Trigger warning: chemistry
When Ms. Davis (z”l) introduced our chemistry class to the periodic table of the elements in 1987, this map of the known components of the universe was divided almost entirely into two camps: gases, which dominated the upper right corner; and the more plentiful solids, which became increasingly common in the rows further down the chart. Stock photographs of the former in stoppered, transparent beakers revealed them to be colorless (except for light-green, lung-devouring chlorine), while the latter were almost all black, silver, or grey (yes, sulfur, gold, and copper, I see you. You are very special.)
[As a sidebar, there was also a bevy of synthetic elements with presumably uncertain states along the bottom (some lacked images, and because of francium’s instability, they just showed mathematical formulae as evidence of its ephemeral existence), but given their rarity and harmful natures, we mostly ignored them – why would anyone in a high school science course care about the attributes of rutherfordium (which back then had the catchy sobriquet of unnilquadium)?]
The two neutral parties in the faceoff between the solids and gases – the Switzerlands of the periodic table, if you will – were a pair of liquids: bromine, a brown substance that reeked; and mercury, familiar from thermometers and intent on seeping into your body through your pores, causing severe neurological damage, and ultimately and painfully killing you. Other than our smelly/scary duo, the choices were binary in a very 1980’s us versus them, Coke versus Pepsi, capitalism versus communism sort of way: solid or liquid. Players, choose your fighter.
In truth, though, this elemental Cold War, just like its real world counterpart, was more complicated. Sitting pretty at number 31, gallium looks a lot like the majority of the metals: solid, grey, kind of shiny, and lumpy. (While I suppose it could come in various shapes, nearly all the pictures I found are just amorphous blobs. Ms. Davis’s ability to make chemistry fascinating is retrospectively even more impressive when you consider that the majority of elements are visually indistinguishable.)
But there’s a catch: once things warm up to 29 degrees Celsius (about 84 degrees Fahrenheit, for our metrically challenged readers south of the border), our friend gallium, which until then had been reliably, congenially fixed in its form, abruptly melts and looks a lot like our old nemesis mercury. One moment you’re thinking gallium is as loyal and true as tungsten, which keeps its solid form until over 3400 °C (over 6000 °F) and graces our lives as lightbulb filaments, and the next, it’s summer, the sun comes out, and gallium announces itself as a turncoat by metamorphosing from an unremarkable, yet dependable solid to a shape-shifting pool of liquid. Perhaps, then, gallium is reflective of a late 20th century ethos, exhibiting the treachery and betrayal you’d find in a Tom Clancy or John le Carré spy novel.
[For the record, cesium and francium melt around the same temperature as gallium. No need to worry about liquid francium, though; it has a halflife of 22 minutes and can be created only by bombarding radon with neutrons in nuclear reactors, so it’s pretty hard to come by and won’t be around long enough to be an issue. But cesium, situated towards the bottom of the alkali metals, concerns me. It comes in radioactive flavours, spontaneously bursts into flame in air (TIL the terrifying word “pyrophoric”), and explodes on contact with water. Although there may be exceptions if you’re searching for petroleum, building an atomic clock, repairing a generator, or engaged in limited other (dangerous) activities, cesium is probably not your friend, and I don’t even want to think about liquid cesium, so yikes, let’s not go there.]
For a while now, but especially since October 7, I’ve been feeling like we live in an age of gallium. So much of what I’ve taken for granted as solid and true – from how the world works to human nature to personal relationships to individual priorities – has proven to be more malleable and protean than I’d imagined, to the point that I sometimes feel like the victim of an elaborate deception. Democratic norms and rules of civil society have weakened and subsided, and committed civil libertarians become would-be iron-fisted dictators and revert back in the course of a single conversation. As climate change becomes more apparent, even the weather is fickle – didn’t it snow more when we were young, why won’t it stop raining this spring, and was August always this gross? The temperature has crossed the metaphorical 29 °C threshold, and suddenly, everything is a whole lot less sturdy and a whole lot more unstable.
Happenings in the wider world are, as usual, mirrored in Jewish spaces. Until recently, those of us facing left politically held treasured relationships and built productive partnerships with progressive groups; many of those have now evaporated. (I know, that’s when a liquid becomes a gas, and gallium doesn’t boil until 2403 °C/4357 °F, so apologies for mixing metaphors.) Meanwhile, right-facing Jews believed friction with Palestinians could be contained while ties with other Arab countries yielded fruit; that’s proven disastrously mistaken. Old alliances are scrambled; I read commentators I’ve loathed for years and think, “Hm, they actually have a good point,” prompting me to shower immediately using the coarsest loofah or even pumice. As this sampling shows, Jews have no immunity to either displaying or bearing the impact of the world’s and humanity’s new-found capriciousness.
