By Carl Zebrowski
It was a sobering coincidence that just two days before Hamas terrorists attacked civilians in Israel, author Liza Wiemer stood before the Lions and Pomegranates of the Jewish Federation at the Fischmann residence to talk about antisemitism and the potential consequences of letting it go unchecked.
Her presentation focused on her 2017 novel “The Assignment,” which is based on a real-life antisemitic incident in Upstate New York. A high school teacher there gave his students homework to put themselves in the role of a Nazi at the top-secret Wannsee Conference in January 1942 to discuss the Final Solution. “What the students were asked to do was to pretend to be one of 15 Nazi leaders and support either exterminating Jews, or work camps, ghettos and sterilization,” Wiemer told the October 5 Lion of Judah and Pomegranate gathering to launch the Federation’s 2024 Annual Campaign for Jewish Needs.
“Four out of five Jews who were murdered by Nazis were murdered after that meeting,” she told the group. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to pretend that we’re Nazis.”
That happened to be precisely the thinking of the fictional students on whom the novel’s two protagonists are based. The assignment they received had been given to classes for five years, yet these two teens were the first to protest — and then to experience a backlash to their protest from fellow students, administration and members of the school community. The actions read like something out of Nazi Germany.
Wiemer almost literally stumbled onto the Oswego story that she developed into the novel. Invited to the town in 2017 to talk at a bookstore about a previous work of hers, she met Jordan, the inspiration for one of novel’s protagonists, and heard the full story about the assignment. Wiemer later wrote an article on the incident that Jewish newspapers across the country picked up. Her friend told her, “You were born to write the book.”
While visiting Oswego, Wiemer went to a museum devoted to making people aware of the mostly Jewish refugees who fled Europe to come to the United States during World War II. There were 982 of them, 982 out of 3,000 who tried to board the ship to cross the Atlantic. The U.S. Army barracks in Oswego was their destination — the only place in America that accepted European refugees.
Being permitted to stay in the States was about the only way the refugees were treated well. Enemy prisoners of war, meanwhile, 425,000 of them, lived in welcoming conditions all over the country. “All of those POWs had incredible freedom in comparison to the refugees, who were kept in this army barracks,” Wiemer said, naming just one of the mistreatments they experienced. “They were kept behind barbed-wire fences.”
Is it possible that antisemitism didn’t play a role in this treatment? And just how prevalent is antisemitism today? As the recent Blue Square campaign to make people more aware of antisemitism made clear, although Jews make up only about 2% percent of the U.S. population, they are the victims of a majority of all religious hate crimes.
“We all know we’re targeted,” Wiemer said. But we don’t all know just how much. “The numbers are staggering, but they do not at all convey the reality,” she explained. So many hate crimes go unreported.
At the root of the problem is that so many people accept lies and hateful beliefs that they’re exposed to. “Eighty-five percent of Americans surveyed believe at least one Jewish trope,” she said. She offered the example “Jew them down” as a common expression for haggling for a lower price. This plays into the antisemitic trope of Jews being fixated on money.
Spreading tropes like this, conspiracy theories and other twisted thinking is as easy these days as talking into a cell phone and pushing a button. A social media platform’s algorithms can then help a post reach an audience of thousands. “Lies spread six times faster than the truth,” Wiemer pointed out.
She warned the Lions and Poms to pay attention to what their children and grandchildren are up to online. “We’re seeing memes and TikTok videos that are racist and antisemitic,” she said. And kids are not hitting the report button to alert the platforms to investigate. “They’re so desensitized to this.”
Jeri Zimmerman, the Federation’s executive director and a Lion of Judah, wrapped up the night with a personal anecdote of children and antisemitism. Kids are impressionable regarding what they see in the real and online world. But people they love and respect make impressions on them too.
She talked of overhearing her 8-year-old grandson tell a friend that grandparents will buy you “anything you want.” But his grandparents won’t get him a pair of Kanye “Ye” West’s Yeezy Foam Runner shoes.
“‘They won’t buy those because they’re by Ye, and he hates Jews,’” Jeri said he told the friend. “That’s what he heard from me.”