Eytan Uliel

I’ve taken the red pill and I don’t like it – what your Jewish friends are feeling

I haven’t written anything for more than a week now, because I have been depressed. And I have been depressed because I’ve been feeling a bit like Neo in The Matrix must have felt, having just taken the red pill and seeing, for the first time, the ugly world as it truly is.

Let me explain.

I grew up in a world where one of the foundational pillars to my life was that I was a Jewish-Australian-Israeli, and that there was nothing wrong with being that.

Sure, I was aware that once upon a time the world was a place where many people hated Jews for no reason other than their being Jewish. In that world, my Ashkenazi ancestors in Russia and Poland, and my Sephardi ancestors in Spain and then Morocco, were persecuted, exiled and killed, just because they were Jews. In that world, my grandparents’ entire families were wiped out by Nazis and their collaborators, just for being Jews. In that world a sensible Jew always had a go-bag packed, lest today be the day that ‘they’ suddenly decide to come for ‘us’.

But in my life thus far, this sense of Jewish “existential dread” has always happily been a thing of the past. An artefact of the primitive world into which my grandmother had been born, whereas those of my generation were the fortunate ones, born into a new, modern, infinitely more enlightened world. A global community in which nations and people have moved on from the mistakes of the past, and where Israel exists as the ultimate guarantor of Jewish liberty and safety.

So, whilst I knew that from time to time I’d encounter individual anti-Semites in my day-to-day life, and that at every party there would always be a buffoon in the corner making an inappropriate joke about Jews, by and large my world view has always been different to that which I imagined to be the world view of Jews in times gone by. Unlike them, I could live my life as a Jew in Israel, or Australia, or anywhere else in the modern world, safe in the knowledge that I would never have to experience what my grandmother experienced. I need never feel worried or scared, simply because I identify as Jewish.

Yet now, in the space of eight short weeks, unimaginable, unthinkable things have happened. And, as a result, it feels like all that I thought I knew about being a Jew in today’s world has been fed into a mincer, and shredded.

Again, let me explain.

On October 7th Israel was attacked by Hamas in a brutal, unprecedented way. Not just in terms of Israel, but in terms of anything our Western, civilized societies have ever seen before.

That is, whilst there have been many terrorist atrocities around the world over the last decades, I struggle to think of any others where the sheer savagery of what Hamas did was on display. Where people were not only murdered in large numbers, but then their bodies were defiled, families were bound up and mass executed, babies were burned, pregnant women were sliced open, young girls were gang-raped, toddlers and elderly people taken as hostages. And to top it all off, where the perpetrators made a point of actively videotaping, broadcasting and celebrating their barbarism.

On its own this would have been more than enough to throw me – and every Jew I know – into a complete tailspin. Because despite everything I have been taught about the past, if I have to be truly honest, in my worst nightmares I never imagined that a pogrom could really happen in the present.

Yet, it did happen. One of the very worst things my grandmother ever spoke to me of, and which I always assumed was something that had been relegated to the darkest pages of history, has now occurred. In broad daylight. And in Israel, no less – the one place on earth where this kind of thing simply should not happen.

So, to my shock, surprise and horror, I have had to rapidly process that “Never Again” – a mantra on which much of my sense of personal safety depends – does not, in fact, actually mean “never again”.

And that realization, depressing as it is, isn’t even the real kick in the guts.

You see I, like almost every other Jew, believed that in this instance, right versus wrong could never have been clearer. I knew that Israel would retaliate against Hamas, there was going to be a war, there would be hardship and casualties, and the usual anti-Israel rhetoric would surface. But in common with every other Jew I know, I believed that for once, given the self-evidently evil nature of what Hamas did, decent people the world over would side firmly with Israel and the Jewish people.

But no – what we have seen instead has been vast swathes of “decent society” doing the exact opposite, and making the unfathomable choice – knowingly or in ignorance – to side with Hamas.

Across the world, hundreds of thousands of people have chosen this moment of all moments to mobilize and protest, doing so in the name of Palestinian solidarity, but almost always expressing that solidarity by wishing for the extermination of Israel as a country, and by definition of all the Jews who live there. (Which in my case strikes pretty close to home, given that calling for Palestine to be “free, from the river to the sea”, essentially means that all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives, and many of my friends, would need to die or disappear to assuage this demand.)

