Melissa Cohen

Our Friends Are Our Allies

Embed from Getty Images

Although our political allies have been silent since October 7, our friends have spoken up for us

It has been 158 days since October 7, and 97 days since I published an essay on my ruminations on the emergent new world since that day. In that essay, I mourned the loss of my idealism about the acceptance of Jews into society and our enduring safety in America. I wrestled with my beliefs in the vast prevalence of human goodness when the darker side of humanity reared its ugly head, casting shadows over us. My belief in American exceptionalism, that this beautiful democratic experiment would forever protect us and the ideals we dared to dream, unraveled in a matter of days. We Jews were alone, I cried. Alone as we ever were, fighting against the Babylonians, targeted by the Romans, the Spanish, the Russians, the Nazis. 

But I was wrong about our isolation. I mistook the volume of the loudest, shrillest voices for their prevalence. I assumed that the overwhelming din of vitriol and lies represented more views than it actually does. And most importantly, I realized how strongly our friends outside the Jewish community support us. My essay spurred a dialogue that enabled them to see our pain and us to see their profound humanity. Those deep connections are what make this moment different from any before it. 

At first, our friends didn’t know what to say. They didn’t understand how October 7 affected us. How could they know what this foreign land means to us? How could they know about our fear that an attack there would presage our vulnerability here? And then, when global outrage erupted, not against Hamas, but against Israel, what could they say? It seemed like a crazy outcome, but did anyone know enough about the political history of the conflict or the inner workings of the war to understand the truth? It was complicated and sticky, and those outside our community struggled to understand what was happening and how to approach it. 

So we hid our true selves away. Aghast at the antisemitic eruptions, the table turning, the vilifying, and in shock about their seeming insignificance to everyone around us, we robotically continued our day to day. We put on smiling faces, showing up at our kids’ soccer games and our work parties, but inside we were in tatters, obsessed with what was happening in Israel and with the overnight transformation of our world. And we were in disbelief that everyone around us seemed to be just fine, business as usual.

We cried to each other, questioning how the world around us, especially our political allies who we had always supported, could ignore the truth of what was happening. The so-called human rights organizations fighting for social justice were silent, paralyzed by a stunning moral confusion. And to the outside world, we were silent too, scared to speak up. But when I finally put pen to paper to describe our collective pain and fear, it opened a door to dialogue. Once our friends could begin to understand, they stood up in the most beautiful ways. As it turns out, our political allies were not actually our friends, but our friends were our strongest allies. 

Other parents in my town would approach me in the grocery store or at school, thanking me for giving them a window into what their Jewish friends were experiencing, the concern in their eyes palpable. They saw the evil out there, the madness, and they stood with us. Neighborhood friends and Facebook friends from different parts of life proclaimed their support, that they weren’t fooled by the Tiktok sound bites or the moral relativity in our enclave of progressive elites. These were not all people I knew well, but they were people with a shared set of pluralistic values whose faith in the American experiment had been shaken. Good people with unyielding morality who cared. People who could not reconcile the ferocious antisemitism they were seeing with the people they knew, their Jewish friends, teachers, students, and colleagues. People whose hearts broke when they had to explain the current moment to their kids.

A few close friends stood up in profound ways. They held my hand, decrying the barbarism and the perversion of truth. “I support you” they said, and I could see their fear for me; their perceptions of my family’s safety had changed too. They asked how I was doing not rhetorically, but because they truly wanted to understand. They sent my article to everyone they knew because they wanted others to understand too. They began voraciously reading, learning about Israel’s and Palestine’s history, and we would share articles and podcasts with each other, highlighting the most meaningful parts to each of us. 

One incredible friend hosted an evening at her home where she brought a few Jewish and non-Jewish friends together so that we could each share our perspectives through open dialogue, and so that they could understand how to best show their support. The discussion was thoughtful, complex, and hard, and we all walked away with deeper bonds and broader viewpoints. At the end of the night, they wanted to know how they could use their voices to get the truth out there and fight against antisemitism. It was an experience I will never forget. Another amazing friend began showing up at school board meetings, expressing her alarm at the rise of antisemitism in our enlightened community and advocating for antisemitism awareness and Jewish inclusion in DEI. She is the first one to send emails to our school board about the latest incidents of hate and how we need to tackle them. Another began wearing a Star of David around her neck. These friends are incredible humans, and I am lucky to know them. And I believe that righteous people like these far outnumber those who are spewing hate or who are merely indifferent to the downward spiral.

I witnessed the power of friendships on a large scale recently when I marched with ten thousand others in the Unity Rally in San Francisco against antisemitism. Many non-Jews marched with us in the pouring rain and the whipping wind, holding signs proclaiming that they stand with us. They were there with no self-interest, just to speak up for what is right. This was not the America they knew, and they couldn’t stand by and watch its degradation. One of the speakers thanked our friends who were standing beside us, both literally and figuratively, reminding us of the historic promise of America that brought immigrants of all kinds to its shores. He quoted a letter that George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport in 1790, expressing his promise that Jews in America enjoy the good will of the American people and where “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

I had never known their context, but I was moved to tears by those same words years ago when watching Hamilton for the first time. In a song called One Last Time, Washington rejects the call to run for president a third time, thus creating the precedent for the peaceful transfer of power in our fledgling democracy. He sings about wanting to live out his days in peace under his own vine and fig tree. And those words, before I knew their biblical origins in the Book of Micah, before I knew that Washington used them to offer the earliest American Jews the promise of freedom from persecution, overtook me. Maybe because they were an unrealized dream for my people throughout the ages until they were able to get to this country. Or maybe because those words articulate so simply the most basic, universal human need: to be free, to exercise self-determination, and to be safe. Safe from persecution by anyone–individual Americans, the government itself, a tyrannical majority, or a foreign army.

Embed from Getty Images

And now the freedom and safety that we thought of as American bedrock on Oct. 6, has been slipping away slowly and quickly all at once. The constitutional guardrails built to protect against man’s darker instincts are being tested by rising swells of hatred and intolerance, from the most bald-faced calls to “kill the Jews” to the more shrouded maneuvers to condemn Zionism and punish only Israel in local governments. The fear that many Jews are feeling is primal and real, and unfortunately, it resides in our collective memory. 

But this is not a time to shrink and revert inward, as we had to do in the past. We need to speak up to let our friends know exactly what is at stake. Who will the mobs come for next? It always starts with the Jews, but it never ends with us. We need to call on our friends to support us, to support truth, and to fight not just against antisemitism but also to fight for our democracy. Although my heart has been broken since October 7th, my soul is still hopeful because of the abundant power of human connection I have felt. My soul is still hopeful that our country can be the beacon of light it was intended to be, and that Washington’s promise can be fulfilled one day, however far away that may be. One day, may we all sit under our own vine and fig tree with no one to make us afraid.

About the Author
Melissa Freed Cohen is a former attorney residing outside of San Francisco with her husband and three daughters. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, as well as a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law.
Related Topics
Related Posts