Hannah Pollak

October 7: The day my generation lost its innocence

I remember thinking to myself how fortunate I was to have been born after the end of millennia of overt Antisemitism. As I learned Tanach and Jewish History in high school, I saw the stark contrast between my reality and that of Jews who came before me. No Pharoah was trying to enslave me. No Amalek was targeting me. No Midyan was ambushing me. I felt so complacent, enjoying the comforts of my home and my life, practicing my religion in total freedom, not confined to the walls of the ghetto. I loved walking with my friends in our elegant Shabbos outfits in a neighborhood where most residents are not Jewish. I never gave a second thought to seeing my father and brothers wearing a kippah at the mall or my mother wearing a tichel in the supermarket. As I thought of all those who had to hide their Chanukah candles during the Inquisition or the Stalinist era, I got so excited each time I saw a giant Chabad Menorah in a park or an important street. 

In what seemed to me like Ancient History, Jews were not welcome in the world of academia. But that belonged in the past, right? Now my friends are allowed to study in the most prestigious universities, where they are given permission to miss class or exams if they clash with a Jewish holiday. I remember that feeling of contentment I sometimes had growing up, when I went to sleep without a worry in the world. I was never afraid of (nor thought about, to be honest) Crusaders or pogroms that could violently usurp my house or deeply injure my loved ones. I took for granted the fact that my brother was able to graduate high school, go to Yeshiva in Israel and confidently apply to college. Didn’t Jewish parents at some point used to live with a deep sense of dread that their sons would be drafted into the Czarist army? I felt  reassured that I could travel or settle wherever I wanted, not having to restrict myself to a certain country or zone. The possibilities seemed endless. I remember how geshmack it felt to be at JFK this past September where at least half the passengers waiting through the security line were Chassidim flying to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. 

I remember skeptically learning that passage of Rebbe Akiva, “It is a well-known principle that Esav hates Yaakov” (meaning, that Antisemitism is almost a law of nature). I thought Rebbe Akiva’s statement came from his experiences in the Roman-occupied Land of Israel, where he saw how Jews were tortured and decimated. He witnessed the cruel deaths of his colleagues at the hands of the Romans. He himself died a martyr, after being tortured in an indescribably cruel way. I believed that, sure, for a long time in Jewish History, his statement was glaringly applicable. But it was hard for me to relate to it in the post-1945 world. I do remember sometimes having nightmares of being in the Holocaust, and waking up incredibly relieved as I realized that I was in fact living in the 21st century. 

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I knew that Antisemitism was not a fully extinguished parasite. I was (vaguely) aware of neo-nazis or similar movements. But I didn’t think we had to be overly concerned about these crazy groups, or that their impact would ever be of any consequence. I never dreamed that Antisemitism would ever pose a real threat to the Jewish Community in our times. I thought that Antisemitism was confined to the minds of mentally imbalanced fanatics, fascists, indoctrinated minorities, members of weird cults or sects. I honestly thought that people who hated Jews were an inconsequential minority, comparable to freaks out there who don’t believe in the polio vaccine or who think that the Earth is flat.

But reality opened my eyes and made me lose my naiveté. Large-scale Antisemitism is not a thing of the past. It is not restricted to dogmatist irrationals. It is robust and very much alive. There’s a strange paradox at play: while a significant part of the world population, especially in the West, believes in empirical truth, education, justice and morality, Antisemitism is found (prevalently found) among the most educated and cultured. Concern for the rights of Jews is conspicuously absent from the many noble humanitarian banners that the “enlightened” wave.

I think most agree that it was inhumane to ignore or downplay the atrocities that were taking place in the labor and extermination camps in Europe. And I am not trying to compare what we’re going through now to what happened in Europe between 1938 and 1945. But it’s incredibly disturbing and frightening that so many people are unable to unequivocally condemn the pogrom that took place on October 7. There’s something deeply corrupted and evil in someone who implies that any of it was acceptable or even deserved.

Perhaps you believe that Jews don’t have a historical right to the Land. Perhaps you hold that Israel has made political and military mistakes. Perhaps you think Jerusalem is not more of a Jewish city, than it is a Christian or a Muslim one. These have been some of the claims that have been made in the past, and may theoretically belong in a nuanced conversation. But now, after October 7, nuance flew out the window and we are in a completely binary scenario: If you support terrorism, if you relativize the massacre that we endured and hold that Israel has no right to defend itself and completely eradicate this evil cancer (that, just like any cancer, will propagate and kill if even one mutant cell remains to thrive), then there’s only one word to describe you: you are an Antisemite. You’re not a human rights defender or a Palestinian sympathizer. In fact you’re the exact opposite. If you really cared about the Palestinians, you would protest over the fact that all the humanitarian help they receive is used to further terror, to create weapons, to build those dreaded tunnels, to train terrorists. It’s funny and almost cute to think how the average naive westerner believes those funds really go to social and cultural development that will benefit Palestinians. Because of how corrupted the terrorist government of Gaza is, an Arab living in Israel has considerably better access to health, education and general living conditions than a Palestinian living in Gaza.

Moving on, I guess the obvious conclusion is that I have to accept and get used to the fact that enlightened and smart people will hate me for being a Jew. I have to admit: it’s shocking, painful and hard to swallow. But also, intertwined with those feelings, there’s the bittersweet but prideful realization that I’m part of the intergenerational shared fate of the Jewish People that Rav Soloveitchik spoke so much about. What connects me to the Jew in pre-War Vilna, to the Jew in Germany trying to blend in and be accepted at any cost, to the Jew in Yemen keeping the torch of Torah flaming against all odds, to the Jew in Spain fleeing from the bloody Inquisition, or to the Jew living in Achashverosh’s Persia, if not that hate that descended into the world at the moment of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Counterintuitively, feeling hated makes me love stronger. Makes me love stronger and identify more closely with all Jews attached via covalent bonds of chosenness and a shared destiny and inextinguishable faith despite suffering. As I come to realize that many people hate me, I remember how passionately I love and cherish every Jew; my contemporaries, all those who came before and those who will come after.

About the Author
Hannah Pollak is a college student pursuing a career in Jewish education. She was born and raised in Chile, South America. Today, she lives in New York, where she is learning Torah and getting a degree at Stern College for Women.
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