Rachel Wahba

Anti-Semitism, Disavowal, and Remembering

“Ah, I used to think about anti-Semitism!” Dr. Ross exclaimed with a surprising burst of energy. I was there to see him for my migraine headaches, and he was studying the questionnaire I just completed.

To his question “What do you think about?” my response, “Anti- Semitism and Israel,” intrigued him.

“Thinking about anti-Semitism used to give me headaches too,” he shared, “but now, Ahhhhhhhh…” he inhaled deeply, and then after exhaling in an equally dramatic fashion, he said, “But now, I do Yoga.”

It was the mid-seventies in San Francisco, but even then, this was an unusual response from an M.D.

“When I was in medical school at Colgate University, I used to think about anti-Semitism…” he reflected.

Didn’t all Jews think about anti-Semitism, and wasn’t “Colgate” a toothpaste?

“Colgate” brought memories of shopping at the American Pharmacy with my mom in Kobe, Japan, to buy our American toothpaste. I loved breathing in the exotic “American’” scents of the products on the shelves.

As a young person in Japan, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in America someday, a place where I would meet Jews I didn’t already know. Our Jewish Community of Kansai was tiny, about 50 families at its height, living within the larger international community.

To come to America and be surrounded by “gaigin/foreigners,” would be a dream come true. As with most fantasies, the reality is more complex.

In Los Angeles, where I landed with my Red Cross papers (I was stateless), and student visa, I met “foreigners” and Jews who were strangers. It was thrilling, and of course there were issues.

Some Jews found my use of “Jew” offensive; I was told to use “Jewish,” instead.

Jews my age were second and third generation, taking being Jewish in an open society for granted. They found my enthusiasm strange. My background confused them, How could I be Jewish if my parents were from Egypt and Iraq? There was no such thing as an Arabic Jew. And no Yiddish in my background?

I grew up among Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. Most of us were stateless or refugees from Arab lands and Europe.We identified as Jews/Zionists, who knew Israel was central for our survival as a People, and vital to our self–esteem.

Today, many years after my visit with Dr. Ross, I find an even more disturbing dynamic of denial and disavowal taking place. Diluting “Jew” into “Jew-ish,” doesn’t go far enough in New Age inspired environments. I’ve been disrupted by one too many internationally known and respected “Bu-Jews” announcing they are “Jewish only on (their) parents’ sides.”

The disavowal and disrespect never fails to evoke laughter from the disproportionately large Jewish attendees readily mimicking the teachers.

Maybe it would be easier if I didn’t’ have the background of a stateless Iraqi-Egyptian Jew, with all the baggage and hardship my family and I suffered to stay connected to being Jews.Maybe it would be possible to laugh along with the crowd if the world was different, but it has changed little or not at all when it comes to anti-Semitism.

Our world has not given up Jew hating and Jew baiting as one of its favorite drugs.

The response to the recent war in Gaza is a painful reminder.We witnessed Jew hating episodes in major cities in Europe.We witnessed terrifying demands for the demise of Israel and the insanity of blaming Israel for Hamas’ sins.

Jewish congregants cried to their rabbis about losing their faith, about being unable to tolerate seeing Jews kill Palestinian children deliberately put in harm’s way by Hamas.

What was the choice here? Sit and wait for more rockets to rain on Jewish children and wait for the terror tunnels to be completed?

Hamas makes no pretense when it vows over and over again to destroy Israel no matter how many Palestinians it has to offer up as human ammunition in their cynically brutal PR war.Hezbollah and Iran openly threaten to destroy Israel and all Jews the moment they can.

We are faced today with a new insurgence of terrorists we call “Extremists,” who brutally rape, kidnap and murder Christians, ancient tribal minorities, and fellow Muslims deemed not Islamic enough. The horror stories are featured daily in the news.The others who we prefer to call “Moderates,” only support the murder of Jews and/or the destruction of Israel.

At the time I went to see Dr. Ross, the big lie imported from the Arab States’ PR victory in the United Nations of “Zionism is Racism,” permeated the atmosphere at San Francisco State where I was a student. Today Gaza has not only invigorated the big lie but added “Genocide” to further demonize and isolate Israel.

Thirty some years ago Dr. Ross demonstrated his disavowal. “Do Yoga instead,” he advised, “you don’t need to think about negative things like anti-Semitism.” He didn’t want the headache.

I couldn’t use his prescription.

Fortunately my headaches are better, and short of a lobotomy, I will never “stop thinking” about anti-Semitism or remembering the centrality of Israel in keeping us Jews as a People.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).