On a recent idyllic late-summer afternoon, my wife and I took our 2-year-old Declan to a nearby festival. As my cherubic curly-haired son entertained himself with glitter, paper and markers at an arts and crafts station, I scrolled through my Twitter feed — only to find it full of vicious anti-Semitic invective.
I am Jewish, as is my family, and because the world can be an awful place, this has caused me problems as of late, in part because I’ve been writing a lot about Donald Trump, who may have a Jewish daughter, but is also a huge favorite among people who hate Jews. I recently wrote an article that criticized the 1993 film Falling Down on political as well as aesthetic grounds, and found myself the subject of a whole lot of anti-Semitic criticism from people apoplectic because they thought I was attacking white people in general. It did not seem to matter to these Falling Down-loving anti-Semites that they were defending a film starring and directed by Jews, but who ever said hatred had to be logical?
Earlier that day, before my Twitter timeline began filling up with Nazi imagery and vicious slurs, I made the mistake of writing a tweet reading “Hey anti-Semites! Most Jews are proud of their faith, so calling them “Jews” really isn’t a very effective insult,” although I later deleted it because I got tired of being called an oven-dodging faggot Jew piece of shit, and I really did not want this hatred to spill over onto my family.
I spend way too much time engaging with hatemongers and bigots online, and there was part of me that thought that deleting the tweet was tantamount to giving in or giving up or letting bigots win. Yet, reading the hateful things that anti-Semites wrote really darkened my mood and threatened to ruin a lovely evening. I blocked and deleted as much as I could until my timeline was finally purged of all poorly written wishes that my family die horrible deaths for being Jews.
Starting a Tweet “Hey anti-Semites” is like saying to the world, “Hey hateful bullies! Gather round, I have something to say that will enrage you!” I deleted the tweets and blocked the anti-Semites, sending them (at least one of whom has been retweeted by Donald Trump) away as quickly as possible. But still, I was struck by the strange position I was in.
In the ugly virtual world of Twitter, I was fighting off a rash of vicious anti-Semites, many employing Nazi imagery and rhetoric. In real life, meanwhile, I was beaming with pride as I watched my beautiful Jewish son enjoy a perfect summer evening while the sounds of a David Bowie tribute band could be heard in the distance.
This juxtaposition made me think about the moment in the not-too-distant future when I would have to explain the nature and tragic resilience of anti-Semitism to my blissfully oblivious boy, who knows only kindness and acceptance and love, and not the sometimes-inconceivable cruelty of humanity.
I will have to have the Holocaust talk with my son the same way my single father had it with me when I was about 4 or 5. I suspect every Jewish child remembers the Holocaust talk and the profound impact it had on their psyche and their understanding of the world. I remember being surprised and overwhelmed and deeply shaken. I could barely comprehend the hatred that would make someone want to kill everybody in the world who was born like me, a Jew in a world where that has sometimes been a death sentence.
After that talk, I could never forget, even for a moment, that there are people in the world who would hate me and my family and people like me, not because of anything that we did, but because of who we are, because of the blood running through our veins and the traditions of our ancestors.
For Jews, “the talk” invariably revolves around anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, but every religion and culture has their own form of evil to confront. These days, my heart goes out to Muslim parents who have to explain to their children why the screaming crazy orange man on the television keeps saying such horrible things about them and wants to keep people from being able to immigrate solely because of the God they pray to.
But it goes beyond that. Every parent must help their child understand the nature and incredible power of evil in our world so they will be both able to fight it and able to defend themselves against it. And while there’s part of me that wants to shield Declan from these people and these ideas, I know we have to remain vigilant at all times because the hatred and fear and anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust never really went away. It has just taken different forms, some of which I encountered in my Twitter feed that strange early evening.
The world my son will grow up in is different than mine. Facebook and Twitter make it possible for people to berate, threaten and bully strangers in ways unimaginable to previous generations, and to do so behind a mask of anonymity. That alone seems like a good reason to keep him off social media for as long as possible, but if we as parents don’t teach our boy about evil and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in as gentle and sensitive a manner as possible, then there is a good chance that he’ll learn about it in a more bracing and traumatic way.
Anti-Semitism and hatred and bigotry have changed considerably since I was a boy. These days, it tends to happen online more than IRL, so when my wife and I talk to Declan, our conversation will be informed by the changing nature of hatred, particularly as it relates to technology. So we will tell Declan to watch out for anti-Semitism in its ever-changing, ever-mutating forms. And I will instill in him a lesson my father never instilled in me for understandable reasons: Never be afraid to unfriend and block. Sometimes that’s the key to remaining sane in a world overflowing with hatred and craziness.