For the first time in my life, I am afraid to be a Jew. To be seen as visibly Jewish, associated with my religion in any way.
I meditated and reflected a fair bit before writing out these thoughts. At first, they were hasty and angry. On second pass, it became clear the piece failed to uphold our mission at Speakeasy. Now, finally, I hope it does justice to those who wish to build a peaceful and fair society. Regardless of political differences, I hope you can see me (and I can see you) as a fellow human, a sentient being struggling on this hurtling rock through space. We have friends and families; loved ones that care deeply for us. I hope you can see my humanity and I wish to extend an open offer for anyone to write about their personal experience with bigotry during these tough times.
This piece is not about the Israel-Palestine Conflict, itself. We will be publishing a correspondence between two people next month analyzing that subject with the aim of humanizing others, deepening understandings, and building intellectual bridges.
My aim, here, is to transcend echo chambers — to see and hear one another.
In the late 14th century, a wave of antisemitism crashed over the Iberian Peninsula. “By the time the riots subsided, 100,000 Jews were dead, 100,000 had fled the peninsula, and another 100,000 had converted to Christianity. By the year 1415, another 50,000 Jews had converted to Christianity,” historian Joshua Teplitsky writes. The Spanish Inquisition presented Jews with a terrible dilemma: renounce one’s faith and convert or face expulsion, perhaps even, death. Fearful of Jewish power and its alleged corrupting influence, it became open season on Jews across the Spanish Empire.
Nearly 200,000 Jews found a third way going religiously ‘undercover’ as a result of persecution. Their new Catholic co-religionists derisively dubbed these Jewish converts Marranos because many (correctly) believed their conversions were simple window dressing – a stay of execution in order to survive. Marranos avoided unkosher foods or working on the Sabbath but the fear of being themselves – of living according to their birthright and heritage – was too costly. Such pressures were soon passed throughout the Portuguese Empire, too. For example, Brazilian Jews “did everything they could to keep Jewish traditions, customs, and culture – teaching their children and celebrating the Jewish holidays in secret, in the basements of their houses,” Matheus Zandona Guimaraes notes.
Amongst Jews today, feeling compelled to go underground, to obscure their true selves from public view, is gaining new currency. Although the Spanish Inquisition occurred over 700-years-ago, the lessons from it may hold true for a new generation of Jews reminded of history’s timeless antisemitic lesson that it is far easier to leave one’s identity packaged up in the basement than proudly worn in public. It’s for this very reason that European Jews (and maybe soon their North American co-religionists) consistently hide any visible displays of Jewishness.
Many Jews living in the Diaspora are re-learning these horrifying lessons again. Leaving his parent’s house in Edmonton, people in a passing car shouted at Adam Zepp, “Free Palestine.” He initially dismissed the incident until he ran into the same people while leaving the neighbourhood. “Do any Jews live here? Jews live here? Where do the Jews live?” the group demanded. “They didn’t go to another neighbourhood. They went to…a neighbourhood where a lot of Jews live,” Zepp told CTV News. Similar incidents have occurred throughout Edmonton in which vehicles roamed neighbourhoods “seeking Jews.”
My wake-up call came on Shavuot, the Jewish holiday commemorating the spring harvest and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. At a time when Jews normally indulge in vegetarian meals chalked with any excuse to include cheese, I was mindlessly chatting with my girlfriend’s family when her mother shared an alarming WhatsApp message then circulating amongst Toronto Jews. It advised us to stay inside, avoid attending synagogue, or dressing “Jewish” in any way. People feared caravans driving through neighbourhoods on the lookout for Jews to beat up and harass. As a result, Toronto’s Jewish community is now gripped by a wave of emotional and physical terror so much so that a voluntary neighbourhood watch has been mobilized due to an abiding fear that what was once, will be once more.
Dozens of recent examples suggest that vigilance is the best and only policy we have. Demonstrations in Toronto have resulted in Jews being beaten with sticks and sucker-punched. Out west, in Winnipeg, pro-Palestinian activists confronted a small gathering of pro-Israel people pelting them with rocks and water bottles, punching and kicking them while stealing an Israeli flag. One stomped and spit on the flag taunting a Jew of Mizrachi descent, “What are you going do about it n*gger?”
