On a recent morning, a neighbor called to tell me that our cars had been vandalized. When I went outside, I could not believe what I saw carved into the door. There it was: a swastika. This isn’t supposed to happen in our North Berkeley neighborhood.
As the perpetrators hit three homes in total, two of which are Jewish, it’s tough to know for sure if we were the target of an antisemitic attack or a youthful act of rebellion by a teenager enamored with racist symbolism. Thankfully, the police were quick to respond and are investigating the incident as a hate crime.
Still, the pernicious symbol of hatred is particularly poignant for me. Eight of my 11 uncles and aunts, and both of my grandparents on my father’s side, were murdered in Poland during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their collaborators stole my mother’s family’s business, properties and possessions and gave them a week to leave their 800-year-old, now-destroyed Jewish community of Eisenstadt, Austria. And they were a few of the lucky ones.
Wishing to inform my neighbors of the heinous vandalism, I posted to the community website Nextdoor. As supportive messages began to flood in, I recognized that this troubling moment could be reframed as an opportunity to speak out, to reflect on how this impacted me and to educate others about how we can respond as a community.
Sadly, this is not the first racist antisemitic act to take place in Berkeley, nor in the greater Bay Area, in the past few years. And though Berkeley is a liberal city whose residents tend to believe in inclusiveness and reject hate, it is for this very reason that we are a prime target of bigots. Try as we may to preach inclusivity, the message of love and tolerance does not reach every individual.
Racism and antisemitism remain deeply engrained in our societies, and actions such as the recent vandalism in our community have powerful consequences. They can cause fear, uncertainty and even further perpetuate hate. However, it is how we respond when attacked — both as individuals and as communities — that makes all the difference.
When faced with similar situations, it is our duty to speak out, not to hide. We need to unapologetically stand up in honor of the memories of those who have been persecuted for their identity. Raising awareness and focusing on education will not only help other vulnerable minorities feel supported, but it will also reduce the likelihood of future attacks.
I hope that my story affects many kinds of people. I want to reach parents whose child may be toying with antisemitic or racist thoughts so that they can find help before that kid engages in violence. I want to encourage other victims of hate crimes who are looking for the strength to speak out to do so. And I want to encourage all people — Jewish or otherwise — to be proud of who they are and to never live in fear.
Our diverse communities across the country should be able to live in religious and personal freedom without fear. There was a mezuzah, a traditional Jewish symbol, on my door when the assailants attacked us. I aim to keep it there with pride no matter what the misplaced actions of a few may be.
Jules Kragen is the acting Executive Director of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice.
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Author: Jules Kragen