The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion People love to talk about dead Jews. Here’s why it can hurt living ones.

Photo journalists take pictures of Anne Frank images at the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam in 2018. (Peter Dejong/AP)
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Dara Horn is the author of “People Love Dead Jews,” and the creator and host of the podcast Adventures with Dead Jews.

After a rabbi and congregants at a Texas synagogue escaped from a ranting gunman who’d held them hostage for 10 hours earlier this month, I was called in for a media hit about the weekend’s big Jewish news story. The interview, of course, was about Anne Frank.

The “news” about Anne Frank was a buzzy book by criminologists, claiming to solve the “cold case” of who betrayed the teenage Jewish diarist’s World War II hiding place. At last, justice for Anne — never mind that no serious historian has supported the book’s conclusion, nor that this was hardly a cold case, considering it’s no mystery who murdered the Frank family.

Being asked to comment on the Anne Frank clickbait after I’d spent the previous night desperately praying for the hostages’ rescue felt grotesque. This speculation about a long-dead Jew ought to pale compared to actual news about live Jews in danger — not to mention the many other attacks against American Jews in recent years. But it doesn’t, because for decades, Holocaust education has been the tool of choice to try to inoculate the public against bigotry.

Unfortunately, as critical as teaching about the Holocaust is, it’s not the same as teaching about antisemitism. Instead, people mostly seem to think that antisemitism consists exclusively of the murders of 6 million Jews. Anything short of that is all in our heads. The feel-good stories people tell themselves about dead Jews make it easy to dismiss the here-and-now targeting of live ones.

The FBI eventually walked back its clumsy statement that the Texas attack was “not specifically related to the Jewish community.” But a reporter who spoke to two dozen residents of the synagogue’s neighborhood found they unanimously agreed. In fact, they were convinced their church down the street was equally at risk. “If it happens over there, it could happen over here, too,” one churchgoer said.

Clueless comments such as these reveal the warped funhouse American Jews now live in. After synagogue shootings in Pennsylvania and California, a kosher market attack in New Jersey, a Hanukkah attack in Upstate New York, a rabbi’s stabbing in Boston, street attacks in New York City and Los Angeles, and countless other vicious assaults on American Jews, this kind of plausible deniability has become a public ritual.

When Jews talk about how targeted they feel, a predictable series of objections greet them: “My church has security guards, too.” (Sure, except your denomination probably doesn’t need its own security training program.) “Think of all the school shootings.” (School shooters rarely take transatlantic flights to commit their crimes.) “Isn’t it mental illness?” (Maybe, partly, except why do the voices in these perpetrators’ heads keep saying the same thing?) “Racism against non-Jews is also bad!” (Yes, but we’re talking about people attacking Jews. Are we allowed to talk about that?)

At a conference on antisemitism I participated in this past fall, one common frustration among academics was that their university students had no idea what antisemitism was. “They’re not familiar with some of what we recognize as the most basic tropes of antisemitism — the alleged threat of Jewish power, for instance,” Jeffrey Veidlinger, a professor at the University of Michigan, pointed out. “They think of antisemitism solely in terms of violence,” not as what it really is: a set of wide-ranging and self-serving conspiracy theories used by crackpots and celebrated minds alike.

But everyone knows about the Holocaust. Holocaust education is now its own ritual, where middle-schoolers and public figures piously announce that Nazis are bad. The problem is that this a rather low bar to clear. We can all pat ourselves on the back for not murdering 6 million Jews. This absurd standard allows people to ignore a pervasive and very current hatred while feeling well-informed. Why should those nice neighbors, or the FBI for that matter, believe antisemitism is a problem if there aren’t millions of bodies?

Because Jews see things well-meaning neighbors don’t. After I wrote my book, “People Love Dead Jews,” I found myself inundated with messages from Jewish readers sharing their own degradations: being pelted with pennies, shunned by peers, harassed at school or work — and most of all, being dismissed for complaining about any of it. Some of these readers even doubted their own perceptions. After all, it wasn’t the Holocaust. It could just as easily have happened at the church down the street.

So I’m grateful that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, former hostage and current living Jew, acknowledged how very real the threat to his life was. At a live-stream service shortly after the attack on his synagogue, he tearfully announced, “I am so grateful no one is saying the Mourner’s Kaddish for me.”

At least that’s what I’m told. I didn’t tune in; I was busy talking about Anne Frank.