How could this be happening again, in 2023? This quote from a story by Yair Rosenberg, whose excellent “Deep Shtetl” column appears in the Atlantic, is one of many such expressions of horror and shock.
“I’m a child of Holocaust survivors,” one Israeli woman told reporters. “I grew up hearing stories of the camps. I thought those were the worst stories. These stories are worse. And I think that’s the hardest thing for me. I never thought I would live to see something worse than the stories I grew up with.
I didn’t grow up with the stories. I grew up with the lack of them, with silence, and only began learning about the worst of the horrors on my own, later in life. Now, unfolding events are being documented in real time, in living—or should I say dying—color and the commentariat is very loud.
I am not going to compare atrocities on a case-by-case basis; while the Nazis were known for their routinized mass murder machine, there are many, many individual examples of sadism and cruelty. But what happened in Israel on 10/7—and, even more, the antisemitic responses that followed immediately afterwards, before there were any reprisals from Israel—are a direct gut punch since they are happening in real time.
To clarify: Criticizing the Israeli government and its actions is not antisemitic; many American analysts sympathetic to Israel, as well as most Israelis, blame Netanyahu and his right-wing government for leaving the country open to attack and for its harsh policies towards the Palestinians. But calling for the only Jewish state in the world to be destroyed (what, precisely, do people think the cries of “From the River to the Sea” mean?) far more often crosses the line because of both the hypocrisy and the blatant double standard. Where are the campus protests against Syria for its murderous regime? Against China for the plight of the Uighurs?
And the mask really drops when Nazi symbols and shouts of “gas the Jews” show up at “Free Palestine” gatherings; when an ancient synagogue in Tunisia (a country that expelled most of its Jews; talk about ethnic cleansing) is burned to the ground; and when a politician puts up a post observing the 5th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre in America and gets pilloried for it because he didn’t mention Gaza?
That’s not anti-Zionism. It’s Jew hatred.
The Sounds of Silence
Since no one sentient currently has the excuse that they didn’t know what was going on, the fallback for the Nazi era, the resounding silence from my non-Jewish friends is doubly painful. Didn’t know what to say? A quick “are you okay?” check-in would have sufficed.
As a progressive Jew, I have felt completely betrayed—though hardly surprised—by the public stance of most organizations that claim to want equal rights for all people, but exclude one group. So I can’t help but wonder which petitions that suggested Israel deserved to be attacked by Hamas—or neglected to mention the initial attack on Israel in their statements of calls for peace—did those silent friends sign? Did they unquestioningly take the word of the BBC or the New York Times, respected news outlets that immediately and erroneously blamed Israel for a hospital bombing in Gaza which used the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry as its sole source?
An article that has made the rounds of several Jewish groups distilled these concerns to a single question: Would I trust these silent friends to hide me if it came down to that?
Call me paranoid. But that’s what they said to the Jews of Austria, too.
Memoir Without an Ending
These recent events not only shook my sense of safety in the world but also dislodged what I saw as the forward momentum of my life, forcing me to rewrite the past in light of the present. Literally.
I have been working on a memoir—well, okay, not exactly “working on” but I have had half a manuscript on my computer for several years now. The book started out by reconstructing my parents’ pasts, especially my mother’s side of the family, based on the findings I’ve posted on this blog. It slowly shifted emphasis, gradually morphing into the story of my life, starting with childhood—as impacted by my parents’ experiences—and moving into my genealogical journey to reconstruct my family history. Because all stories need resolutions, or at least narrative arcs, I planned to use my decision to get Austrian citizenship, and my accomplishment of that goal, as an end point of the book.
How will this current conflict end? I have no idea, and it’s terrifying to contemplate. When the dust clears, maybe there’ll be a brief period where antisemitism takes a break again, as it did post-Holocaust, when the horror of what happened sinks in and a sense of shame emerges. With the tenacity of antisemitism throughout the ages being amplified by the echo chamber of social media and even of mainstream news outlets, I pretty much doubt that.
I had been contemplating taking a trip to Europe to visit the ancestral homes of my mother’s side of the family in Poland, my father’s side in the Czech Republic. But I already know how that story ends.
So now I wonder: Why revisit the past and relive the pain of my parents when there are so many fresh wounds to tend to?
Am Yisrael Chai.
I won’t even try to go into the complexities of the Middle East situation or of what is and is not antisemitism but here are three books that contextualize/explain it in a very accessible way.
The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, by Adi Schwartz and Ainat Wilf
Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.