2014 was the year I became un-assimilated. In my secular American family, Jewish culture was largely a matter of historical and literary interest (my father wrote a book on Jewish writers in America, in which he cheerfully predicted that Jews would become completely assimilated and disappear as a people). I grew up in a secular household — so determinedly so that we celebrated no holidays other than Thanksgiving. With both Sephardi and Ashkenazi ancestry, we represent a great swathe of the Diaspora, but all that came down to me was a love of reading and a smattering of Yiddish. I spent my undergraduate years trying to make sense of the Holocaust, and in 1989 I moved to the UK to pursue a career in archaeology.
I experienced no anti-Semitism in my home-town and very little at University (my parents shielded me from the fact that we had been refused a property deal because the seller did not want Jews in the neighbourhood). Even so, I was always conscious that ‘they’ could come and get me at any time, and that I needed to have a valid passport at all times, ‘just in case’. I was prepared for hatred from neo-Nazis, the KKK, and survivalists who thought I was not quite ‘white’ enough, but nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for the explosion of hatred that came, not from my enemies, but from my friends.
It began with the Gaza war. Suddenly, my Facebook pages exploded with bloody images; friends were asking me to join them in hyperbolic tirades against Israel’s ‘genocide’, its temerity for defending itself against the hail of rockets launched by extremists whose declared aim was to wipe Israel off the map. I was asked to sign petitions to throw the Israeli ambassador out of the country. I was assailed by pictures of Israel as a tentacled monster; cartoons of innocent Arab children being brutally murdered by hook-nosed assassins emblazoned with the star of David; hate speech such as I had rarely encountered in my day to day life suddenly became commonplace. A colleague said to my face what a shame it was that Jews have become the new Nazis, that we ‘failed to learn the lesson of the Holocaust’. Another colleague spoke of Israeli ‘pinkwashing’, of Israel hiding its supposed crimes by pretending to be a liberal society. Another simply turned her profile picture to a Palestinian flag, and filled her page with hate towards the Israeli ‘oppressors’.
At first I thought I just needed to explain and to educate. I embarked on countless discussions; I explained Israel’s leaflet drops, the text messages, the phone calls to clear civilians out of areas in which militants were operating, so that they would not be injured by the bombs; I quoted numbers, statistics, reports, evidence. I explained that 20% of the Israeli population are Arab Muslims, Christians, Druze and other minorities, all of whom are able to vote; I explained that Arab Muslims are on the Knesset, and have complete free speech. Universities are training Arab students (their tuition is free), and Israeli Arabs work alongside Jewish doctors in Israeli hospitals. I explained that around 800,000 Jews were evicted from Arab countries, but all were given refuge in tiny Israel; half the population of Israel are native to the Middle East and had nowhere else to go. No one was listening.
I became increasingly desperate as again and again I was met with cold hostility. To the British far-right, Jews are brown people who are trying to infiltrate white culture, corrupting white society with our greed and our mania for power and destruction. To the British left wing, Jews are white people who are oppressing innocent brown people, colonising their country, murdering their children with random abandon and stealing their organs to sell on the black market.
The attacks on Jews across Europe began to mount — but the mainstream papers were not reporting them. Synagogues were firebombed, Jews besieged in a Paris shul, and then the marches — huge swathes of people marching down the streets of European cities shouting ‘Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas’. My friends responded with excuses for the violence, or with silence.
By Rosh Hashanah I was attending the nearest shul, a two hour drive away in Cardiff but worth every moment. I hadn’t set foot in a synagogue since my friend Lori’s Bat Mitzvah, back in the 1970s, but what a blessed relief it was to be somewhere where I belonged, and where other people were sharing my experience, and understood. An anti-Israel march through Cardiff involved, once again, cries of ‘Jews to the gas’, and an old man from shul described the horror of sitting in his shop when the mob marched by. Several of the elders in my shul escaped from this kind of hell when they were rescued by the Kindertransports. Now, it seemed to be happening again.
I wrote on Facebook about the smashing up of the kosher food section in a British supermarket, the Palestinian flags flying from County Council halls, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the attacks on anyone with a kippah, the declaration that Bradford was now an ‘Israel-free zone’, the boycott of the Jewish Film Festival. My Union joined the Israel boycott, and I resigned my role as Union rep for my university department and left the Union. An old boyfriend who despised Israel began to post sneering posts about Jews — and then I saw his name on a petition for a complete boycott of Israeli academics. Other colleagues signed as well — people I had known and worked with, travelled with, excavated with.
Shots were fired into a Kosher restaurant in Paris. Shots were fired at another Kosher restaurant a few weeks later. The mainstream papers did not share this information. I shared post after post about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, but my friends responded by saying ‘well, but, it’s all about Israel’s genocide’. Or, ‘Muslims are suffering too, you know.’ One patronising friend wrote, ‘Oh Rivka, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be so terrified’. Terrified? I was not terrified — I was furious, and lonelier than I have ever felt before in my life.
