Members of Whose Tribe? Today, Americans tend to think of Jewish people as white folks, but it wasn't always that way. On this episode, we dig into the complex role Jewish identity has played in America's racial story — especially now, when anti-Semitism is on the rise.
NPR logo

Members of Whose Tribe?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/602678381/603451822" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Members of Whose Tribe?

Members of Whose Tribe?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/602678381/603451822" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Just a note - this episode contains language that some people may find offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Unintelligible).

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

And you've heard that chanting on this show before. It's from the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where hundreds of people protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

DEMBY: We reported on the events of Charlottesville last August when they were still unfolding. And we brought on experts to talk about the rise of white nationalism, to talk about anti-black racism and Confederate pride. But as a lot of you all pointed out to us, we never really got into the anti-Semitism at the rally.

MERAJI: To be honest, we weren't quite sure how it fit in the CODE SWITCH wheelhouse. Are Jews a member of a religious group? Are Jews a race, an ethnicity? Are Jews white people? And if Jews are white people, what's up with all this white-supremacist hate towards them? What's the story here, and how is it a CODE SWITCH story?

DEMBY: And we can hear all of you at home listening saying it's complicated, so obviously that's what makes it a CODE SWITCH story. And you all are right, so - sorry this took so long.

MERAJI: So today, we're doing this. We're talking about the complex and confusing ways Jewish people fit in America's racial landscape. When you take a closer look at Jewish identity, you realize how blurry these lines are between religion, race and culture. So what makes Jews, Jews?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: We're going to talk about history.

CYNTHIA BAKER: The name, Jew - it comes with all of this baggage of having, for millennia, been a term for not self.

MERAJI: We're going to talk about DNA.

ARONEL HEICH: You cannot be half pregnant, right? You're either Jews or you're not.

DEMBY: And we're going to talk about what it means to be a Jew right now in the United States.

ILANA KAUFMAN: Oh, it's been a busy time in 2016, 2017, 2018 in the world of responding to anti-Semitism.

MERAJI: And to walk us through all of it, we're tagging in CODE SWITCH's resident Jew, Leah Gershenfeld Donnella (ph).

Welcome to the show, Leah.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Shalom, guys. Good to be here.

MERAJI: Shalom.

DEMBY: All right, Leah, we're going to put you on the spot. You're going to speak for all Jewish people here.

MERAJI: No pressure.

DEMBY: One of the reasons that we haven't really got into anti-Semitism on our show, which explores race in America, is because Judaism and Jewishness don't really neatly conform to our notions of race - or does it?

DONNELLA: Yeah, it's really complicated because both within the Jewish world and outside of it, there's so much debate about what this means - what it means to be a Jew. It's never really meant one thing. So some people say Judaism is strictly a religion. Others say it's a racial or ethnic marker. There are people who think it's all three or none of those things and just about every combination in between. And there are a lot of reasons why people have strong feelings about all of those categories. And to be honest, I do, too.

DEMBY: All right, Leah. So we're going to get into your business a little bit. Tell us about how you personally identify.

DONNELLA: OK. So I identify as racially black and religiously Jewish.

DEMBY: OK.

DONNELLA: And when I was growing up, every time I told people I was Jewish, they'd be like, oh, which half? Or when people would describe me, they'd be like, Leah's half-black, half-Jewish.

MERAJI: I think I'm guilty of describing you that way.

DEMBY: I am, too. I am, too.

DONNELLA: That's OK. I'm used to it.

MERAJI: So they - so we, I guess, were thinking of Jewishness as a racial or ethnic category.

DONNELLA: Yeah, and specifically, I think a subgroup of whiteness. So I had plenty of friends growing up who had a white Christian parent and a white Jewish parent, but I never heard anyone describe them as half-white, half-Jewish.

MERAJI: Right.

DONNELLA: They were just Jewish or they weren't. And that really, really bothered me.

MERAJI: Also, Jews come in so many different races and ethnicities - this I know.

DONNELLA: Yeah, that's right. I mean, most Jews in the U.S. have Eastern European ancestry. They're called Ashkenazi Jews. But there are also Middle Eastern Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, Indian Jews, Nigerian Jews. There are historic communities of black Jews in the United States. And then, of course, anyone of any race who is adopted into Judaism is Jewish. Anyone who converts into Judaism is Jewish. And people like me with mixed ethnic or religious backgrounds who are raised as Jews are Jews.

