Melissa Cohen

A liberal California mom’s reckoning

Picking up the pieces from a shattered world view

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

In the past seven weeks, the world as I have known it for 46 years has morphed into something unrecognizable to me. Something I couldn’t have understood before Oct. 7, but now appears with perfect clarity.

This global shift has eclipsed my sense of time, condensing the past 3,000 years of human existence into a blip, not the long arc of progress as I had understood it, but as a repetitive cycle of the most primitive inclinations — hate and violence and bloodthirst. For Jews. Every day that goes by sharpens the lens, exposing my former world view as a distortion, as if I had been looking through a fun-house mirror, its visual tricks keenly disguising the true nature of humanity. For all of my short life, the fun-house mirror reflected a utopian vision where Jews were accepted into society, and not just accepted, but valued. The glass has now been shattered. My eyes have been opened. I now see the biblical stories of attempts to destroy us not as ancient stories of triumph over evil but as a modern story, a current one, and a prescient one of what is to come.

My old view held for many Western countries but particularly for America, where Jews came here with nothing and made something. Fleeing pogroms, discrimination, and eventually the Holocaust, the generations before us pulled themselves up from their bootstraps, teaching their children and then their children the value of hard work and the promise of America. And as America accepted us, slowly decade by decade eliminating barriers to Jewish entry into higher education, top law and financial firms, and certain country clubs and neighborhoods, Jews assimilated into the culture, adopting liberal American values as religious tenets, as their religious Jewishness receded. This is the America that I grew up in. Jews had built a life here, not confined to the shtetls of the old world, but a real life among our Christian neighbors, where we went to public schools, joined neighborhood sports leagues, and contributed to our local communities. We became part of the fabric of society.

To me, this always seems like a great thing. We may have lost a bit of our outward Jewishness, but we traded it for Americanness, and we got to have both. Adopting liberal, pluralistic values wasn’t a leap at all, but rather a logical expression of our Jewish ethos. Freedom of speech and of religion, equal protection under the law, civil rights, plus baseball on Sundays and Hebrew National hotdogs. What could be better! My parents and the old guard saw the risks of that trade off, but my generation, so interwoven with American culture, couldn’t understand their perspective. Our parents knew that America was the greatest country in the world for its promise of freedom and opportunity. We were safe here, and this was the best place to be a Jew. But they also knew how fragile these freedoms were, and they just couldn’t erase the indelible scars of discrimination from the very fiber of their being.

Informed by this, and by a strong sense of Jewish identity, my parents fervently believed in the importance of Jewish education and Jewish community. My mom, in particular, who holds no beliefs any less than fervently, fought hard to impart this sense of Jewishness on me. She insisted that I go to a Jewish day school, participate in Jewish youth groups and camp, and be part of a community that upheld Jewish culture and values. Naturally, I fought it. Why did we need to separate ourselves so much in this equal opportunity world? Couldn’t I assimilate just like the others? The world was ok with us now, so couldn’t we be ok with it? I didn’t understand this “sticking together” mentality, and frankly, I thought it was holding us back from being the full red-blooded Americans we could be.

But my mom was one of the few people in the 21st century, before Oct. 7, to worry about the future of the Jewish people as an existential crisis. “We are a tiny drop in the bucket of all the people on this earth, and if you don’t continue our traditions that’s one less of us,” she would say. “You must learn what it means to be a Jew so you can pass that on to your children. Do you want to be responsible for the dying out of our people that has survived for thousands of years despite continuous attempts at annihilation?!” Even discounting the hyperbole, it didn’t resonate. No one was trying to kill us. Antisemitism was an outdated, old world issue, other than the isolated incidents perpetrated by fringe lunatics. It didn’t feel like we were a miniscule population. And we were living beautiful lives, blessed with education, economic security and broad-based acceptance.

It took 46 years and 12 hours, the time that Hamas infiltrated Israel with its reign of terror, for me to see her point. I keep replaying my mother’s words in my head, their urgency resounding. My rosy idealism, the natural outgrowth of a privileged, secure childhood, has been smashed to smithereens and supplanted with the outlook of all my ancestors. When Israel was attacked in the most barbaric, unimaginable way, my community was paralyzed with shock, fear, and grief. Even for those who hadn’t been to Israel in many years, or who didn’t have a strong connection to Israel, it felt like an attack on us, our nation, our people. Americans who look like us and talk like us were among the victims! First, we sat with the shock — how could this unsophisticated terrorist group take Israel’s vaunted army and intelligence agencies by surprise? Then we sat with the grief. The grief for those murdered and raped and burned and taken captive, whose stories I can’t recount without tears rolling down my cheeks. But as we were grieving for the dead, before we were able to process the depravity and all its reverberations within Israel, we were forced to grieve again: for the humanity we thought existed among the people watching this unfold all over the world. Seeing thousands marching not just in the Arab world but also in places like London, Sydney, New York and L.A. in support of the terrorists, in support of our gruesome murder, and blaming Israel for the attack against it, was a second awakening. The world was against us. Now, for the first time in my life, I am scared.

