Why a board-game woke me up… twice.

I was raised Jewish, and the immense pride I have in being Jewish manifests itself as empathetic tears at Holocaust museums and a giddy feeling when I meet another Jew. Full disclosure: I’m what you’d call “Jew-ISH” because I attend synagogue only on the High Holy Days, and I don’t believe in the typical, man-with-a-white-beard in the sky. I digress, as this essay isn’t about my beliefs as a Jew. Rather, this essay is about the pain and complexity that comes with being a Jew today. I’ll explain what I mean with a personal story that transpired within the last 24 hours:

Have you heard of the board game “Secret Hitler”? I hadn’t until last night at a party. At least six people joyfully gathered around this board game, excited to play, and, I’d like to hope, they weren’t ignorant of the magnitude of what they were condoning. I read the rules of the game: there are two teams — fascists and liberals — with more liberals than fascists, and, thanks to a succinct explanation of the game-rules from BoardGameGeek, “the objective of the liberal team is to pass five liberal policies or assassinate Secret Hitler. The objective of the fascist team is to pass six fascist policies or elect Secret Hitler chancellor after three fascist policies have passed.” This is a political game aimed at highlighting the dangers of an authoritarian government by shocking the audience (you’ll see below in an interview with one of the creators).

www.secrethitler.com

When the party started to move toward playing this game, I knew I had to say something, rather than defiantly sitting on the couch. I mustered the strength, thinking about my heritage, what my ancestors faced with Jewish persecution, and I spoke out against these people around the board game: “I’m alive today because that man wasn’t successful. Nothing about Hitler is a game!” — and I left the house. I called my dad immediately and cried for an hour on the phone while aimlessly wandering New Jersey. I couldn’t understand how so many people could make a game out of a man who exterminated millions for no reason other than they were Jewish. I cried because I felt attacked; I cried for my fellow Jews who were treated like cattle and suffered tremendous pain; and, I cried knowing that the hatred towards Jews still exists today and perhaps is evolving and the world is numb to it. I was woken up.

Max Temkin, Cards Against Humanity creator (yes, I like this game), is one of the creators of Secret Hitler; and, I started off despising him without knowing him. When asked about the negative response to his game, he replied with:

A few people have made nasty comments to us, but reviews have been very positive. Generally, the people who are against us using the name Hitler have no understanding of the actual history of World War II, or of the Nazis, which is terrifying on its own. Some people have complained to us that it was actually the “conservatives” who opposed Hitler, and that Hitler was “liberal like Obama.” Other people have said that they would rather not remember the Holocaust.

Read more: The Jewish Chronicle — Secret Hitler a game of intrigue and deception but not for everyone

Temkin himself is a Jew with family members who are survivors — plot twist. The more I dug into the impetus behind this game, the more I realized the greater issues at play and that I was wrong. Tempkin hopes to shock people with the name of the board-game to send a message against a fascist government (he is anti-Trump and voices his fears with this presidency), and to force people to acknowledge the history surrounding Hitler, which obviously includes remembered the Holocaust.

The rise of authoritarian fascism in America terrifies me, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see a figure like Donald Trump taking power as the generation that experienced World War II and the Holocaust are passing from living memory. Secret Hitler isn’t the answer to Trump, but I do think that this is a time when art needs to be fearless about remembering and teaching history.

Although I now have some respect for Temkin rather than feelings of disdain, I feel he might have added fuel to the fire that is anti-Semitism. Using Hitler’s name as the shock-factor feels wrong to me, as it almost sensationalizes his role in history, and ipso facto the Holocaust — perhaps that was the point. What I can’t understand is, if this game was created as a response to the Trump presidency, why not “Secret Trump” or just simply “Secret Fascist”? His response when asked about the controversial name:

We struggled for months with the name, and eventually tried to call the game “Kill Hitler,” since one of the goals of the game is to assassinate Hitler and prevent World War II. But the name “Secret Hitler” stuck with our playtesting group, and people found it more memorable. Sometimes you just have to recognize what’s working and go with it.
On the one hand, the name “Secret Hitler” adds a little bit of levity to the title, which I think bothers people. On the other hand, it gets to one of the core ideas in the game, which is that when you’re in the moment, it’s very difficult to recognize fascists and do anything about them.

He’s right. The title does bother people, as it bothered me. I can understand why he’s using the tactic of “bother to elicit action-provoking feeling”, but I can’t help but feel like the use of the name was less about making a statement and more about the attention and profit it would bring (then again, I don’t know him personally). Last night, and into writing this essay, I felt pain and judgement for whomever created this game, but, after further investigation, I feel empathy because he is hitting on a sad fact: people don’t care to remember or believe in the Holocaust, and the fight against anti-Semitism isn’t #trendy anymore. Perhaps by sensationalizing Hitler, he brought the Holocaust and the anti-Semitic pandemic back into public focus.

In light of one of Temkin’s points, what’s frightening to me is that it’s very possible those people playing Secret Hitler don’t believe the Holocaust happened or they’ve never heard of it in the first place— 46% have never heard of the Holocaust. If this is the case, then doesn’t the game take on a new and derogatory meaning? The game is vulnerable to it’s players, and thus the intent or messaging isn’t consistent.

Anti-Defamation League

This experience brought to the life the reality that anti-Semitism is prevalent and it has been all this time, but we’re so used to it that it isn’t shocking anymore. Jews too are guilty of underplaying the existence of anti-Semitism — I know I am. A CNN article released on February 17, 2017 discussed the bomb threats towards Jewish communities in the United States:

In all, 48 JCCs in 26 states and one Canadian province received nearly 60 bomb threats during January, according to the JCCA, an association of JCCs*. Most were made in rapid succession on three days: January 9, 18 and 31. A number of JCCs, including Orlando’s, received multiple threats…The JTA, a Jewish news agency, says it has obtained a recording of one of the calls. On it, the caller says a C-4 bomb has been placed in the JCC and that “a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered.”

(this gained very little attention until two reporters at the joint news conference between Israeli and U.S. leadership asked Donald Trump about the rise in anti-Semitism in this country — “Trump was asked a question about anti-Semitism. His answer was about the electoral college.). It’s time to wake up!

Back to the motivation behind this essay: this board game. Essentially, I can’t get over the trivialization of Hitler because it is to trivialize not just the Holocaust, and the lives of those who suffered, but centuries of persecution against a people. I don’t know that the “shock factor” is worth the consequence; although, I’ve got to hand it to Temkin, it worked on me. This game shocked me out of my autopilot acceptance of the modern day persecution Jews are facing. This experience emboldened me to stand up against anti-Semitism, like those incredible New Yorkers on the subway, and to stand up against hate in all its forms. I was woken up a second time in realizing that there are more complexities around modern-day bigotry with our current U.S. “regime”, and Temkin is speaking out against it not condoning it, as I had thought.

It’s not enough to write a Facebook post, Tweet, publish an essay like this one, or wear a politically-messaged t-shirt. It’s speaking out against hate when it happens and not retroactively when I’m in the safe confines of my New York apartment. It’s empowering people to stand up for themselves and others. It’s shocking people into the reality of our country’s political, social, and economic environment.

So, I applaud you, Max Temkin. Your game made an impact and I didn’t even play it. I started writing this essay hating you, but that was ignorant of me to formulate an opinion based on unsubstantiated assumptions — I should’ve known better with living in a world of alternative facts. I still can’t get on board with and still feel personally violated by your choice to use Hitler’s name for your game, but I can at least rationalize the intent behind it. If your goal is to bother people, to raise awareness, and to educate, I ask that you amp up the volume of your secret message beyond game-pieces to ensure you are making the impact you intend.