MERAJI: All right, so we've answered the question, everybody. Jews are a religious group, not their own ethnicity or race.

DEMBY: Problem solved. Well, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. OK. OK. If you take a DNA test, though, it will tell you what percentage Jewish you are. So it sounds like there's at least some ethnic component to being Jewish. Some of the tests even break down, like, the kind of Jewish you are - whether you're Ashkenazi Jewish, whether you're European Jewish, Jewish diaspora, Yemenite Jewish.

DONNELLA: Yeah, this is true. So imagine my chagrin when, after my 20-year personal crusade telling people there's no such thing as a half-Jew, these DNA tests become super popular. And then, suddenly, everyone and their mother can say, down to a percentage point, how Jewish they are.

DEMBY: The mother part is important. Leah, have you taken this test - the DNA test?

DONNELLA: I haven't, and I probably won't. But I have some relatives who have. And based on their results, there's a really good chance that if I took one of the DNA tests, I would get a result that says I'm - wait for it - 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish.

DEMBY: So you're half-Jewish and half-black (laughter).

DONNELLA: (Laughter) Half-Jewish.

MERAJI: Blewish (ph).

DONNELLA: Blewish, my nightmare because it feels like that's validating all the people in my life who made me feel less Jewish because I'm black.

MERAJI: DNA is something we've talked about on CODE SWITCH and what it can tell you and can't tell you about who you are. And for more on that - a little plug here - check out our episode, Who's Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy? And one of the main takeaways from that episode was that DNA and identity are not the same thing.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: So keeping that in mind, what are these DNA tests actually measuring? Is there a real genetic component to Judaism?

DONNELLA: OK, so I was really curious about that too because, honestly, it felt kind of bogus to me.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: But actually, there are some legit reasons that you can identify distinct genetic patterns in certain Jewish populations. And that's because in many parts of the world, especially Europe, for thousands of years, Jews were separated from other populations. So in a lot of places, there were legal restrictions on where Jews could live, who they could marry, what roles they could serve in the larger, usually Christian, societies. So Jewish communities from many generations were cordoned off and they were intermarrying within a smaller gene pool. I spoke to Deborah Bolnick. She's a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin. And here's what she had to say.

DEBORAH BOLNICK: You can get these partial-but-incomplete correlations between identity and culture and religious belief and biology, but they're not perfect.

DONNELLA: And even though the connections aren't perfect, a lot of American Jews today are actually super into this idea of having Jewish genes. Aronel Heich (ph) - a researcher who studies this - says the idea that we're ethnically distinct makes a lot of Jews feel really good about themselves because a lot of people don't have much else that makes them feel Jewish.

MERAJI: What do you mean by that?

DONNELLA: Well, we're becoming more and more secular as time passes. So according to Pew Research, 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jewish.

DEMBY: Uh-huh (ph).

DONNELLA: But only 19 percent of Jews say that observing halakha or Jewish law is an essential part of being Jewish. And just to put that in perspective, 42 percent of Jews said that having a good sense of humor is essential to their being Jewish.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: Yes.

DONNELLA: And Jews are also intermarrying at higher rates than ever before.

MERAJI: So that probably means they're also less likely to raise their kids in the Jewish faith.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: I'm just assuming here.

DONNELLA: Yeah, that actually turns out to be true. And so basically Aronel Heich says that a lot of Jews today are not really practicing any of the religious components of Judaism.

HEICH: They pretty much eat what they want, work on Saturday, don't really keep up with the rules, with all the rules. Most of them can't speak Hebrew. And they constantly have to ask themselves what makes us Jews, which is of course an open-ended question.

DONNELLA: Aronel says that, for many, DNA tests simplify that open-ended question.

HEICH: If they learn of those genetic studies tracing them to the original Judaism stuff, it makes them feel very positive about themselves that they still carry some kind of genetic heritage. So it is OK that they eat pork and seafood and all those things because that does not change their genes.

MERAJI: But as we learned in our DNA episode, how you read the answers in those genetic tests really depends on the questions you're asking.

DONNELLA: Right. And both Aronel and Deborah Bolnick say we have to be super careful about the conclusions we draw from genetic tests for a couple of reasons. One of them is that the categories that DNA testing companies use are super subjective. And companies that want to market DNA tests to a U.S. population have to use racial categories that already make sense to a U.S. audience. Here's Deborah Bolnick.

BOLNICK: So those categories then are going to be based in large part on categories that are legible and meaningful to people in our society today. Sometimes you hear people talk about being Jewish as a race. Sometimes it's talked about as a culture. And I think that it's those sets of debates that these companies are drawing on.