At a personal level, the events of May 2021 have been a reality-bending moment. A period when pre- and post- have been viscerally punctuated by fear and insecurity. Before, I would’ve dismissed such displays as fringe and out of the ordinary. The social consensus of anti-racism/antisemitism – I naively thought – protected against such unequivocal Jew-hatred. Wasn’t demonization of Jews and scapegoating our community a vestige of a bygone era?
A fancifully naïve idea, indeed.
There is now a new strain of hatred promulgated in good company these days eerily reminiscent of a time many mistakenly believed we had outgrown. Those high school lesson plans about Kristallnacht or pogroms don’t feel so ‘historical’ or intangible anymore. As Jonathan Greenblatt, the Chief Executive of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), remarked last week: “This does feel quite different.”
Coming from a people that have experienced millennia of hatred and death, genocide and expulsion, that should say something.
The Weight of Evidence
For those of us foolish enough to believe antisemitism was restricted to European age-old hatreds, we have been embarrassingly wrong. The ADL registered over 400 antisemitic incidents in the last two weeks of May, alone. Stateside, the explosion of hatred has prompted President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as well as countless governors and mayors to make public declarations of peace (which, in actuality, are coded pleas to stop attacking Jews).
As always, synagogues are routinely targeted. In Tucson, Arizona and Skokie, Illinois windows were smashed and buildings attacked. At the latter, twenty activists chanted “Intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” with a “Freedom for Palestine” placard found beneath the debris.
In Florida, a man wearing a yarmulke was accosted by a group of men in an SUV shouting “Free Palestine,” “Die Jew” alongside threats to rape his wife and daughter.
Six pro-Palestinian activists pepper-sprayed, punched, and kicked a 29-year-old Jewish man in New York yelling anti-Semitic slurs while they piled on him. When interviewed, the victim, Joseph Bergen, said: “They were calling me a filthy Jew, a dirty Jew,” adding “They said, ‘Hamas is going to kill all of you. Israel is going to burn.’” Not far away, in the heavily Jewish business Diamond District, a 55-year-old woman was burned by “an explosive device.”
Across the river in Brooklyn, Orthodox Jews have been assaulted and harassed by groups of teenage boys and men yelling “Free Palestine – kill all the Jews,” punching people and chasing them with baseball bats. Shortly thereafter, two men assaulted Jewish teens demanding “they make anti-Jewish statements.” According to police they punched the teens, put them in chokeholds, and chased them with bats.
In Los Angeles, a group of pro-Palestinian men wielding flags entered a sushi restaurant patio throwing bottles and assaulting Jewish patrons spewing anti-Semitic slurs such as “dirty Jew” at him.
An Orthodox Jewish man walking through a parking lot at night was chased by a van clad in the Palestinian flag honking and swerving after him.
Is It Time to Pack Our Bags (Again)?
If you think that’s overblown, the ADL analyzed a single week of tweets during the recent conflict finding nearly 20,000 variations of the phrase “Hitler was right.” That was not to be outdone by #Zionazi as well as #Covid1948, a reference to Israel’s founding. What did Twitter – the platform which has regularly banned others for lesser offences – do?
But where online hatred normally stopped, it’s now matched with the grotesque reality that physical acts of violence against Jews are fair game. Writing in the Jewish Journal, Pamela Paresky and Alex Goldenberg quote findings from the Network Contagion Research Institute that “extremist hashtags and slogans are upstream predictors of real-world violence and unrest.” Currents events have unequivocally validated this.
The embers of antisemitism are alive and well in the country that gave us Hitler. Pro-Palestinian protesters in Gelsenkirchen, Germany marched on a synagogue with a crowd of hundreds chanting, “fucking Jews.” One person defending the synagogue with an Israeli flag was repeatedly kicked in the head by the pogrom. Across Germany, Israeli flags were burnt and synagogues vandalized. Germany is not alone in this regard. Back in 2014, Parisian pro-Palestinian activists targeted synagogues and Jewish shops with chants of “Death to Jews.” This year in Brussels, Muslim protesters shouted “remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning,” referencing a battle in which Jews were massacred.
