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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

Facing history, and Ilhan Omar

There was this famous accusation against the Jews in the Middle Ages that, as a Jewish history teacher, has always been one of my favorites to teach: the Blood Libel. Mainly because it’s the most ridiculous fantasy – that Jews annually killed Christian babies to use their blood to make matzo. It’s farcical. And yet, apparently ridiculous sells. The first known claim of a Blood Libel happened in England in 1148, and the most recent actual attack based on one was in 1946. That’s 800 years.

And, oh right, in 2015 one Hamas spokesperson was challenged by Wolf Blitzer because he said that “everyone knows” that the Blood Libel is historical fact. And throughout that 800 years, it was used whenever anyone needed a reason to get rid of a Jewish population that they didn’t like, or to drum up some convenient antisemitic fervour. You’re a nobleman who owes too much to a Jew? Bet he killed some babies yesterday. You’re the King of France and you want the Jews gone for economic reasons, but can’t just say that? Blood Libel to the rescue! You’re a bunch of Polish people, violently wracked by years of war, who are angry that “your Jew” came back from the Holocaust? Don’t ask questions, people. Just use that good old Blood Libel imagery, and you’re good to go.

And for Jews, it stuck around, nefariously, generation after generation. And there was little anyone could say or do to combat it — despite the fact that literally blood isn’t kosher so obviously that wasn’t a thing that was happening. But realities never made a shade of difference, because when you hate someone, and you just want to keep hating them, you’ll take any (even insane) reason to hand. 

The accusation of genocide in this war is going to be this generation’s blood libel. This week, Ilhan Omar actually denoted that of course all Jews should be protected, whether they’re “anti-genocide, or pro-genocide.” This smug, self-righteous, absolutely disgusting comment underpins the seriousness of the current situation. When did the mob just “get to decide” what is accurate and what is not? Even the ICJ couldn’t actually find evidence of genocide, the White House, the State Department, nobody. And I know that I say this ad nauseam, but the metrics around genocide are not even remotely applicable here. And yet. 

If a member of Congress of the United States feels enough legitimacy and support in her position that she can opine about Jews being either “pro” or “anti” genocide, based on our positions about whether or not we believe that Israel has the right to  both exist and defend itself, we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore. We’ve gone through a looking glass, or down a portal straight back to history. But now, instead of Jews being powerless to defend themselves against a mob shouting that they killed Christian babies in the name of religion, we’re increasingly defenseless against an accusation that we’re killing Palestinian babies in the name of sovereignty. 

This may be, in fact, worse than the original Blood Libel, because one could, to a certain extent, write off the Blood Libel as antiquated and something that was a relic of the past, a time before people had knowledge, information. But now we live in the information era, and there’s a hard core of the mob that has decided that we are genocidal — absent proof — and the algorithm on social media platforms, the Colbert Show when it gave AOC time, the media when it covers these encampments uncritically — this information is just being slowly churned out, the ultimate conspiracy theory given validation. And it is just being accepted, in certain circles, as fact.

So what happens when the war ends, and there are still two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip? Hamas even recently acknowledged that 11,000+ of their supposed victims (above and beyond the actual victims, no moral person can say that the death toll of people who have died in the war isn’t bad, albeit perhaps unavoidable) have been fabricated. That puts the death toll non-conservatively around … 23,000? Maybe? And Israel has documented some 12,000 Hamas operatives killed. So we’re looking at a civilian death toll of about the same. Is it bad? Yes. Is it genocide? No. Is it anything near traditional metrics of civilian deaths? Still no. But this accusation, like the Blood Libel, apparently doesn’t require proof. All it requires is hatred. At what point do people realize that the so-called genocide was fabricated? And, at what point, are apologies owed to us?

The genocidal blood libel also puts us into a lose-lose situation, where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. There’s no winning. I feel like my heart is breaking for the people in Israel and Gaza, but everyone has decided that if I support Israel’s right to exist, that must mean I’m pro-ethnic cleansing. It feels like wanting to have empathy, but you spend your time quibbling with people about death tolls because you’re being told that it’s a genocide — absent proof, context, explanation. And all you want to do is scream to the hills that it’s not genocide, and in doing so, people think that that means you don’t care about everyone who is actually dying in a war.

You want to reach out and participate in interfaith movements, you want to go beyond your community, but those communities are increasingly disinterested in meeting with you — because they don’t want to “normalize” Zionism, the Jewish right to self-determination, a fight that each and everyone’s ancestors at some point fought for themselves.

You want to hold true to who you are, to the things that make you human, but that humanity is being stripped away. You want to understand the position of those who disagree with you, but you can’t because you’ve come to realize that for some of them, your existence is what is in question. You want to sympathize with the Palestinian movement, because you do — because you understand why every good person on the other side of the divide is simply someone who wants to live, just like you do. But then you read the declarations on these encampments saying that the success of this movement is the destruction of Zionism. So, I guess dialogue is out? You want to cry all of the time because people feel that you are a permissible target, after years of studying the history of being the target, and you don’t understand how we’re already back here. 

You’re a historian so you know the history, and when you hear people shouting for you to “go back to Poland” — all you want to do is scream. Where you once laughed with your students about how ridiculous it is, the lies people believe about the Jews, all of a sudden you’re smack in the middle of perhaps the biggest lie. You’re so tired of people saying “Well, look at the root causes” of Palestinian terrorism and you want to shout back, does our history matter at all? Does it count for nothing that we spent two thousand years being attacked and hounded all over Europe, and we didn’t strap Molotov cocktails to ourselves and walk into a German beer hall. Like at a certain point, history doesn’t excuse terrorism. And if you are going to make an argument that a deep and terrible history of oppression understandably makes people have more of a need to defend that freedom, why does that apply to one group and not the other? 

You are so tired of hearing people talking about your so-called “white privilege” and “wealth” — as if that protects you. As if the Jews in Germany weren’t assimilated, wealthy, and ‘white’ before they were summarily ostracized, stripped of their rights, and then killed. You wonder aloud to your husband if you’re going to miss your window to leave, and that maybe you should leave now. You know the past: you know that the Jews of Europe were frogs in a pot of water that slowly started boiling around them, and by the time they realized they were in danger, it was already too late. They got caught, and you have learned so much from that history that there’s a part of you that wants to jump now because you’re determined to never be that frog again.

It feels like the mob has decided that you are one of two things: pro-genocide, or anti-genocide. And if you’re not with them, you’re against them. And if you’re against them, it’s open season. And everyone expects you, with your history, and your “whiteness” and your “Western-ness” to just take it lying down. Because you’re not allowed to fight back. Never have been. Not against the mob. Not when you’re coming up against another Blood Libel, against which there is no defence. At least not one that logic, reason, statistics and facts can support. And that now you are just another Jew, in the long history of them, who stare open-mouthed at the things that people can say about you, without any evidence, without proof, and have others just believe. Because that hatred is really all that it takes. 

And, word to the wise to the mob: just because you’re in the crowd, doesn’t make you automatically on the right side of history. Just ask anyone who went to the Nuremberg Rallies or joined the Hitler Youth. They too, shouted for the death of the Jews. You too, one day, will be in the dustbin of history.

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.