DONNELLA: And Aronel thinks that categorizing Judaism this way is a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be Jewish.

HEICH: You cannot be half-pregnant, right? You're either Jewish or you're not? There's absolutely no meaning in Judaism to be 23 percent Jewish. I mean, what do you do, eat pork only one day of the week? I mean, it's completely meaningless.

MERAJI: (Laughter) He's funny.

DEMBY: So it sounds like what he's saying is validating 10-year-old Leah - congratulations to her.

DONNELLA: Thank you.

DEMBY: She's right. You can't be half-Jewish is what he's saying.

DONNELLA: Yeah, I mean, I think so. But, again, it depends on what you mean by being Jewish. So Aronel says that when we accept the idea of Jewish genes, we're buying into a very old anti-Semitic idea that Jews are not the same as other humans, which some people think is getting dangerously close to the idea of race science, which we're going to talk about a little later. And Aronel says DNA tests are suggesting that Jews don't come from anywhere, and so they don't belong anywhere.

HEICH: The image that these scientists and companies are trying to create is that Jews is some kind of entity from Mars, from outer space that is absolutely unique and not - and completely different from every other population that has no origin except the biblical story.

DONNELLA: So am I supposed to think it's wrong then to consider Jewish an ethnicity?

BAKER: Are they an ethnicity or a religion? Is this an ethnic group or a religious group?

DONNELLA: That's Cynthia Baker. She's a professor at Bates College, where she specializes in Judaism in Antiquity and early Christianity.

BAKER: What kind of category is appropriate? My answer to that is it's complicated (laughter).

MERAJI: It's complicated. My favorite answer to everything (laughter).

DEMBY: Of course.

MERAJI: I think it should be the show's subtitle - CODE SWITCH, it's complicated (laughter). Keep going, Leah.

DONNELLA: Yeah. Cynthia says the whole project of trying to categorize Jews is really, really hard. And that's in part because we don't have a lot of reliable information on how Judaism started. We have the biblical origin story, but we actually don't have a lot of archaeological evidence that supports that. And in fact, Cynthia says there's a lot of evidence that directly contradicts stories and timelines that we hear about in the Bible, which leads to a lot of debate.

BAKER: There are scholars who say it used to be an ethnicity. And now it's understood as a religion or the word Jew signifies religion. So they look for a different word to signify what it was before you could convert into it. There are those who say it started out as an ethnicity and we should call those people Judeans. And then at some point, it becomes available for people to convert into. And at that point, we should call those people Jews.

DONNELLA: But Cynthia says she doesn't think that distinction between religion and ethnicity really works.

BAKER: Identities are complicated. Identities are intersectional, that dividing ethnicity from religion from class, from nation is, in a sense, creating artificial distinctions. So similarly, the cultural phenomenon, the tradition or identification that emerged as Jewishness was never not religious in how we use that term religion. And it was never not ethnic.

MERAJI: I feel like this is kind of how it works for a lot of groups, right? Like, being Latinx is - what does that mean? Is it about speaking Spanish? Is it about being Catholic? Is it about, you know, your DNA, where your family's from? Is it your last name? It seems like the racial or ethnic categories we all belong to get harder to define the closer we start examining them...

DONNELLA: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Because race is not real.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: And that's the last episode of CODE SWITCH.

(LAUGHTER)

DONNELLA: But I think that's true. And I think just like being Latinx is an idea that was sort of imposed on people, or the word Hispanic has been imposed on people, as you've talked about, Shereen, a lot of defining what a Jew is came from the outside. So it turns out that for thousands of years, the vast majority of their history, Jews didn't even refer to themselves using the word Jew. That was a Christian thing. Christians used the word Jew all the time.

DEMBY: Wait, wait, wait. So what were - I guess - Jews calling themselves then back in the day if they weren't calling themselves Jews?

DONNELLA: Well, they called themselves B'nai Israel, the children of Israel, sometimes Hebrews. But the term Jew and all its connotations largely come from early Christian writings. Here's Cynthia Baker.

BAKER: It's so fraught with that history because, primarily in Christianity, to a lesser extent in Islam, Jew has always been a term for the derogated other. So very much, you know, the history of Christianity, we are not - you know, the Old Testament, we know how to read it, they don't. We are the chosen, they are no longer, right? It's we are who we are over and against how we define them. And the them is Jew. Jew is the not-self.