Across the world, respectable global organizations, politicians, celebrities, commentators and journalists have talked endlessly about all the ‘wrongs’ being perpetrated by Israel in the weeks since October 7th, but with barely a nod to the unmitigated horror that we all saw on October 7th.

These same global organizations, politicians, celebrities, commentators and journalists, always so quick to speak up for justice and “what’s right”, have in this case instead sought to draw equivalences where none exist, have questioned the veracity of atrocities documented on video by Hamas themselves, have systematically sought to gas-light the feelings and experiences of Israelis and Jews, and have conditioned almost every response to Hamas’ actions with the phrase: “really terrible what happened, but….” Plus, they have done so when we all know that they would never, in a year of a thousand Sundays, apply the same “nuanced approach” if this had happened to anyone else, anywhere else.

I expected my non-Jewish festival friends – people I have met over the years at Burning Man and Tomorrowland and Rainbow Serpent, folks otherwise so full of love and light for the international EDM festival culture – to be in uproar over hundreds of their “festival family” being murdered doing what we’ve all done countless times before: dancing in a field at sunrise. Instead: crickets.

I expected my non-Jewish intellectual and “progressive” friends, who have spent their lifetimes arguing, debating and championing countless causes, to take to social media and TV and newspapers and unequivocally condemn what is self-evidently indefensible – as they have so often in the past. But on this occasion, seemingly unique amongst all other occasions, they have instead felt the need to be “restrained”, to show “balance”, and to offer “context”.

I expected my feminist friends – strong women who over the years have ripped my head off at the slightest inappropriate or misguided comment uttered in my ignorance, and who have attended more women’s rights marches than I can recall – to be screaming from the rooftops about the mass sexual assaults perpetrated on Israeli women by Hamas terrorists. Instead, their lack of voice has been staggering. It really does seem like a case of #metoounlessurajew.

And, as if emboldened by all this moral unclarity, silence and sheer hypocrisy, naked anti-Semitism has emerged to fill the void.

Thus, in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, a mob gathered at the Sydney Opera House on October 8th chanting “Gas the Jews”. My favorite Israeli-style restaurant, just up the road from my house, was spray-painted with anti-Semitic graffiti. In the local supermarket, hummus tubs made by a Jewish-owned business have had stickers placed on them warning shoppers not to buy products that “support Genocide”. Families of Israeli kidnap victims, in Australia as guests of the Jewish community, were forced to hide in their hotel rooms after pro-Palestinian protestors heckled and threatened and threw dolls of bloodied babies at them.

The front wall of the local council building in the Sydney suburb I grew up in was spray-painted with the words “Free Palestine” – for no reason other than the council area has a high number of Jewish residents. Pro-Palestinian groups in Sydney and Melbourne have made a point of taking their protests to the city’s Jewish neighborhoods – clearly motivated less by a desire to show their support for the Palestinian cause, and more by a desire to intimidate Jews in general.

And then, rather than punishing the provocateurs, our police have sought to appease the mob. For example, making a synagogue in Melbourne, not far from where my children live, suspend its Saturday prayer service on “security grounds”. Or warning Jews to avoid walking around downtown Sydney when protests are happening, because their security cannot be assured.

Or like in London, where I spend so much of my time, and where for the first time since 1948 the city has cancelled the Jewish community’s public Channukah lighting ceremony, out of “security concerns” (rather than push on with the ceremony and bring in the riot squad, and army if needed, to safeguard it).

Or like in Los Angeles, where a dear friend who runs a beauty salon has seen her business fall 50% in the last 2 months, because many of her “A-list” film industry clientele feel entitled to openly say that they will not support a Jewish business. In L.A., for God’s sake! A progressive city with a huge Jewish population where this sort of thing, until eight weeks ago, would have been beyond my wildest imaginings.

And it continues like this, be it on streets or in classrooms or in public spaces, and whether from Paris to Sao Paolo to Johannesburg to New York. All around the world posters of Jewish hostage victims are being ripped down or defaced. Jewish kids have been barricaded into their classrooms by their fellow students on college campuses in the USA. Shops in various places have felt emboldened enough to hang up signs showing a Star of David with a line though it – “we don’t serve Jews here”. A mob in a Russian airport prowled around looking for Jews to lynch.

