For years, I have heard my dad complain about friends who’ve made very insulting remarks about Israel and Jews. I am talking about good friends, some of whom are work colleagues, and others who were roommates at university but their friendship has lasted for decades despite significant geographical distances, all because of a special bond after they had jointly endured the stress of medical school.
My parents have a very social lifestyle, with many get-togethers and cultural events surrounding a mutual appreciation of good food and the arts. They are also known for a panoply of dinner parties they host on a regular basis, at least once a month if I’m not mistaken, where their friends enjoy my mother’s gastronomical genius and beautiful singing voice and my father’s witty and reflective poetry — altogether, a colorful reflection of their multicultural influences from three other countries they had experienced earlier in their lives: Israel, England and South Africa. This also includes a fusion of other culinary and cultural influences from Yemen and India, to name a few. No one refuses a dinner invitation to my parents’ home, and between eating my mom’s delicious Yemenite chicken soup, served to the tune of a melodious Yemenite song while waiting for their next course, politics will naturally enter the conversation, as is the case with any group of erudite friends.
My mom and dad are not averse to criticism of any type, and Israel is not beyond reproach, and neither is any other country or any other people for that matter. My parents are great believers in complete equality and that means that everything is fair game around their dinner table. However, despite the openness and a no-holds-barred atmosphere in their home, they’ve noticed something very peculiar that happens with respect to conversations that revolve around Israel. And this also applies to my dad’s Skype sessions with friends in South Africa and London.
Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians manages to evoke such anger, the type that draws out serious loathing and irritation in some of these friends that Israel’s stance and rights are completely dismissed, completely ignored, as though their part in the conflict is clear and obvious — that of an unrelenting, unfair, and unreasonable aggressor. Their narrative embraces an all-or-nothing approach, it’s all about castigating Israel, and I can easily liken it to a horse with blinders who can’t see left or right and only follows what’s in front of him.
This makes for a very narrowed and limited understanding and approach to the conflict at hand, when we already know how complex and involved it really is. The Jews’ return to their historical homeland is not the problem, but the rest of the world’s approach towards Jews is indeed a problem — always has been. And here we quickly link anti-Semitism with Israel, because somehow the two manage to coincide with each other, even when we least expect it. Strangely, old narratives associated with old-world bigotry coalesce with anything to do with modern-day-Israel. The myth of a money-grubbing, blood-thirsty Jew is the image that’s attached to Israelis and Israel; it also epitomizes the incarnation of evil. You can see these types of caricatures circulating in various publications, they never go away.
And so, during one such delicious, cultured evening, when a friend had expressed disgust with Israel and swore to never set foot in the country, even though this was said directly to the face of an Israeli host (my mom is Israeli and my dad is South African), my parents didn’t challenge this pronouncement, as hurtful as it was, and its far-reaching implication didn’t deter from their wonderful hosting practices, and the comment remained intact and forceful. It’s also become somewhat routine that comments of this nature have a stifling effect on the most intelligent of people, so I don’t blame my parents or anyone else around the table for not countering it, but I’m not surprised when they are left with lingering guilt or an uneasiness for not expressing their views fully.
I personally think that it has to do with a new epithet that’s attached to Jews who dare to argue to the contrary, where they are viewed as oversensitive and automatically siding with Israel only because they’re Jews, or indiscriminately waiving victimization around when it has no place in a discussion about Israel. Again, I don’t fault my parents if this is what has kept them quiet, because if you look at our history and what people have said about Jews, it’s depressing and quite overwhelming. Disparaging remarks have come from all fronts, including intellectuals, educators, artists, musicians, writers, journalists, religious leaders, political leaders, and Jews — all have attached ugly labels and traits and characterizations of Jews, or Zionists, or Israelis. And this particular association of something so greedy and vulgar always lurks in the back of our minds, and how could this not be the case even when we’re actually proud of our religion and heritage? I don’t recall any other people who’ve had to live with this type of insulting depiction for so many centuries. During my dad’s early days as a surgeon, there was one particular incident that made a long-lasting impression on him; while changing into his surgical attire, together with the rest of the surgical team, his boss said to him that he must be feeling “very uncomfortable among the uncircumcised.” Everyone heard his hubris because he made sure to speak very loudly.
