‘When was it too late?’ Some U.S. Jews wonder about their place in America.


Joe Py was chomping at the bit on a project he dreaded. In recent years, he sold his valuable collection of paperweights, obtained certified copies of his birth and marriage documents, and researched what it would be like to be a Jew in other countries. Where there were not Confederate flags down the street, articles about armed Christian militant groups in the local paper, and celebrity megawatts spouting overt anti-Semitism. As the midterms approached, giving more instances of horrific anti-Jewish rhetoric, he and his wife had a house to sell.

“Our question was, in the 1930s, when did people know it was time? When was it too late?” said the 66-year-old Maine doctor.

Although their Jewish friends and the people in their synagogue were not thinking about moving as they were, no one dismissed their preparations as a joke, he said. Their real estate agent said they weren’t the only Jewish family exploring a move. She offered to hide them if ever needed. The removal of several prominent election deniers and Christian nationalists in the November midterms eased Py and his wife to put a potential move on hold, but the questions about the place of Jews in America did not go away.

“This is a whole new psychological-emotional territory,” he said.

The year 2022 has begun and ended with some of the highest recorded modern levels of anti-Semitic acts and Jewish anxiety. An atmosphere that experts say is a disturbance began with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his views against religious and racial minorities have matured, taken root and for some people caused serious consideration or action towards immigration. Warm pride in Jewish segments of the national zeitgeist such as “Seinfeld” has given way to cold calculations about What if.

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The United States does not track the religious identities of people who take citizenship or obtain visas elsewhere, and neither do other countries. That information about incoming Americans doesn’t track either, so it’s impossible to know how many of America’s roughly 7.5 million Jews — about 2.4 percent of the population — might have left. or consider. However, paperwork has increased for some popular destinations.

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Germany has for decades offered citizenship to people whose ancestors were taken away by the Nazis, and the number of Americans seeking that status rose from 42 in 2000 and 638 in 2016 to 1,195 in 2021. Most these people, according to him. to the German Embassy, ​​they are Jews. In Israel, another popular destination, for a decade the number of American Jews immigrating there increased annually in the low 3,000s. In 2021, 4,051 US Jews moved there, according to the Israel Jewish Agency.

Steven Windmueller, a Hebrew Union College political scientist who studies American Jews, said that they are simultaneously affected by the anti-Semitism that began to show itself around the 2016 election and a renewed interest and rediscovery of their roots. in other countries. New genetic testing services, as well as time and distance from the Holocaust, have changed the connection of US Jews to the lands of their ancestors.

What’s still not clear, he says, is “whether this is curiosity or people who are mainly looking for safe haven.”

He speaks to Jewish groups around the country about Jews and political behavior, and he hears a lot of “what ifs.”

“People are talking about ‘What if?’ What if Trump had won in 2020, or if the GOP had swept the 2022 midterms? These are the people who say they thought about moving out of this country, should they raise kids here,” Windmueller said. Jewish conversations about even the possibility of an “intensified” departure.

Sebastien Levi, who grew up in France and lived in Israel before moving to the United States in 2010 with his family, grew up idolizing America as a liberal and tolerant place where minorities could thrive. In his mind, Emma Lazarus – a Jew whose poem about America welcoming immigrants is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – put together the rule of law and Jerry Seinfeld putting up with “how can you be really Jewish and also American.”

Now Levi, a cosmetics executive who lives with his wife and three kids in Brooklyn, is seriously thinking about leaving, at least for a while. The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville and Trump’s response was their “tipping point.” Then came the banning of books, the denial of elections and the security outside of Jewish institutions that he thought he would only see in Europe. Recently, celebrities including Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, have unleashed overt anti-Semitism.

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“I don’t wake up like, ‘Oh my god,’ scared. It’s more like, now you just thinking,” said Levi. “But when you see American democracy being weakened the way it is, a president who said, ‘I’m the only one who can fix it’ — that doesn’t sit well with the Jews.” Democracy is being attacked at the end of the day by attacking minorities and Jews.”

Levi’s anxiety even scared him of something he had dreamed about his whole life: his naturalization ceremony to become an American. In the previous days, he wrote to the Washington Post saying that “his American dreams were shattered” and that the event was “a formality that will allow me to have another passport, which is the most valuable commodity ever . A Jew can have them, these days and throughout our history. … The ‘just in case’ attitude is really important. Be ready.”

On the actual day of the ceremony, Levi was very emotional. He wore a US flag and wrote a happy post on Facebook. The mid-term elections were taking place drowning his worst fears.

Others have found themselves in such a middle ground as well.

Brian Greenspan, 51, is studying to be a nurse while at the same time working towards obtaining Lithuanian citizenship through his father’s father, whose entire family was wiped out by the Nazis. He and his cousins ​​started collecting the paperwork after Trump was elected.

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Greenspan has never been particularly cautious, but he has become increasingly nervous in recent years, watching white supremacists in Charlottesville chant, “Jews will not replace us” in 2017 and then this year when NBA star Kyrie Irving promoted an antisemitic film called “Hebrews to Negroes. ” For Greenspan, those things are directly related to other things he considers anti-democratic, such as laws that make it harder to vote. “I’m Jewish, I’m gay, I’m liberal. I think there are too many goals. I don’t know if Europe is better.”

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Greenspan’s 2021 Halloween costume was a riff from a 2018 Facebook post by then-Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who shared a conspiracy theory that lasers from space may have been started by Jewish bankers in the California wildfires.

The suit reflected Greenspan’s belief that such people are “ridiculous and yet extremely dangerous,” he said.

“I think it’s weird to be Jewish in America. Our sense of humor and Yiddish words like ‘schlepping’ are as American as the apple pie, yet we are the other one pulling the strings,” he said. “They talk about the frog in the water, and you turn up the heat slowly, and he doesn’t notice and suddenly it’s boiling. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Interest in emigration may not extend to all generations, said Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, a Jewish educator who recently wrote a book about the impact of anti-Semitism on teenagers and young adults.

“I think we are in a time when young people in particular have a lot of truth,” she said. “They are fundamentally universal in a world where Judaism seeks specificity. They are figuring out how to navigate this. They are comfortable in the space of ‘yes – and.'”

Alex Edelman, a comedian whose Orthodox Jewish upbringing has informed his work, including the recent show “Just for Us,” about a Jew who walks into a white nationalist meeting, says he could represent “idealism the pragmatist of the millennium” he calls it.

At 33, he shares what he described as his generation’s instinct and confidence to wait and change things.

“It never occurred to me to leave. I don’t know that that would be productive. If I’m out in social circles with people I don’t agree with, and someone says: ‘Why don’t you leave this group?’ I think: The group will be more homogeneous without me; what will happen to my opinion and those who have it?”

Dana Milbank contributed to this report.


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