Such rapid transformations are especially visible on campus, where free speech and prohibition advocates exchange positions with dizzying speed. From a Jewish perspective, we were certainly aware of antisemitism on campus before, but HIllel Ontario’s statistics illustrate a broader point: since October 7, more than three times as many incidents of antisemitism have been reported than in the entirety of the 2022-2023 school year. Anecdotally, students who once felt at home at their schools are looking to transfer, and parents who prioritized academic possibilities now pointedly and anxiously ask, “Which school will keep my child safe?”
The response to this epidemic of bigotry has been even more alarming: many – though not all – university and college administrators regularly show their spines are tin, not titanium, and demonstrate disappointingly little bravery or consistency in their replies. The ham-handed answers of Amy Magill, (now former) president of my alma mater, about anitsemitism at the University of Pennsylvania are a particularly egregious and deflating example, but hardly the only one or the worst. It feels as if, overnight, institutions of higher education have gone from vaunted places of learning with antisemitism as light seasoning to a chaotic free-for-all where Jews are frequent targets without institutional comfort or meaningful consequences.
In this season of gallic (the metal, not the French or plant galls) dominance, all reverberations and mutations seem exaggerated and extreme. Glass doesn’t break or crack; it shatters. Buildings don’t decay; they crumble and implode. Similarly, individuals who are sensible, smart, and rational in most settings become reactive, foolish, and even mildly unhinged, grounding their words, decision making, and expectations in their anxiety. To be fair, this is absolutely understandable. Many of us are feeling disoriented, angry, frightened, depressed, threatened, and vulnerable in this moment, an emotional state that reflects both previous antisemitic encounters and the trauma narratives we’ve inherited from past generations; to paraphrase Nicholas van Orten in The Game, we are extremely fragile right now.
However, those aiming to prevent and combat antisemitism – including many I have tremendous respect for – regularly suggest tactics and strategies that objective, analytical consideration would reject out of hand and that probably would make campus more Jewishly hostile. (We’ve started calling these temporary bouts of madness Antisemitism Response Derangement Syndrome; although it’s not listed in the DSM-5, maybe ARDS will appear in the next edition. Hardly a joking matter, I know, but how else to describe the knee-jerk, emotion-driven reaction of otherwise thoughtful, intelligent people?) As much as I empathize, trauma-based decisions are often disastrous, and many of these are no exception: regardless of the offense’s impact and the justness or efficacy of the proposed consequence, no professor will be fired for uttering “Palestine” in class, no student will get expelled for wearing a keffiyeh, and no staff person is subject to arrest for using pan-Arab colours as an Instagram motif – certainly not in the time frame frequently demanded – and devoting substantial energy to these objectives is folly. In short, with so much in a state of flux, we won’t make campus – or the world – safer or more welcoming for Jews through impulsivity or recklessness or by externalizing our dread or fury in unhealthy fashions. Absolute, complete justice will come in the messianic age (it’s unclear what will happen to gallium at that time – liquid or solid: you decide); in the interim, instead of panicked overreach that leads to failure, let’s direct our attention, strength, and logic to the sadly abundant actionable episodes of antisemitism and achievable goals.
It seems unlikely the gallium around us will be congealing anytime soon; nothing foretells a chilly spell to return matter/s to a solid state, and it’s more probable that additional concepts, people, and entities we’re leaning against for support will collapse under our weight. But ask any blacksmith (which, for the sake of authorial honesty, I actually haven’t done) whether it’s easier to shape and mold a liquid or a solid, and I’m guessing (with some confidence) that they’ll say a liquid. For that reason, it’s worth considering where we can capitalize on this newfound fluidity because, at least in principle, an age of gallium also presents openings for progress.
As we adjust to the new reality, my list of questions and opportunities is short, but growing: Who might have been indifferent to or in denial about antisemitism before now, but is now open to learning more? What methods for teaching, preventing, and fighting antisemitism were previously unsuccessful, but today hold promise? What further changes can we predict, anticipate, and preemptively adapt to? And if we’re going to preserve what remains of civil discourse, how do we nurture and sustain constructive conversations across differences, and who will be our allies in this essential endeavour?
Candidly, I don’t like this age of gallium. The volatility scares me, I’m anxious about touching anything lest it fall apart and be my fault (like a lot of our IKEA furniture at home), and my mind can’t calibrate and recalibrate quickly enough to correct all the emotional and psychological disequilibria. (A close family member has encouraged me to take up knitting as a coping mechanism; so far, I’ve produced a hat that looks like it was fought over by dogs and attempted a square dishcloth that came out triangular and curved like a blue Georgian wig.) Gallows humour (as scattered throughout this essay) is the norm as I sleep less and text more.
But I might as well get used to it and make the best of these circumstances. Because as disconcerting and bewildering as an age of gallium – replete with uncertainty, unpredictability, and impermanence – might be, I really really hope we aren’t careening towards an age of cesium. That would be infinitely, explosively, and pyrophorically worse.