Audrey Levitin

Antisemitism and Remembering Who We Are


I have felt it for a while. A drip, drip, drip of encounters large and small, evidence that the world is less safe, less supportive, less friendly toward the Jewish people.

Over the summer, I went to a Middle Eastern restaurant. The food is fabulous and the venue pretty, with stone floors, colorful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, maroon cushioned booths and red brick walls. In the summer there is a courtyard in the back. A smiling waiter was standing by, leaning over as he pointed out different recommended items on the menu. He had white hair and a mustache, and easily held our attention as he explained the specials. Someone asked “Is a shepherd salad the same as an Israeli salad?” The waiter’s posture changed; his face hardened.  He said he didn’t know. He backed away from the table.  His pleasant demeanor was replaced by a palpable dislike for us and he seemed to struggle to maintain his professionalism.

I felt it in a writing class where students critique one another’s essays. A classmate’s piece focused on his view that Christianity perpetrated human rights violations as a result of its theological ties to Judaism. I confronted the underlying antisemitism in his thesis.

I feel it when I use Yiddish phrases or say mazel tov to non-Jews, many of whom no longer seem particularly charmed by my Judaism.

I feel it when I see the police presence and security guards at synagogue, hear about a swastika on a synagogue lawn, take in the FBI threat warnings, and finally when a Molotov cocktail is thrown at a local congregation.

On October 7th, the hostility hovering either beneath the surface or spilling over in acts of vandalism exploded into an unrestrained celebration of antisemitism.

My colleague Tom Watson said in his column, The Liberal, “Pure ice-cold antisemitism is guiding a lot of what you’re reading and seeing in the last week. It’s crude hatred of Jews for being Jews.”

The attack on Israel is most shocking for its choice of victims and gleeful sadism; 1,400 people murdered — teenagers at a concert, beheadings of infants, the rape of women, the murder of entire families, and the taking of over 220 people as hostages.

The response has been stunning including the confidence among students that their support for the pogrom would be met with approval at their universities. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that the slaughter of Jewish people, or anyone for that matter, would be celebrated in Times Square, and on a wide range of college campuses, supported by 36 student groups at Harvard, or considered ‘exhilarating’ by a Cornell professor.

The enthusiasm continues with each passing week. Protesters chant “from the river to the sea,” essentially calling for the elimination of the State of Israel and affirm mass murder with the slogan “By Any Means Necessary”.  Jewish students at Cooper Union had to shelter in place in a library while pro-Palestinian demonstrators pounded on the door  As I write this, Cornell had to close its kosher dining area. This week, 130 faculty members at Columbia University signed a letter referring to Hamas’ massacre of babies, children, and entire families along with the kidnapping of civilians as a military action.

The hurt perhaps is deepest for those of us with alliances in social justice allies. Eric Speigelman, a podcaster in Los Angeles said of the Democratic Socialists of America “It’s like I belong to the political organization that believes in three things: affordable housing, raising the minimum wage, and the wholesale murder of Jews.”

There it is.

As I move through the disorientation and trauma, I am reflecting on what there is to do and how to be during this time of anguish when the humanity of the Jewish people as individuals, as a community, and as a people are under assault.

Being Jewish is a privilege I would never give up for all the safety and acceptance in the world.

I look for people who can model bravery and articulate my feelings. A remarkable example is Dr. Mijal Bitton, a Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute. At a rally outside of her Alma Mater at New York University, she introduced herself as a Latina immigrant, and a Middle Eastern brown Sephardic Jew. Our rabbi shared her words with us at Shabbat services. A video of her speech is here.

Dr. Bitton spoke with fury, indignation and moral clarity about what the Jewish people face, repeating with rage and despair over and over again, something I have been asking myself, “What is this? What is this? What is this?”

“What is this?”  It is the most fierce and shameless expression of antisemitism since the 1930s being given a home at American universities.

Dr. Bitton spoke with passion about Judaism, drawing courage from our tradition.  Some excerpts are here:

“We are the children of Abraham and Sarah who stood alone against an entire pagan world.”

“We are the children of Moses who stood up to Pharaoh and taught the world about the meaning of freedom.”

“We are the children of Queen Esther, who stood alone in the palace courageous and brought down Haman. ”

“We are the children of Jewish history.”

“And we are the children of a new time in Jewish history and the children of the Zionist Founders.”

“We are the children of American Jewish Leaders who helped to make the American dream available for all citizens.”

“We will not be afraid.”

“We will not abandon Israel in her hour of need.”

While fury and indignation fuel the courage needed during this time, I cannot allow myself to be consumed by the intensity of those feelings.  I need the comfort of Jewish life which I find in community and observance. Shabbat is an opportunity for both. Each week, I prepare our table with Challah and wine and light candles, say the blessings, sing, and give thanks. On Saturday, I wake up and head over to synagogue, walk in and take in the musty familiar smell and am comforted by the people I see week in and week out. I find reassurance in the rows of wooden pews, the deep purple rug, the eternal light above the bimah. This week an empty chair was placed on the bimah to remember one hostage and blue ribbons were available to wear in dedication to their safe return. It is good to be with people as we go through this dreadful time together.

This week, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the threat against Jews “is reaching, in some way, sort of historic levels.” He went on “the Jewish community is “targeted by terrorists really across the spectrum including homegrown violent extremists, foreign terrorist organizations, and domestic violent extremists.  In fact, our statistics would indicate that for a group that represents only about 2.4% of the American public, they account for something like 60% of all religious-based hate crimes,”

The cause of antisemitism is not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it is antisemites and their enablers. Many of the people running our institutions of higher education have failed in their responsibility to defend human rights, diversity, democracy and the safety of their students.  Instead they have made common cause with violent ideologies that scapegoat Israel for the entire history of colonialism.

It is not like me to be bitter.

My faith speaks against bitterness.

The great challenge is to see our shared humanity beyond this moment, and hope that out of the ashes something better will come.  In the meantime, the honor of being Jewish sustains me and allows me to accept that with the privilege, comes the obligation to affirm life during this very dark time.

About the Author
Audrey Levitin is a Senior Consultant at CauseWired, a firm working with human rights and civil liberties organizations. For 15 years she was the Director of Development at the Innocence Project. She served as Co-Chair of US/Israel Women to Women, now a project of the National Council of Jewish Women. She is an essayist and her work has been seen in the Star Ledger, The Forward, MetroWest Jewish Week, and Cape Cod Life. She and her husband, photographer Nick Levitin live in West Orange, New Jersey.
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