Mere weeks ago, convoys of pro-Palestinian activists drove through heavily-Jewish parts of North London honking horns and shouting antisemitic slurs. “Fuck their mothers. Rape their daughters. We have to send a message,” the voice over the loudspeaker blared. This, in part, led Community Security Trust (CST) – an antisemitic watchdog organization in the U.K. – to announce a 500% increase in antisemitic incidents since May 8.
Police in Essex, on London’s outskirts, are now investigating an attack on a rabbi by teens. Two hours north in Norwich, a synagogue was defaced with a swastika and “Free Palestine” on its front doors.
Despite German and British leaders unequivocally condemning such behaviour, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a political figure who proudly denies the Armenian Genocide, used Jews and Israelis interchangeably as “they” declaring the following after a cabinet meeting:
They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They are murderers, to the point they drag women on the ground to their death and they are murderers, to the point they kill old people…They only are satisfied by sucking their blood.
This sentiment, unfortunately, was not outdone by the comments of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi who spoke with CNN anchor Bianna Golodryga. Qureshi noted that Israel was losing the media war “despite their connections.” Golodryga, who is Jewish, pushed back. “What are their connections?” Qureshi laughs: “Deep pockets.” Golodryga asks Qureshi, once more to clarify. “Well, they’re very influential people, they control the media.”
Jeffrey Goldberg provocatively asked in April 2015 following the rise of antisemitism across Europe, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” which many critics dismissed as hyperbolic. However, five years later Goldberg’s arguments have borne out and now may even apply to North American Jewry, too. Concluding the piece Goldberg writes, “I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew — which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.” Indeed, now American and Canadian Jews may need to take their ancestors’ advice and look for another suitable stepping stone in our perpetual search for refuge and security.
Unfortunately, Goldberg – alongside many commentators – failed to anticipate the exponential increase of antisemitism throughout the United States today. Jews have consistently been the most targeted group of hate crimes in the United States (the same generally holds true in Canada). That’s precisely what the ADL’s Greenblatt meant by “This does feel quite different.”
North American Jews have long viewed themselves immune, elevated, and detached from the tribulations of European Jewry. However, recent events have clearly demonstrated we are no longer the ‘safe’ diaspora.
Muslim communities have been targeted, as well. A New York City mosque was vandalized with “Death 2 Palestine” while eggs and stones were hurled at worshippers in London. In the same period that CST registered a 500% surge in antisemitism in the U.K., its Muslim organizational counterpart, Tell Mama, found a 430% spike in anti-Muslim reports. Whereas CST provided a direct breakdown of incidents by “online abuse,” “offline and mainly verbal abuse,” and “violent,” no similar accounting was provided by the latter. That, in part, may highlight why some remain skeptical of Tell Mama’s statistical robustness and transparency. CST provided an easily accessible news briefing of recent attacks (as of May 27, 2021) while no similar research report exists for Tell Mama apart from a quoted interview. Apart from the above Islamophobic incidents, I could not verify or confirm any other equally heinous physical attacks.
The preponderance of evidence shows that Jewish communities have been disproportionately victimized at the hands of pro-Palestinian, and particularly, Muslim community members – a trend witnessed across North America and Europe. A case in point is Montreal. An uneventful pro-Israel rally turned violent once pro-Palestinian demonstrators arrived. Within moments, pro-Israel supporters were pelted with rocks and antisemitic slurs resulting in police pursuing pro-Palestinian elements for the remainder of the afternoon.
As always, the canned line of activists, organizations, and even the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom is ceremoniously trotted out condemning ‘antisemitism’ – but with little change. When fighting erupted in 2014, the same thing happened – theatrical apologies. I’ve seen this movie before, and the ending is always the same. For some reason they never belong to the movement but – every time war breaks out – there they are standing beside you. The Palestinian Authority (PA), the governing body of the Palestinian people, to this day has a “Pay for slay” programme which rewards prisoners in Israel based on, “The worse the crime, the higher the payment,” as The New York Times reports.
Respectfully, then, I’ll remain skeptical of such rhetorical window-dressing.
I challenge readers to bring up the ubiquity of Jewish diaspora rallies that have resulted in anything approximating the antisemitism which has surged in recent weeks.
With statistical certainty, I believe, it is fair to say that virtually every major pro-Palestinian demonstration this May has been accompanied by antisemitic acts. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in. Across the globe, Jews have been accosted and assaulted, berated and beaten, chocked and chased.