DONNELLA: Now remember, in the early days of Christianity, Christians weren't the ones in power.

DEMBY: And to take it back to Sunday school, to go way back there, I remember being told that the early Christians, they were just considered this weird, little offshoot sect of Judaism. Like, Christians and Jews were literally the same people.

DONNELLA: Exactly. So it takes hundreds of years for Christianity to fully become its own thing separate from Judaism. And at that point, it starts becoming more influential. So I'm going to collapse about a thousand years of history into 15 seconds.

DEMBY: Let's do it. Let's do it.

MERAJI: We need some music for this, I feel like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONNELLA: So, OK. So Constantine, the Roman emperor, converts to Christianity in the 4th century CE...

DEMBY: Constantine. Got it. OK.

DONNELLA: ...And the Roman Empire becomes Christian. And so over the course of a very short period of time, about 50 years, Jews become a sort of ostracized community. And throughout Europe's history, intense anti-Semitism comes and goes in waves. So there were the Crusades beginning in 1095, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, where, among other things, the pope orders Jews and Muslims to wear special clothing to identify themselves so that a Christian wouldn't accidentally marry one.

DEMBY: Yikes.

DONNELLA: In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition ramps up. In 1543, Martin Luther, the German who later became the father of Protestantism, he publishes a 65,000-word treatise called "The Jews And Their Lies."

DEMBY: Yikes.

DONNELLA: Yeah. And in it, he urges synagogues and Jewish schools to be burned to the ground. So then there are pogroms in Russia starting in about 1821. So for many, many years all over Europe, where Jews lived, what jobs they had, their ability to worship freely and interact with the rest of society, all of that was restricted.

MERAJI: So when does that change?

DONNELLA: Well, there's this period called emancipation between about 1781 and 1923. And during this time, countries all over Europe are incrementally starting to grant equal rights to their Jewish populations. So there's this kind of short glimmer of hope that Jews will really be able to start integrating into the rest of European society and that things are changing. And at this point, there's a glimmer of hope that Jews will really be able to start integrating into the rest of European society and that things are changing. In fact, Jews actually start calling themselves Jews during this period. But after a century and a half of relative progress, anti-Semitism starts to bubble up again violently in the 1920s. Here's Cynthia Baker.

BAKER: So now Jews are, you know, start to self-identify by this term. But it comes with all this baggage. It comes with all this fraughtness, right? And then, of course, with the rise of racialism and race science, Jew becomes, in the modern era, with this whole ancient legacy of being the devilish other, the rejected, unchosen, you know, ungodly people. In the modern era, Jew is also now a detested race, a blight on the human race, one that needs to be exterminated in the final solution as outlined by the Nazis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking German).

DONNELLA: So after World War I, anti-Semitism in Germany really starts to gain traction. And this is when that separation between Jews and non-Jews returns in full force to Europe. Because now, some of the most highly-regarded scientists in Germany are dedicated to understanding and legitimizing the racial difference between Aryans and Jews, and of course, people of other backgrounds as well. And those differences are used to justify the killing of 11 million people, 6 million of whom are Jewish. That's the rise of scientific racism that Cynthia Baker was talking about. And it's not just in Europe. This line of thinking is really popular in the United States, too. In fact, some Nazis were influenced by American racial pseudoscience.

MERAJI: Of course, we don't learn that in the history books - right? - because the narrative of America getting into World War II is all about battling Hitler and anti-Semitism.

DONNELLA: Yeah. A lot of scholars will tell you that one of the ways the U.S. could claim this moral authority over the Nazis was to portray anti-Semitism as reprehensible. Even though at that time, we have tons of anti-Semitic laws on the books. And at that time, our country has by no means embraced the Jew. And part of the way we get to the point where we can claim that moral high ground and start to embrace the Jew is by gradually accepting the idea that Jews are white.

MERAJI: More on that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we're back with Leah Gershenfeld Donnella to talk about Jews in the United States and their complicated relationship to whiteness. So let's go back in time to when American Jews weren't considered white, Leah.

DONNELLA: OK. So between 1880 and the Immigration Act of 1924, you have this huge wave of about 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe entering the U.S. And like Italians and Greeks and Irish and Slavic people, they weren't considered white at that time the same way that a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant was white. And it was those white Protestants who held a lot of institutional power in those days. And they pretty much decided who got to be white and who didn't. And to be clear, Jews didn't necessarily think of themselves as white either. So from what we know, people identified probably more with being Jewish than being white.

