I don’t want to write about antisemitism. I don’t even want to think about it. I have been lucky to live in the United States, and in New York, and especially on Long Island, because for most of my life anti-Semitism was a vague noise in the background, or a lesson from history, instead of an everyday reality for me. Even in High School, when I knew that my Jewish school was receiving bomb threats, I still didn’t take it in as a real danger. I was comfortable being an American Jew. It seemed normal, just like being a Catholic or a Methodist, or nothing. If anything, I experienced more conflicts within the Jewish community, especially between liberal and Orthodox Jews, than without. I knew I was part of a religious minority, but it didn’t seem to matter. Yet.
I’d heard about the blood libels in previous centuries, when Jewish people were accused of killing Christian babies in order to use their blood to make matzah. Setting aside the obviously unbelievable claim that Jews were killing babies for ANY reason, it’s important to know why this accusation would actually make religious Jews laugh. Jews who keep kosher salt their meat (this is where the name Kosher Salt comes from) in order to remove as much blood as possible before cooking, because blood isn’t kosher. And matzah, which is eaten at Passover, is made under very strict conditions, using only flour and water, under rigid time limits, so that the idea that anyone would add anything to the matzah, let alone human blood, is unthinkable.
But I remember, after 9/11, when an outspoken minority of people blamed Israel for the attacks on the World Trade Center, either with wild conspiracy theories about Mossad agents disguising themselves as Muslim Terrorists, or arguments saying that if Israel had never existed then terrorists would never have targeted the United States. The rhetoric made me anxious, but I didn’t see many people taking them seriously. And the extreme backlash against anyone who looked like they could be from the Middle East, or who seemed to be practicing Islam, was much more of an issue. It seemed wrong to focus on some anti-Semitic theories, when there was anti-Muslim violence going on all around me.
Maybe things started to change with the onset of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, an umbrella movement that included groups that were specifically protesting the presence of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, and groups that believed Israel had no right to exist, the Holocaust never happened, and Jews should be pushed into the sea. As the BDS movement became more popular on college campuses, I heard more stories about Jewish college kids facing demonstrations against Israel on campus that supposedly focused on anti-Zionism as separate from anti-Semitism. The problem with that argument is that Zionism started as a movement to save Jews from life threatening situations in Europe, especially in Russia, in the 19th century, and grew in intensity after six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, just for being Jews. If the criticism had focused on the policies of the current government of Israel, without bleeding into a criticism of the existence of Israel, I could understand; just like you can be a patriotic American, or a friend of the United States, and disagree with the policies of the Trump administration. But anti-Zionism, if it means antagonism to the existence of the state of Israel, and unwillingness to recognize what led to the creation of the state by the United Nations, IS anti-Semitism.
None of this is to say that the Palestinians have been treated well, by the British, or the Jordanians, or the Egyptians, or the Israeli government; damage has been done and continues to be done. But if activists refuse to look at the causes of the complicated and painful current reality in the Middle East, and instead decide that everything is the fault of the Jews, for being there in the first place, then they are falling into old tropes that lead us all back into the darkness. When voices at the edges started to say, out of anger or ignorance, that the word Zionist was comparable to the word Nazi, they crossed a line that is hard to ignore, or forgive.
But, even with all of that rhetoric, I still felt safe at home, in America. And then, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups grew in strength, and terrorist attacks took place in Europe, and then white supremacists carried their tiki torches in Charlottesville, to protest the removal of confederate statues (that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place), and they yelled, “Jews will not replace us.” Wait, what? What do Jews have to do with this?
And then I started to hear about swastikas on bathroom walls, in Long Island schools, and then synagogues in the United States were attacked. But… so were mosques and churches and schools and movie theaters, and the news people said that it was terrorism in general, not anti-Semitism in particular, no matter what the shooters, or the internet trolls, were saying. I wasn’t sure what to think, or how to feel. I had never directly experienced antisemitism. Microaggressions, sure. Lack of knowledge, or insensitivity about Jewish issues, or lack of historical memory, sure, but nothing like what I’d heard from older Jews, about how it used to be, even in America, when Jews were excluded from professions and schools and towns and clubs just for being Jewish, before and after the Holocaust took six million Jewish lives.
But still, I thought, I’m an American. Three out of four of my grandparents were born in the United States. That should make me safe.
And then, a few weeks ago, for the first time, someone left anti-Semitic comments on my blog. I couldn’t read those comments from a distance, as if it were news that had nothing to do with me, because it was on MY blog, and it was directed at me. Reading those comments, three by the same author, highlighted for me the fact that I had never been targeted like that before, not on my blog, and not in person, ever. I was always more worried that I would alienate readers by writing about Jewish stuff on my blog because it would be too niche, or boring, than I was worried about facing antisemitism. I was able to remove the comments from my blog easily, and there has been no recurrence, but, I couldn’t forget about them.
I still feel safe, or as safe as I am capable of feeling. But, anti-Semitism is real to me now in a way it wasn’t before. And the lessons of the Holocaust (be wary of hatred and targeting of people because of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, disabilities, or ethnic group) are more prominent again, for everyone.
It is so easy to blame someone, some group, some minority that you don’t identify with, when things start to fall apart. It’s so easy to project your own self-loathing and guilt and fears onto someone else who is not you, when you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. And it is shockingly easy for a leader in trouble, or seeking more power, to target vulnerable groups and aim societal anger and fear like a firehose in order to gain even more power.
I didn’t realize how easy it was to create baseless hatred, honestly. But now I do. And that really does scare the crap out of me. Because it could all happen again.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?