Speaking as a scared Jew, I can reassure you there is (and has long been) ample room within such circles for this rhetoric and behaviour. I’ve seen it coming for years. When I was at Western University a colleague remarked that American Jews exploit the Holocaust for political capital. No one spoke up. A couple of years later Jens Hanssen, a professor at the University of Toronto, accused me of being an agent of the Israeli government due to my interest in pursuing a Ph.D. The administration did nothing. No formal apology. No student union mobilization. My department fell silent. Only a few of my classmates mustered the strength to check-in. Nor was this remarkable. A couple years before I arrived, the resident pro-Palestinian student group invited Amanda Lickers to give a lecture. When she referenced that Jews were “inherently racist, fascist, and colonialist,” the group didn’t see the need to intervene.
This isn’t our first rodeo. For millennia we have witnessed Jew-hatred masquerading in many masks. Sometimes it’s easy to spot: the jackboots and swastikas. Today, however, most are unwilling to call a spade a spade. The demonization of Israel marinated in antisemitic tropes – a good standing position in academia and educational circles as well as NGOs and media outlets – has planted the intellectual seeds now flourishing amongst crowds demonstrating today. The chants that Israel kill babies, commits genocide, indulges in insatiable bloodlust and wanton destruction, is directly linked to the cresting tides of antisemitism.
The Kippah Test
In response to the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting three years back which claimed the lives of eleven people, Bari Weiss penned How to Fight Anti-Semitism. As Jewish communities today, again, contemplate their belonging within European and North American societies, Weiss asked readers to consider one’s comfort in wearing a kippah or Magen David. “Ask yourself: Can I safely assert my Jewishness where I live?” Weiss writes. “The Kippah Test, in Weiss’s opinion, is the ultimate gut-check. Such a thought experiment dismisses idealism and, instead, challenges us to concentrate on the plane of fear.
Today, I can unequivocally say that I am afraid, truly scared, to be Jewish. It is WHY I now leave my pocket-knife perpetually on my desk; WHY my camping bear spray has been repurposed as a tool for self-defence. WHY I check my blindspots constantly. WHY I make sure my shoes are tied in case I need to run for my life. WHY I triple-check my front door is locked before bed and WHY I fear the mezuzah outside my house is a beacon for Jew-haters.
This is the new normal of Jewish existence.
The greater problem is that beyond small pockets of Jews, little care has spilled over into the public square, the collective commons. The defenders of women, LGBTQ, Asians, African Americans, Muslims, and Indigenous are nowhere to be seen when rampant antisemitism rears its head.
If any of those historically marginalized groups were forming neighbourhood watches, hiding their identity, or carrying pepper spray en masse, there would have been mass protests. But, as always, for Jews, a different standard is applied.
Well-known liberal activist Mark Ruffalo carelessly suggested that Israel was committing a “genocide” in Gaza over Twitter. A week and some hundreds of antisemitic attacks motivated by that very hateful conspiracy, Ruffalo apologized and walked back his statement. “I have reflected & wanted to apologize for posts during the recent Israel/Hamas fighting that suggested Israel is committing ‘genocide.’ It’s not accurate, it’s inflammatory, disrespectful & is being used to justify antisemitism here & abroad. Now is the time to avoid hyperbole,” he tweeted. As always, playing with rhetorical fire was too little too late. Writing in The New York Times, Bret Stephens eloquently argued:
But if there’s been a massive online campaign of progressive allyship with Jews, I’ve missed it. If corporate executives have sent out workplace memos expressing concern for the safety of Jewish employees, I’ve missed it. If academic associations have issued public letters denouncing the use of anti-Semitic tropes by pro-Palestinian activists, I’ve missed them.
It’s a curious silence. In the land of inclusiveness, Jews are denied inclusion.
So here I am, hat in hand, earnestly begging for inclusion – or at least, your humanity. To be seen as an indispensable thread within our Canadian mosaic. The intolerable fear I have for my safety, my family’s safety, and my community’s safety have gone too far. Jews need allies – people willing to stand up for the vulnerable and overpowered – to stand beside us and care.
Will you accept my olive branch?