The antisemitism that I thought was dead took little time to surface and then to flourish marvelously, spreading like wildfire, its flames engulfing the world. How quickly it happened! A destructive force as old as time unleashed itself, erasing years of peace and prosperity in an instant. And now here we are in the dark ages again, or is it 1939, or 1478, or ancient Egypt? Space and time are closing in, playing the same loop, a nihilistic Groundhog’s Day.

As a young girl learning about our history I often thought about the roots of antisemitism. Where did it come from? Why was it constant from biblical times through the Holocaust? My young mind struggled to make sense of why everyone hated us, but now I believe the answer is simple. It’s not about land or gold. It is pure xenophobia, just hatred of the other. It’s hard for my generation of secular American Jews to understand, but historically, we have always been the other. We refused to pray to multiple gods when the world was pagan and to accept Jesus when Christianity swept the world. We refused to conform to the religious beliefs of our conquerors and their empires. Our steadfast beliefs, different from convention, make us the enemy. The enemy of fascism, Islamic fundamentalism, every angry mob that has a grievance, and every simple mind that can be controlled by a demagogue’s propaganda machine. Jews have never tried to convert others, and we have been the victims of genocidal campaigns throughout history. So here we are, 0.2% of the world’s population, the teeny, tiny other swallowed by the world’s eagerness to believe the tall tales of our evil and greed.

And we have seen just how eager the world is to accept as truth any charges our enemies make against us. How easy it is to turn reason on its head. The attacked are decried the attackers, the victims of genocide called a genocidal nation, the lone liberal democracy in a sea of authoritarian countries called an apartheid state, the Jews who have been living in Judea since the time of Abraham called the occupiers. Not only do the street mobs proclaim these slanderous absurdities but so do the mobs who’ve come down from their Ivy League towers who are supposed to be our brightest minds and future leaders.

And so too are freedom-loving institutions quick to pick up the pitchforks or slow to speak the truth. If other countries called for an American ceasefire after Osama Bin Laden’s henchmen flew planes into the World Trade Center, it would be laughable. Could you imagine our academic institutions’ hesitancy to condemn terrorism if any other country were the victim? Feminists and human rights activists all resolute in their support of the Palestinian cause even through methods that rise to the most vicious crimes against humanity?

These realities are unimaginable for any country other than the Jewish state. And this new upside down world where black is white and white is black is where I now reside. I reside in this darker reality where my fellow Jews and I are alone in this world. And for Jews on the left like me, like most of my Bay Area Jewish friends, this rejection has been particularly stinging. The good-hearted people we stood with to support women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, DEI — where have they been? We thought we were comrades in a fight against discrimination to make the world a better place, but even they have turned against us. And how is it possible? Didn’t they see the images that Hamas proudly broadcasted to the world? The parading around of women brutally raped and mutilated, blood running down their legs, and then murdered in front of a cheering crowd. The videos of parents trying to lie on top of their children as Hamas came in to murder them in hopes that the bullets wouldn’t permeate their bodies so their toddlers could survive. The audio of a Hamas terrorist calling his parents giddy with glee to recount how he murdered ten Jews and weren’t they proud of him. How do our allies lack the moral clarity and the humanity to stand up for us in this Hobbesian jungle we are now in?

So Hamas’s attack was a huge win for antisemites, conspiracy theorists and apparently a large wing of the progressive left, but it also gave the Jewish community an unintended gift. Hamas ignited within us a deep solidarity formed out of tragedy, which has been a third awakening for me. We have all come together to support each other and fight for our future in a way that only people with a shared history and a future at risk can do. We’ve been shaken enough to know that there is nothing more important to fight for. And now, for the first time, I feel solidarity with my ancestors, whom I had always seen as the tragic ones who had to suffer and hide, in contrast to my comfortable perch in society. I see myself in them now, and it fills me with both fear and pride.

I also feel solidarity with many non-Jewish friends who have stood up in the most righteous ways, sharing in our grief and pain and speaking up not just for us, but for what is right. Our friends’ support has been a light amidst the darkness. A light that I can only hope shines brighter over the difficult weeks and months to come and inspires an awakening for others that moral clarity shouldn’t be hard to summon.

But where do we go from here? How do we continue to live in our communities where we look around and see all the faces of the people who have turned their backs. Now we know how they really feel. How do we support the social justice causes that are so deeply held for us alongside people who don’t care if we live or die? Am I no longer a democrat? I’m certainly not a republican. But am I now? Everything that was certain is now a question. Once again, we are without a home, wandering in the desert, as it appears we have always been.

About the Author
Melissa Freed Cohen is a former attorney residing outside of San Francisco with her husband and three daughters. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, as well as a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law.
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