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Avi Rockoff
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Russians know antisemitism when they see it

Jew hatred had marched right in front of me, but I decided not to see it, or perhaps more correctly, I chose to overlook it
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Widener Library, Harvard Yard

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, the Chabad rabbi at Harvard, spoke on Hanukkah in front of the Widener Library in Harvard Yard to a group that included Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay. Gay’s recent testimony before Congress stirred disbelief and contempt. Gay had joined two other college presidents in saying that threats of genocide against Jewish students might violate university rules “depending on the context.”

Rabbi Zarchi recalled that when he invited an Israeli soldier to screen recent war footage, “The Harvard police called our family, advising us that we should get security for the night to protect our family, my wife and children and our students because we’re being accused of hosting a war criminal.”

Instead of dismissing this absurd and offensive accusation and offering protection, the authorities warned the rabbi that anything that happened to him and his family would be his own fault.

This disappointed Rabbi Zarchi but must not have surprised him. After Hamas’s inhuman barbarities on October 7th, the UN Secretary-General observed that these acts “did not occur in a vacuum.” Blaming Jews for our own misfortune is an old story. Rabbi Zarchi knows anti-Semitism when he sees it, and he called it out. Forty years ago, I was not so astute.

*****

In 1983 we joined several young families and started a new orthodox synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts. We were naïve. We thought that starting a synagogue was a righteous thing to do and that others would react accordingly.

The group bought a small home in our residential neighborhood and asked the city to waive zoning requirements to pave one parking space for every three members. (This would have been impossible on our lot, or anyone else’s.) Such a waiver was theoretically available to religious institutions. We explained that Orthodox Jews walk to synagogue on Shabbat, reducing the need for parking on days of high use.

Our neighbors, many of them Jewish, responded with fury. A few were candid. One said, “When I mow my lawn on Saturday, you’ll pass by and make me feel guilty.” There goes the neighborhood.

Discussions with the Newton Board of Aldermen, as it was then called, were intense and contentious. Many objections were raised, most related to standard zoning concerns about traffic and congestion. But during the hearings one of the Aldermen, a fellow with a florid manner and a plummy British accent, railed against us. He marched back and forth at the back of the chamber, waving his arms and shouting, “It is an outrage that these Jews should bring this proposal before us to build their synagogue in a residential neighborhood!”

We sought support from local rabbis, but only two responded. One was the Chabad Rabbi of Boston. He issued a statement that appeared in the Jewish press. “I have been in Russia,” he said. “And I know anti-Semitism when I see it.”

Some of us were embarrassed, even offended. I was one of them.

Zoning was always complicated, after all. Many of our opponents were Jewish. And we were not in Russia. Newton was not Kishinev. Not every setback was anti-Semitic. This was America.

*****

Looking back, I wonder at what my younger self took to be certainties. Anti-Semitism had long been around in America, personal and professional. And not so long ago. In our hospitals. In our town. In our house.

When we bought our home 45 years ago, a Jewish family lived next door. Another family, two houses down, had lived there for a while. “They were the first ones,” people said.

The first what? The first Jews on the block. Jews had lived in Newton Centre for quite a while, neighbors said, but were expected to stay east of Centre Street, near the prestigious Conservative Temple Emanuel. Real estate brokers knew they were not to show homes west of Centre to Jews. This was nowhere written, just understood. That taboo had been breaking down for some time; on our street, within recent memory.

And then there was our own house. We bought it from a young psychiatrist named Mihr. He had lived there with his wife for just a year and was leaving for a new job.

When we moved in, with kippot on our heads and our sukkah visible from the street, neighbors told us that the man who preceded the Mihrs and had lived there for many years was a well-known anti-Semite from Alsace. He was said to still be somewhere in town. “If old Alfred knew you were living here,” they said, “he would firebomb the place.”

And thus it was that my wife and I were able to raise our family and live for many years by the grace of an anti-Semite too dim to figure out that any psychiatrist of that era who called himself “Mihr” had shortened it from Morgenstern.

For a time, I was on staff at Brookline Hospital, a small, now defunct and demolished place in Brookline’s downscale Whiskey Point neighborhood. A tall, fair Irishman was the radiologist. The rest of the staff were short, bald Jews. All were general practitioners in Dorchester, in West Roxbury, in Roslindale, Boston neighborhoods from which most Jews left when they could for tonier towns, like Newton. These GPs belonged to Brookline Hospital because Beth Israel would not let them in. They were considered inferior because they were “Middlesex men,” doctors trained at Middlesex Medical School.

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That school was part of Middlesex University, which accepted students on the basis of merit. Middlesex Medical School thus took in many Jews excluded from elite institutions with Jewish quotas. (Beth Israel, of course, was founded by Jewish doctors from classier schools excluded anyway from the staffs of Mass General, Brigham, Deaconess, and other hospitals.) Middlesex Medical School was not accredited by the American Medical Association, which wanted to restrict the number of doctors and continue discriminatory admission practices. Middlesex University went under in 1946, absorbed, along with its distinctive tower, by Brandeis University.

*****

So anti-Semitism was there to be seen. Not in the Middle Ages. Not elsewhere, long ago and far away. There was anti-Semitism right here, just yesterday, even today. I knew about it. It had marched right in front of me in the Newton City Hall. But I decided not to see it, or perhaps more correctly, I chose to overlook it.

It is easy to overlook what is in front of your nose. One way to do that is to call what you see just a fading vestige. Elite universities excluding Jews from medical schools? Come on. Not anymore. Not here.

An American Jew might say that. Chabad was founded in Russia, and a Russian Jew would never say that. אוי ואבוי, alas and alas, right about now many American Jews might not say it either.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.
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