritize combating antisemitism

The education I had hoped the school would offer amounted to no more than a punishing training in collective melancholy. To explain why the swastika was an evil symbol, the school recounted the evils of other swastikas throughout history. A Holocaust survivor addressed the students. When I asked my son what the children had thought of her talk, he said nobody could believe someone that old could walk, much less talk.

In my old authoritarian universe, all we could do was jointly detest antisemitism. In my son’s democratic universe, I had hoped they could transcend detestation. I had wished to see a conversation about who Jews are, how we live, how we’ve contributed to making the United States what it is. Above all, I had wished that education to include a celebration of the values that brought my family to this country — the idea that regardless of our origins, we could be who we were and, more important, come together as one people.

After Colleyville and the increase in antisemitic attacks generally, I worry that America’s version of democracy — with its celebration of individuality and group distinction — could be hampering a new generation from uniting in a common vision. A democracy, it appears to me, is only as good as the imagination of its citizens, who must vigilantly envision a life without it — and thus vigilantly guard it, which in turn will help us fight bigotry.

Roya Hakakian discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now.