It is our collective denial in the pervasiveness of antisemitism that makes it so insidious.
Antisemitism is new for me. Like many others I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My mother’s parents were both sole survivors of their families. I comfortably relegated the holocaust echoes that bounced around my childhood as “Ima’s trauma.” When I wasn’t dismissing antisemitism entirely, I regarded it coldly, intellectually and at a distance. A tool used by certain regimes? Sure. Some deep part of civilization’s psyche, with a nearly mystical energy source? Absolutely not.
Over the past two years, this changed for me. Dara Horn’s book, People Love Dead Jews, ripped me to pieces and put me back together again, only to rip me apart once more. A dive into my grandmother’s family’s failed attempts to escape Austria and their choice to leave a daughter with gentiles made things more real for me. Traveling to Hungary with my family and feeling the scowls and sneers made it even more visceral. Being with my 10-year-old son in a coffee shop in eastern Europe and watching a hate filled barista refuse to make eye contact with me was a punch in the gut.
None of these new-found feelings made – or make – any sense to me. I’m not a hateable Jew. I am the beer-brewing, Koji-growing, cheese-making, people-loving American. “What is there to hate? I am one of you,” I felt. I had no idea what to make of this as my awareness and sensitivity to antisemitism continued to grow.
The cascade of events that began on October 7 changed the way I see myself. It wasn’t the slaughter of my people by hate-fueled murderers, nor the fear of multi-front war that got me. It wasn’t the shame of military loss or concern for our young soldiers. It wasn’t even the powerlessness of watching an unavoidable war that we wanted only to avoid. It was X (formerly Twitter). It was watching an eruption of good old Jew hatred from every corner of the world. Irrational, fervent, emphatic hatred of the Jewish people that showed up in every thread I read. Sometimes veiled, often not, always hatred. This rocked me to my core.
The idea that I was hated moved from something I knew to something I felt. Suddenly the holocaust was not a black swan, but rather part of a long history of mass murder, lynchings and explusions. The phrase “blood libel” moved from history books to the news. The energy that hating Jews carries, the wide tentacles of Jew hate that covered the entire world was magical. It is a mystical, dark force, thousands of years old and truly everywhere.
An identity of being “other” began to form for me. It felt deeply wrong. “I’m certainly not other,” my politically correct Long Island brain said. “You are a hated alien,” my shattered heart responded. The Jew as a different entity felt hopelessly old fashioned to me, yet this tidal wave of loathing started to become defining.
As my denial of antisemitism began to crumble, I began to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling to accept how powerful antisemitism is. I read a headline about The White House’s plan to address antisemitism on college campuses and I laughed out loud. Could anything be more futile? Are we one federal program away from convincing liberal Americans not to support baby-murdering rapists? Why are we all complicit in a pervasive denial of how deep in the collective gut antisemitism resides?
Aside from the broad, loud, and public hatred of Jews seen in every public sphere, it is intuitive that there is an even larger amount of Jew-hate sitting quietly in the shadows. And yet, and yet, Jew hate, in its raw and pure form, is deeply unacceptable in American society today. It has to be hidden in a more acceptable shell; anti-Zionism comes to mind. And in this lies the catch. Making a feeling unacceptable does not get rid of it. It simply suppresses it until the right setting lets it explode out of its shell. These explosions have been unpleasant for us throughout history.
To illustrate this from childhood psychology: if a caregiver communicates to a young child that anger is unacceptable, the child will learn that to express anger is unsafe, and will subconsciously bury access to that set of feelings. This has the potential to create a lifetime of consequences. Numbness, unexplained rage, depression, addiction just to name some of the options. Making feelings unacceptable invites repression, not integration and growth. Contrast this with recognizing that anger is real, acceptable and pervasive. We must educate skills for for managing anger, learning not to hurt others. But always, always based on an acceptance of what is.
We can bring this acceptance to antisemitism. Let’s accept, as a society, that antisemitism is real and that it isn’t going anywhere. Let’s establish that there is a difference between antisemitic sentiment and antisemitic behavior. Let’s let self-awareness guide people to being at peace with this dark set of feelings and have the ability to stay in control and make other choices.
This reaches farther into other darknesses inside of man. Xenophobia, homophobia, racism. It’s all there. Maybe it’s okay to have a dark side. Maybe only by accepting this darkness can we choose to live in the light. Maybe then we can, as a society and as individuals, learn skills to make choices that we are proud of despite the swirls of light and dark that lurk in our depths.
I don’t know if I am ready for the implications of this idea. I don’t know if I’m ready to hear a politician say “Sometimes I carry a hatred of Jews in my heart. I am not proud of it, and I commit to treating every Jewish constituent with all the care and attention that each of my constituents deserve.” Maybe we should be ready for this.
I truly hope that I am wrong. That antisemitism is an aberration that we can educate away. I don’t think it is, but maybe.