MERAJI: But before the break, you said that started to change during World War II.

DONNELLA: It did. Karen Brodkin, the author of "How Jews Became White," told me that as Americans started getting exposed to images from the Holocaust - so pictures and videos from concentration camps - being anti-Semitic really started to become unacceptable. And discriminating against Jews started to feel a lot more uncomfortable.

DEMBY: This is the moral high ground thing you were talking about before.

DONNELLA: Exactly. And so there were some individual people who were still pretty anti-Jew. But institutions started becoming a lot more careful about coming across as anti-Semitic.

DEMBY: Got it.

DONNELLA: And over time, Jews became more and more integrated into those institutions. And the country as a whole, I think, stopped distinguishing as much between Jews and non-Jews.

DEMBY: And Greeks and Italians and Irish as not-white as well.

DONNELLA: Exactly, all of those groups. And, in fact, a lot of Jews were leaning into that assimilation process, too. Part of the way they did that was by positioning themselves as not black. So you have this long history of Jewish people in the U.S. doing blackface, for example. I'm looking at you, jazz singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MAMMY")

AL JOLSON: (Singing) Mammy (ph), my heartstrings are tangled around Alabammy (ph).

DEMBY: So the obvious question here is that, I mean, Jewish people today, they've been transmuted into white people now today, right? They're just white people.

DONNELLA: Yeah. OK. So the easy answer to that is of course they are, at least white Jews are white, which by some estimates is about 80 percent of American Jews. But I talked to Shaul Magid. He's a rabbi and professor. And he wrote a book called "American Post-Judaism" about how Jews are grappling with their ethnic identities. And he says that when we ask if Jews are white or not, we're kind of asking the wrong question.

SHAUL MAGID: Jews certainly have been the beneficiaries of white privilege. And I think that's really the important piece of it - not whether Jews are white or not white, but the ways in which Jews have benefited from white privilege.

DONNELLA: So after World War II, Jews are slowly being treated more and more like, you know, normal white people. And suddenly it's like, oh, our race is actually helping us get things.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Well, this is complicated - right, Leah? - because a lot of Jewish people have been involved in the fight for civil rights in this country.

DEMBY: Right. You have Henry Moskowitz, who was one of the co-founders of the NAACP back in 1909. Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed during the Freedom Summer in 1964 while trying to register black people to vote.

DONNELLA: Yeah. And so a lot of people talk about Jews being involved in civil rights issues as being related to their own history of being discriminated against in America.

MAGID: They were either marginalized. Or they were oppressed. Or even when they were emancipated, they certainly were different. They lived in Jewish neighborhoods. They socialized with other Jews. For the most part, they married other Jews. In the 1950s and the 1960s, where the Jews couldn't be a part of - members of certain clubs, where there were quotas for Jews in universities and so on and so on and so forth.

DONNELLA: But as we were just saying, they're increasingly being treated like white people and thinking of themselves as white people.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: So they're getting access to stuff. They're getting control of stuff that people of color aren't.

DEMBY: Right. Right. Because they're white people getting white advantages and they have white prejudices in a lot of cases. And there's always been this tension between Jews, even the many Jewish people who have been involved in social justice, this tension between those people and people of color. I'm thinking of that 1967 James Baldwin essay in The New York Times, of all places, called "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White." Y'all should read that essay. It's...

MERAJI: I will.

DEMBY: It's a lot, yeah.

DONNELLA: It's amazing.

MERAJI: And then there's this other big political issue that we haven't talked about yet, which is the Jewish state, Israel, and all the complications that brings up when we talk about American Jewish identity.

DONNELLA: Yeah.

MERAJI: Do you want to go there? I don't know. I mean, I feel like we had to.

DONNELLA: So I'll leave it to Shaul. He said that no matter how you feel about Israel and Israeli politics, the American Jewish community is fundamentally changed by the creation of a Jewish state.

MAGID: The existence of a sovereign Jewish state in Israel makes all of the rest of Jews in the diaspora - it shifts their orientation. Whether Israel becomes the center of their Jewish identity or whether they live out their Jewish identity by being critical of, you know, Israeli policies or even reject the notion of a Jewish state or see it as being the kind of - the primary focus of what Jews should pay attention to today - all those things - the Holocaust and Israel are kind of two pieces of a larger whole that really make everything that happens after it different.