Then came the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The perpetrators were on the run, and Jews across Europe knew that Jews were likely to be next. Sure enough, the getaway car was found outside a kosher restaurant — fortunately closed. Only the Jewish papers reported this. Then, a car exploded outside a synagogue. Only the Jewish papers reported this. Then, the Hypercache shootings — and a BBC reporter, interviewing a distraught Jewish lady on the street, said, ‘the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well’. The woman — the daughter of Polish survivors of the Holocaust — was subjected to the suggestion that ‘Jews’ are to blame for this attack, even as the attack was taking place.
The police came and spoke to our shul, and said that our security door, security fencing and CCTV were inadequate; we needed a new, bomb-proof steel door. We were reminded never to wear anything that would identify us as Jews on the street, and never to congregate outside but to move swiftly away from the building.
That weekend, I went to a vigil in memory of the dead from Charlie and the Hypercache. We were told to bring pens, to signify the importance of free speech. Journalists spoke of the importance of free expression. A local Muslim leader spoke of the importance of peace. We waited — all of the Jewish community waited — for the rabbi to speak, perhaps to say kaddish. The rabbi was brought on stage, the town dignitaries spoke about free speech — and then it was over. NOT ONE WORD was said about the Jews who died in the shootings. By this time I was crying, distraught, and I went to find the rabbi to ask him why, WHY had he remained silent? Why hadn’t he spoken?
‘I was not allowed to speak’, he said. ‘They felt it would be divisive.’
So, we had a vigil to celebrate free speech, but the Jews were not allowed to speak. He looked me in the eye, our young rabbi, and said ‘Some things never change’.
When I was in my early 20s, shortly before I moved from America to the UK, I dreamed I was in Ireland. In my dream I wandered through an ancient hall, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to live here forever, in this beautiful ancestral hall’. Then I went out into the grounds, and there was a family graveyard there. I thought to myself, ‘I want be buried in this ancestral graveyard’. Then I went back into the house.
Soon after, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and it was my father. He said, ‘you have to come away from here’. I pleaded, I said ‘But I want to live in this ancestral hall, and be buried in the ancestral graveyard’. And he said, ‘this is not our home, and our ancestral graveyard is over there’. And he pointed — and when he pointed, I could see across Ireland, and across the channel, and halfway across the Continent to the chimneys of Auschwitz — and they were still smoking. He said, ‘that is our ancestral graveyard’, and then I understood. I stepped out of the house and I shut the door behind me, and together we walked down the road, towards the smoking chimneys of Auschwitz.
That’s the end of the dream, but it’s not the end of the story, because the fact is we DO have an ancestral home, and that ancestral home is Israel. I have never before felt this attachment so keenly; this recognition that Israel isn’t just the place we pray for at the end of each Seder. It is the ancient, ancestral home of the Jews — first mentioned in a text inscribed on an Egyptian stele in 1208 BCE. Israel is in our blood. What is more, I have come to realise just how much I love my people — my wonderful, outspoken people — so audacious that we argue with God, and wrestle with angels.
I am not ready to leave the UK, this beautiful country that has been my home for 27 years, but I am weary of people saying, ‘but criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Semitic!’ as if I am so stupid that I can’t distinguish between rational political discourse and screaming, ranting, vitriolic and misinformed hostility.
I am weary of having the same arguments: ‘but I don’t hate Jews! I deplore anti-Semitism! I just hate Israel, because…’ (then there comes a long string of misinformation — Israel is committing genocide, Jews have no history in the Middle East, Israel is an apartheid state). I have found that introducing evidence and verified information never makes the slightest difference. People accuse us of every conceivable crime, and who doesn’t hate crime?
I am weary of seeing confused and hurt young Israeli artists, who come here to perform with their classes and are subject to picket lines and people screaming at them on the streets.
I am weary of articles describing the beatings of French Jews who are attacked on the way home from synagogue; weary of photos of the bloodied faces of the Jews beaten nearly to death.
Before the 2014 war, I had about 135 Facebook friends, and these weren’t random people I met online — these were people I went to school with, to University with, friends I’d lived with, worked with, travelled with and excavated with. Out of all those people, just 9 of them — including my husband — were able to listen to what I was saying. All the rest either sneered, attacked, dismissed, belittled, disparaged or patronised — or they were persistently, resoundingly, silent.
One of my few remaining friends said to me sadly, ‘you never used to use that word, Gentile’. I explained that it was not a pejorative term, but she knew that. What made her sad was that I had never before spoken of her as if she and I were in different groups. We had always been the same — two women, two archaeologists from two different countries but with a deep and lasting friendship that knew no fundamental differences. But that is what has happened: I have become un-assimilated. I am no longer just a person — I am a Jew.