And as this goes on, and keeps spreading, I find myself thinking: “Is this what it felt like to be Jewish in the mid-1930s in Germany?” Witnessing, with almost no warning, rabid Jew-hatred emerging from every shadow. And being shocked and shaken, not because it was unexpected, but because (if I have to be perfectly honest) I never actually believed it existed in this way at all.

You see, instead of the cosy state of mind I have lived in for fifty years, I have now been forced to acknowledge something completely new, and scary (for me at least): my grandmother was right. Mainstream anti-Semitism is there, and has always been there, lying just beneath the surface. And I have  therefore been the chump, because encased in the ease and comfort of my life, I just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see it.

I now know that it takes almost no encouragement at all for genuine, deeply-felt Jew-hatred to be unleashed, even in our multicultural, civilized and progressive societies. And that when it does happen, I can expect very little besides appeasement and tokenism from a well-meaning, but nonetheless acquiescent and thus de facto complicit, “silent majority”.

Despite everything I have ever believed, the “new” reality I have had to rapidly integrate these past few weeks is that, at the drop of a hat, a disturbingly large number of people will be willing to brand me as different and other, simply because I am a Jew. Just like my grandmother was branded in 20th century eastern Europe. Just like my great grandfather was branded in 19th century Morocco. And just like every other Jew has been branded, wherever in the world they have been, over the last 2,000 years. Nothing has really changed.

Yet even that isn’t the worst of it.

No, the absolute worst part of it all is that no matter how much I may wish otherwise, I can’t go back to the sense of blissful ignorance I enjoyed on October 6th. Because I’ve now swallowed the red pill – or more accurately, it has been rammed down my throat, even though I never asked for it. And, as a result, things in my world have changed forever, and irreversibly.

Much as I wish this was not the case, the reality is that I will never again be able to interact with anyone who has an Arabic name in Sydney without thinking to myself “were you one of those at the Opera House that day?” Because even though I truly wish I did not know this, I know do now (and can never unknow) that there are flesh-and-blood people in Sydney, sharing the air I breath and the community I live in, who actually wish to see me gassed.

I will never again be able to meet a primary school teacher in Australia without thinking to myself “were you one of those who decided to wear a keffiyah to class and teach seven-year-old children about the ‘genocide’ you say my family in Israel is committing?” I will never again be able to interview a college graduate for a job without wondering “were you one of those marching the streets calling for the destruction of Israel, and the death of all those I care about?

I will forever now feel a twinge of added anxiety when handing over my passport at a border, knowing that it identifies me as having been born in Israel. I will always feel a slight hint of unease when a waiter looks at my name on a credit card, knowing that it clearly identifies me as Jewish.

I feel bad for even thinking these things, and I know that is almost certainly unfair to those I will think these things about. But I can’t help it: the events of the last eight weeks have forced these thoughts into my head. And I am pretty sure I am not alone in thinking these things and feeling this way; certainly I know that so many of my Jewish friends and colleagues are in exactly the same place.

It is like we have lived all of our collective lives thus far with rose colored glassed on, which have now been unceremoniously ripped away, to reveal a world much uglier than we thought we knew. A scary, frightening and threatening world that now seen, cannot ever be unseen.

So, whilst eventually this war will end, the consequences for me will be deep and enduring. Whatever happens, my world has forevermore changed. Things feel different now, and not in a good way. A bubble has burst, and I don’t know if or how it can ever come back.

And that, as realizations go, has been pretty fucking depressing.

About the Author
Eytan Uliel is an Australian-Israeli writer, wanderer and global traveler. After graduating from the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia, he practiced corporate law for several years, before moving on to a career in investment banking, private equity, and oil and gas finance. An extensive work travel schedule has taken Eytan to every corner of the globe – over 85 countries, and counting. His blog – The Road Warrior – chronicles these journeys through a series of short stories and essays, some of which have been republished in various magazines and newspapers. He is also the author of two award winning books. Eytan was born in Jerusalem, and has lived in South Africa, Australia, Singapore, the UK, The Bahamas, the USA and France.
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