DEMBY: Yeah, Israel kind of - it confounds all of these traditional left-right political alliances in the United States. But that's a subject for an entirely different podcast. We promise we'll get to that, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.

MERAJI: Getting back to this episode, we are dealing with a spike in anti-Semitism right now. And I'm wondering if this is changing the way American Jews are thinking about their identity in any way.

DONNELLA: Well, I asked a bunch of people about anti-Semitism in America today, and Shaul Magid in particular said that we need to distinguish between anti-Semitic acts and a broad social tolerance for anti-Semitism. He said there is no evidence to suggest that people are more willing to condone those acts than they were 50 years ago.

MERAJI: OK.

DONNELLA: But regardless, a lot of people are freaked out, and they're thinking about their Jewishness in a way they never have before. So I want to introduce you to one more person. Her name is Ilana Kaufman. She's a black Jewish woman, and she works on issues of Jewish identity and racial justice for the Jewish Community Relations Council, the JCRC.

KAUFMAN: I mean, I'll be honest. I feel like, for those Jews who identify as white or who have not had to be deeply steeped in their history, particularly of coming from Eastern European backgrounds, you know, the Jewish community's enjoyed quite a bit of privilege in the last 40 years. With that has come the opportunity to not have to experience that much anti-Semitism. And in 2016, the cultural sort of expressions of rage in this country have shifted, and they have shifted in a way that includes Jews as part of marginalized peoples for the first time in recent times, meaning the last couple of years.

DONNELLA: 2017 marked the biggest jump in anti-Semitic incidents since the Anti-Defamation League started keeping a record in 1979. And the ADL says that part of that increase might be because people are reporting more incidents now.

But in any case, there were almost 2,000 incidents in the U.S. last year, ranging from spray painting swastikas to sending bomb threats to desecrating Jewish graves to physical assault. And those incidents happened in every single state in the country. And a big part of that increase happened in schools - from universities down to elementary school classrooms. Here's Ilana Kaufman again.

KAUFMAN: Oh, it's been a busy time in 2016, 2017, 2018 in the world of responding to anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Islamophobia, racism, you know, from a Jewish community context. And the expressions of anti-Semitism, I think, are different than they were pre-2016. The expressions feel much sharper, much more offensive and scarier for diversity of our community. And, you know, and the boundaries are overlapping. And so we don't just see anti-Semitism. We see Islamophobia. We see, you know, hate crimes against our LGBTQ community. We see anti-immigrant sentiments.

DONNELLA: Ilana said that the Jewish community crosscuts all those different categories that are being targeted.

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: Right. Right. Because there are obviously queer Jewish people. There are Jews who have Muslims as partners and family members, Jews who are immigrants, Jews who are people of color. There's a lot of pluralism in Judaism, right?

DONNELLA: Right. And so Ilana said that one way Jewish people, as a whole, can kind of temper the fear of anti-Semitism is by joining in community with the groups that have spent the past few decades fighting discrimination. Ilana told me a story about a conversation she had with her rabbi about all of this right after the events of Charlottesville in August.

KAUFMAN: And he was telling me how, you know, suddenly, he's afraid and, you know, members of our synagogue are wondering if they should take their mezuzahs off their doorposts. He was wondering - and members of our community have been wondering - if they should hide. And then he looked at me, and he said (laughter), Ilana, wait a minute. Are you looking at me like, welcome to the party - this is what people of color been experiencing for years and years and years? And I looked at him, and I said, yeah, kind of. Welcome to our party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That was a lot. That was dense. There was a lot...

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: ...Of information packed into that episode.

DEMBY: Yep.

MERAJI: Leah, thank you so much.

DONNELLA: Thank you so much for having me.

DEMBY: Shalom, Leah.

DONNELLA: Shalom.

DEMBY: Is that...

MERAJI: Is that hello and goodbye?

DONNELLA: Hello, goodbye and peace.

MERAJI: Shalom.

DEMBY: All right. Cool. That is our show, y'all. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. And we want to hear from you. Our email address is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And you should also subscribe to our brand-new newsletter. Go to npr.org/newsletters, click on the CODE SWITCH link to sign up for your weekly dose of race, culture and jokes. We got jokes, so many jokes.

MERAJI: (Laughter). One more thing - next week, we have NPR correspondent Leila Fadel on the show. We're going to be talking about Muslims. She just finished a series on Muslims in America.

And Sami Yenigun, Leah Donnella and Kumari Devarajan produced this episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Shalom.

DEMBY: Shalom.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.