WARNING: Some unsettling content ahead.
Just as an FYI, there’s no context that makes what happens in this video “okay.” The mayor of Damascus, in the wake of the incident, tried to make hey of the fact that the thru-hiker recording the video was trying to buy weed, but there’s never an instance where the response to that needs to include antisemitism. The people in this video were charged and convicted of crimes, and this store is no longer in business.
I’ve been hiking, thru, section, and weekend, for most of my life, and I’ve never encountered antisemitism on the trail. All I have encountered is comity and curiosity.
But what do you do when you do encounter it? If you’re a thru-hiker, this could be unnerving, possibly hike-ending. There’s a good chance you’re isolated from law enforcement, friends, family, or any kind of Jewish community.
We’ll share some advice here, much of which is based off of my experience both as a thru-hiker and as an observant Jewish soldier who has deployed abroad.
The first step is to understand the social climate where you are hiking. If you expect to interact with a local community at a hotel before or after a hike, it’s a little more important than if you’re just heading to a wilderness area. A great resource for the presence of hate groups and incidents is the Anti-Defamation League’s website, and depending on how you feel about them, the Southern Poverty Law Center.
With the many trails available in the United States, it’s highly possible to avoid problems altogether.
If you’re traveling internationally, the State Department is a good resource to check against.
Sometimes, just putting the keywords “antisemitism” and the name of your destination yields informative results. Sometimes, the information may be dated, and an incident, such as this one that reportedly occurred in Patagonia, may not have a recent corollary. Still, forewarned is forearmed.
Minimize Your Jewish Footprint
One of the recommendations made to me for Middle Eastern deployments, or even Eastern European deployments, was to take steps to be less obviously Jewish. For me, the argument was not to wear my yarmulke out and about. When wearing civilian clothes, I was urged not to let my tzitzit out.
What I have found is that outside of major Jewish populations, very few people are familiar with tzitzit enough for that to pose a hazard. When hiking, I often wear other hats besides my yarmulke, but there are times when I just don’t feel like wearing a hat besides my kippah.
I already don’t make a big deal out of my diet as it is. I don’t go into stores lamenting that I cannot find a hechshered product.
Because I often park my car at trailheads, I’m careful not to invite targeted vandalism by not putting bumper stickers or window decals of Jewish interest on my car.
There are times it’s unavoidable that I have to make the explanation or be unavoidably Jewish, such as when I’m setting up a portable eruv for a Shabbos camp. It’s confusing to people (and sometimes park rangers) when they encounter your strings, or the otherwise odd way you may set up camp to prepare for Shabbos. Some of this can be avoided with stealth camping or being familiar with regulations of the place you are camping.
What do I do when it happens?
First and foremost, if you are in a situation where it’s fight or flight, do one or the other and commit to it. It’s helpful when you travel to know who constitutes law and order in your location. If you’re in Yellowstone National Park, that answer will differ sharply from Damascus, Virginia.
If you are in a situation where you have to fight, fight as if your life depends on it. Bite, pull, strike, kick, stab, whatever you have to do. If you’re in a place where you are allowed to and you do carry a firearm, be sure you know what stand your ground or similar laws apply to you before you even brandish.
If it’s mere harassment, the choice is yours as to whether you brush it off. You may consider recording the situation with your smartphone, if you think it will help identify someone who crosses a line in to criminal harassment or assault, or hopefully, act as a deterrent.
If you are on a long-distance hike, consider changing your plans, in case harassment or assault could possibly turn into something worse. Watch for if you are followed. Consider “yellow-blazing” to a distance beyond where it happened, or hole up in a hotel for a day or two until you think any possible threat has passed. Or consider quitting altogether. Especially for younger hikers without much experience in the world, antisemitism really can encroach on a sense of safety, realistic or not.
When you feel safe (or safer), and can do so, report the incident to the relevant local office of the ADL. You can do this by their website or by phone. You may also contact us at The Kosher Backpacker, and we will try and help you as much as we can.
The good news is that for outdoors enthusiasts, antisemitism is a rare occurrence.
But we live in a world that with regards to Zionism and Jews, is becoming increasingly hostile, so it is important to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for the possibility. Don’t worry about it happening to the point that it ruins your excursion, but do mull over what you will do if it happens.
Last modified: April 8, 2019