Yonatan Birnbaum

Ignorance is our Worst Enemy

A Lingering Memory

Around 9 years ago, my wife and I flew to America for the first time since my wife and I got married. As part of the trip, we decided to visit my non-Jewish relatives who owned a dairy farm out in rural Pennsylvania. What happened there stuck with me until today.

It was winter time; the landscape the following morning was covered with icy frost stretching out for miles over slumbering cornfields. The putrid smell of cow manure slightly subdued against the chilly air. We all gathered for the first time since the long drive to have breakfast; my parents, aunt and uncle, my disabled grandmother, my wife and myself. The lines of tefillin were still etched into the skin of my dad and myself as we had both just privately davened in the seclusion of the adjacent living room. Grandma didn’t notice though, nor much of anything at that point. She was in a degraded state of stupor with little hope we would see her again alive. Yet, even though the obvious tendency was to put most of our focus on her, my Israeli wife on the other hand, whose complexion actually contrasted the snow outside, very soon became the center of attention. 

“From Mennonite to Yemenite!” my dad chuckled in his deep New York accent, in the same type of jingle as the coined phrase, “Festivus, for the rest of us!” That immediately elicited a round of laughter from everyone. Soon, my wife began to describe her family history. Her father moved to Israel with his family at an unclear age, perhaps around the age of 2 from Yemen (nobody at the time thought it would be worthwhile to record his day or year of birth for that matter). Her mother was in fact Israeli-born but her parents were the ones that packed and left, at the time with her older siblings. My uncle and aunt listened attentively during the whole story. They were captivated. And when my wife finished, my Aunt, bless her soul, looked up at my wife…and with the most sincere amount of curiosity, asked her,

 “So, why did they leave Yemen?” 

Reality Check

After that encounter, I really had to take time to grasp how much we, as people, just really don’t know the past of others let alone of our own. It’s not even that my extended family is particularly insulated. If anything, they actually are one of the most worldly people I know. There was another attendee at that breakfast that I failed to mention; a Chinese immigrant, who they sponsored and hosted in their own home so he could study freely in an American college. So, it’s clear they are familiar with the plight of others. 

But, as a whole, I think that Jewish antisemitism tends to begin and end with only one event; the Holocaust. The plethora of events in which Jews were persecuted beyond Nazi-occupied Germany between 1939-1945 seem vacant. 

Take the “Farhud“, for instance. In 1941, inspired by Nazi propaganda, a pogrom was unleashed in Baghdad, Iraq killing somewhere between 200-600 Jews. It was Shavuot night and without much warning, thousands of Arabs armed with swords took to the streets for a series of massacres that would last for two days. Homes were looted, property burned, women raped. The heart-wrenching story of Oct. 7th in which a Jewish woman was sexually mutilated before being killed has chilling resemblance to a similar event during the act of genocide, 82 years before. If one were to ask how many people in the world are aware of this historical event, perhaps it would reach single digits. 

I mentioned Yemen before. In early December, 1947 at least 80 Jews were killed in Eden following the UN Partition Plan. The ones who initially did the killing were a group of Bedouin soldiers, the Aden Protectorate Levies, that the UK sent specifically to protect the Jews. Afterwards, more of the local Arabs got on the bandwagon and began a series of looting, burning and murdering themselves. Again, knowledge of this pogrom in practically non-existent. 

I focused up until now on events that occurred mostly in Arab countries but Europe, even before the Holocaust, was no stranger to Jewish persecution. Some are highly familiar with the pogroms that occurred in czarist Russia. They were pretty horrible but most of them had a death toll that one could count with two hands. Yet, what happened in the pogroms between 1918-1921 in the Pale of Settlement, what is now modern day Ukraine, would only be outdone by what would happen on the same soil, 20 years later. Within 4 years, over 2,000 incidents of looting, burning, raping and murdering occurred via neighboring peasants and occasionally soldiers against the Jews living in the cities of Ukraine. October 7th, or some form of it, was an almost daily occurrence for the Jews in this community. February 15th, 1919, however, shared the most horrible amount of similarities to Israel’s darkest day in history. Within 4 hours, a band of soldiers of the new independent army of Ukraine, went door to door in the town of Proskuriv, stabbing, shooting and pillaging any Jew they could find. A total of 1,500 Jews were killed. Their women were raped and their homes were looted. When the dust finally settled in 1921 and many had already escaped to Russia or Germany, 100,000 Jews of the 3 million living in the region, had been killed, either directly or through starvation due to the pogroms of that period. 

The Sad Truth

Unfortunately, proof that the world has wished to see us extinct is prevalent even without taking into account the Holocaust. Many would like to accuse that it’s specifically because of the creation of the state that we are suffering the state we are in. Yet, as I have tried to show in this essay, Jews are actually living in the safest of times in the modern era. This is without mentioning the executions of children unwilling to convert to Islam in the late 19th century Morocco, the riots in Hebron of 1929, the independent massacres in Poland in the early 1940’s disconnected from German forces, the persecution of Jewry in Soviet Russia, and of course Hitler. With the recent popularity and interest in the conflict of Israel and Gaza, the vacuum of knowledge many, including young American Jews, uphold make them all the more susceptible to believing that Hamas and Oct 7th was legitimate. If one is unaware that pogroms of all sorts have arisen in so many instances in the past against Jews due to nothing more than baseless hatred and a thirst for death, then phrases such as “they didn’t happen in a vacuum” or “counter-attack” don’t seem so preposterous. For those  who do know, it’s the same monster with the same tricks, just a different face. 

About the Author
Raised in Baltimore and an oleh since 2008, I now work for a yeshiva in the old city. Aside from being a dedicated husband and father, I spend my free time biking throughout Jlem and practicing Capoeira.
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