We know it from the little hairs on our arms when we pass the security guards while dropping our kids at school or at synagogue or at our community centers, balancing the relief of their presence and the foreboding of their necessity. We know it from our lowered heads and averted eyes when we walk down the street amidst protesters screaming for the destruction of the world’s one Jewish state, and half the world’s Jews who live within it, our families. Watching fellow citizens cosplaying and celebrating those who raped, tortured, and butchered our families mere days ago, and who continue to do so. We know it from our quickened heart rate and sense of dread as we pass signs with painted swastikas equated to the Star of David, the same one dangling from the chain hidden beneath our sweaters. We shiver at the knowledge that our compatriot took the time to dip their brush in paint and swipe it across the poster board bought for this purpose, etching the crooked lines of that symbol which fills our nightmares alongside the symbol which, though imperfect, fills us with hope. The intimacy of this act. The coldness.
We find ourselves dizzy at the recycled blood libel of Jews stealing organs and reveling in the killing of babies, and at the ignorance of those hurling the blood libel, not knowing they are plagiarizing ancient venom, perhaps not knowing where it inevitably leads. We know it from the sweetness of a friend’s rare public expression championing our right to live free of harassment and violence, thrown into sharp relief by the silence of most others, and the bitter taste of indignity left on the tongue for feeling so grateful for a mere recognition of our humanity. We know it from the internal storm of exasperation, fear, and shame when we seek to explain our history, our identity, our grief, yearning to be seen, only to be cast as a caricature in someone else’s story. We know it from the heartbreak of becoming less credible overnight, as influencers and megaphones become more worthy of belief than our own lived experience. Denied something so personal by someone for whom, often, this is all so impersonal. Denied ownership of our identity. We’ve been here before.
This knowledge is in our blood because we’ve paid for it with blood. Though we’ve only seen it play out in full in the monochrome photographs of our parents or grandparents, and in the images born of stories told around kitchen tables, our bodies somehow remembered, instincts intact like wounded animals, learned from generation upon generation of neighbors turning their backs and closing their windows to drown out our screams.
One of the more common remarks I’ve heard from my Jewish friends since October 7 is their surprise at how quickly this “knowing,” so foreign on October 6, returned to them so vividly. This buried ancient part of ourselves so tightly bound up in who we are. We watch the incremental escalation of what you deem permissible, what has become normalized today that was not yesterday, seeping slowly into the earth of your daily travails, unnoticed, unexpressed. We read the stories each morning, thinking, surely now, with a kind of pathetic pleading, but somehow, no, it was still not enough to stir you to speak out and demand more. We look to our left and to our right and see only one another. We wonder what heinous act is required for the law to be enforced against those who incite violence and hatred against us in the same way it would be applied for the benefit of others in this country.
We wonder when our leaders, across institutions and governments, will recognize that failing to enforce the rules has emboldened those seeking to continue testing the limits of aggression and violence and intimidation. We wonder when our leaders will notice that failing to act definitively delivers the message that some folks in this country are unworthy of protection. And the thought lingers at the edges of our minds that perhaps we are further along than we thought, like a frog in boiling water, and the pendulum has already swung too far. We’ve been here before.
We hear you, our friends, say, “I can’t take a position,” about the acts aimed at us on our streets, in our homes, because you will be seen as picking a side in a conflict far away. You feel unable to take a position condemning the intimidation and violence against a Jewish minority, which, in Canada, where I live, constitutes less than 1% of the Canadian population and who, prior to October 7, was on the receiving end of two-thirds of all religious-based hate crimes in this country. It matters not to your logic that this number has grown exponentially since October 7. Some of you only feel able to condemn acts of violence that target us in concert with condemnation of “Islamophobia and all other forms of hatred,” at times to the point of absurdity following attacks explicitly targeting Jews or the raising of swastikas. Driven by the instinctive understanding that condemning violence against Jews requires air cover. Perhaps blind to how this generalization, this “All Lives Mattering,” trivializes our specific experience. Jewish life and dignity, we understand, are only worthy of protection when lumped with another group that is suffering, rather than on the basis of one’s humanity.
You fail to see how baked within this logic of “I can’t take a position” on antisemitism is the admission that acts of violence and incitement against Jews are mitigated by the perpetrator’s views on Israel. There is a whispered calculus which informs your refusal to “pick a side” on violence targeting Jews, that the law should apply less stringently to perpetrators of violence against us than to those against other marginalized groups, when those acts are committed in the broad context of “the conflict.” Within this logic too lies a corollary requirement that Jewish people denounce a key aspect of our identity — the belief in the right and survival of Jewish self-determination in parts of our ancestral homeland — to prove ourselves worthy of safety and protection in this country. You fail to see how much power you have in the valuation of our lives. We’ve been here before.
We wonder if our grandchildren will ask, decades from now: Why didn’t you just leave? Couldn’t you see the writing on the wall? How those of us remaining will struggle to explain how our entire reality flipped, day became night, earth became sky, and everything familiar and safe and ours, became dangerous and hateful and foreign. So quickly. You don’t understand. We couldn’t see the big picture. We thought we were one of them. We recognize the slow degradation of our own humanity in your eyes, scrolling through, walking by, to words that would have once shocked you, and we know it is this that lines the path to evil.
But you don’t know it. You don’t know that within the seemingly innocuous post you shared lies an ancient dog whistle that prepares the groundwork for our dehumanization because you haven’t taken the time to understand our history, nor your words. You don’t know how to recognize the potential of the ugliness that is brewing inside you, in your silence, and in your failure to see your own responsibility to speak. But we do. And it is time that you listen to us and let us have a say in defining our own persecution and the composition and contours of our identity.
It is time you learn from us about our lived experience and the deeply complex and historical hatred that is woven into the fabric of our society and permeates both ends of the political spectrum. It is time for you to cease tokenizing Jewish voices that are clearly unrepresentative just to avoid wrestling with the complexity and pervasiveness of this hatred. It is time for you to stop erasing Jewish pain in service of your own politics. And if our explanations do not reconcile with your politics, let that be the impetus for curiosity, genuine exploration, and introspection, and not an erasure of our experience. Let that be a signal to learn and not to preach.
So much of the panic Jewish people are experiencing now is rooted in a sense of helplessness that is written into us, that has been awoken so abruptly, like a dormant gene that has been switched on. This knowing that we have no agency over our destiny. Knowing that our fate, the fate of our children, are not in our own hands, but in yours. We must convince you of our right to live. We must convince our politicians of that right, and to enforce existing laws to protect us, as we have had to do for thousands of years. And we know that we may not be able to convince any of you because our numbers are few, diluted easily by the voices of hatred, disinformation, and propaganda, and we have little to offer in the political calculus. We need to be useful and calm and reasonable, even in the face of barbarity. That is an ancient trauma we thought we were free of. Knowing that it is alive and well and took so little time to reawaken is the deep wound we Jewish people are bearing.
The reason we demand clear moral statements and a demarcation of the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not, and for these boundaries to be expressed and enforced by our leaders, our schools, our labour unions, our colleagues, is because we know where we are heading. We have been here before.