Just over a year ago, an extraordinary series of violent attacks against local Jews hit the New York area—by far the largest Jewish population center in the diaspora. In response, one large rally was organized to call out the acts of hate. Months before the killing of George Floyd had prompted mass demonstrations against racism around the country, the protesters seemed overwhelmingly to be members of the Jewish community itself, with a few exceptions. One such exception stood out to me: a young person holding a hand-written sign that read, “Asians Against Anti-Semitism.” That one demonstrator’s solidarity meant a lot to me, as surely it did to others present.
Sadly, but unmistakably, it is now time to reciprocate the solidarity.
As a country and an international community, we now mark one year since an epidemic, first detected in east Asia, quickly became a global pandemic, the first of its kind in a century. Over the course of the year, people of Asian descent have suffered two-fold: first, the health, emotional and economic implications of the pandemic like virtually everyone else, but also a spate of assaults, harassment and stigmatization that has again intensified recently even as COVID-19 vaccines have provided hope in an eventual end to the coronavirus-related disruption.
In the United States alone, there were 2,800 reported attacks against Asian-Americans from the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020. Last year, in just the New York City area, an astonishing 867% increase in such attacks was logged. People of Asian ancestry have publicly and without provocation been accosted, shoved, slashed, spit at, told to “go home” and blamed for the public health crisis.
And this may well not tell the full story. Undoubtedly, some people may not have reported their victimization out of shame, fear, a sense that criminal behavior could not or would not be effectively prosecuted or not knowing where to turn. Even among those not targeted but whose ethnic origin cannot be concealed, a sense of trauma risks taking root. It has not helped that even some media outlets have spoken of victims as “Asians” as if most or all weren’t fellow citizens, that those of disparate Asian backgrounds have sometimes been lumped together outside the Asian community, that rhetoric like that concerning a “kung flu” has been spouted by public figures and that it has proven difficult to support hate-crime charges without elusive evidence of victims’ targeting specifically on account of their ethnicity.
Of course, the pervasive nature of the pandemic and its effects has also created for some members of Asian diasporic communities a feeling of being under siege or at least acutely vulnerable, and with suddenness, even as wider awareness of this feeling is limited. Before face coverings became far more commonplace, some community members reported discontinuing mask-wearing precisely so they might not stand out or be suspect as diseased, thus putting their own health at greater risk.
Fortunately, a growing coalition of groups and an increasing number of elected officials are standing up to denounce prejudice against and animosity toward neighbors of Asian descent. As with the fight against anti-Semitism and against racism, our societies will only be free of violent xenophobia when those who are subjected to incitement and abuse are joined in common cause by those who, at least at the moment, are not. The Jewish community knows particularly well that bigotry and discrimination are viruses not likely to be contained to any one population.
Let it be clear: We stand resolutely with our friends of Asian heritage—and for their right to equality, safety and dignity.
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