But this doesn’t compare with the next exchange that my dad recently had with one of his oldest friends. When discussing the latest crisis in the British Labour Party, and the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK, his friend agreed that anti-Semitism in the UK is worrying for a number of reasons: apparently, attaching anti-Semitism to Labour and Corbyn smacks of a strong attempt to link anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and its underlying message is that any attack on Israel is anti-Semitic. He said there’s the fear that anti-Semitism feeds Zionism by driving Jews to believe that Israel is the only safe place for them, and this is encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Alas, the friend had also offered a solution to the problem, he stated that all Jews and others who may be eligible to become Israeli citizens should elect Israel’s parliament. He also attached a photo of an Israeli soldier pressing his foot against a Palestinian boy lying on the ground. Another one of those problematic images to spread all over the world and engender special priority in news outlets even when taken out of context (we don’t know whether the soldier was threatened or not), but routinely used to vilify the IDF and make a very clear point: Israel is a ruthless occupier. This was his idea of an answer when they discussed anti-Semitism.
I have to reiterate that these two have had many, many political exchanges over the years, but there was one in particular that left my dad speechless. He explained that Jews in England were expected to behave a certain way, but my dad was different, and it’s the reason their friendship had lasted for so long. I wondered what he meant by “different,” was my dad the opposite of Jews who accept the blame for everything, or a neurotic Jew, or a crooked Jew etc.
At the time, my dad was heavily leaning towards severing his friendship with this man, and I was the one who suggested otherwise. I thought that it was a shame to throw away decades of friendship, and memories, and so many good ones at that. I thought it would be best to try and enlighten him with information pertaining to Israel’s side of the conflict, to remind him of the dead on our side of the family, the suicide bomber who had killed three family members, and to discuss the Jews’ history of persecution in the Diaspora — something that’s been used against us to prove that it’s our invention and excuse for invading a land that irrefutably belongs to the Palestinians. But this type of thinking is so absurd and radical that it must be the product of either a hateful mind or a complete ignoramus. It’s antithetical to our identity as Jews who had developed their religion, culture, and identity in Israel before they were kicked out. Perhaps then he could begin to understand the weakness of his remark and why my dad was offended by it.
I was rather surprised by my approach, because I would be the first one to sever ties after such an incident; I have neither the patience nor the time for this type of mind-frame. I accept intelligent conversation but not this. My dad, however, is the diplomat in our family, a trait that he inherited from his own dad — a man who was loved by all, because of his unique ability to accept anyone, regardless of their background or views.
I sometimes think about my grandfather, Nehemiah, and how he would have responded to this man, especially after his experience of life under the Pale in Eastern Europe, where his family moved from one area to the next in order to secure better work conditions because there were limited opportunities for Jews, and where he had to escape the Polish army, literally fleeing from the train that was about to depart. He already knew what to expect when brutality towards Jews was rampant in the Polish army. He gave up on a career in engineering, once forced out of university, and managed to make his way to South Africa, but he also traveled to Palestine in the 1930s to examine business prospects and also determine whether it was safe to move there. He ultimately decided against it because he was troubled by the idea of living in constant danger; Arabs were busy instigating violence against the Jewish population, and he wanted to live his life in peace, where he could make a living, and raise a family without looking over his shoulder. In South Africa of the 1930s Jews could do just that. He lived the remainder of his life, until his untimely death, mourning the fate of the Jewish people and the loss of family members in the Holocaust, as well as fighting against apartheid, and writing short stories about the life of Jews and blacks in South Africa.
I’m not sure what to advise my dad anymore, and whether he should say sayonara to his friend. Is his friend an anti-Semite despite their friendship? Anti-Semitism is so different from any other type of hate, and it’s not something that one can quietly sweep under the rug and deem as nothing more than a different opinion, or is it?