They were a couple in their late fifties, who chanced upon our little museum as they wandered through the winding, picturesque streets of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv. They were tourists from Germany and this was their first-ever trip to Israel. Their visit to the museum started off much like any other. I gave them a short guided tour and told them the story of the small community that had once lived in the former British colony of Aden.
“Do any of them still live there?” he asked.
“No, they are all gone. Today, most live in Israel or London.”
And as I told them about the riot in 1947 which led to the brutal murder of eighty-seven members of the Jewish community, he nodded. Far from surprise, his expression was almost knowing, as if he had expected to hear something like that.
But I was somewhat taken aback by what followed.
“Why does everyone hate your people?” asked the German tourist.
I paused and considered how to answer. Visitors ask me all kinds of different questions, but I’m not sure if any have ever been so blunt, or blatant. His wife was cringing.
“Is it because there are so many of you?” he continued.
“Actually, there aren’t that many of us. We make up less than one percent of the world’s population.”
“So why have people hated Jews throughout history, more than any other people?”
His wife looked mortified, like she was ready to disown him. I noticed a discreet nudge and in a furious whisper, she warned him not to ask anything more. (That much German I understand.)
“No, it’s fine,” I replied, “Feel free to ask.”
And then I answered – with an introduction to Jewish history. From the Greek Empire, touching on the relevance of Hanukkah, to the Romans, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition…
“Is it true the Jews have money?”
So we addressed that trope too. How Jewish people in the Middle Ages were barred from most occupations and often forced to become moneylenders.
We talked about the persecution of communities in Europe. And of communities that once existed throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but are no more.
And yes, we talked about the Holocaust too.
“But it could never happen again, could it?” he said.
“But it is happening again,” his wife corrected him, “There is rising anti-Semitism. Even in Germany.”
“But we’re more advanced now,” he said.
“I’m sure that’s been said many times before. Look at Germany. One of the first countries to give emancipation to Jews in Europe. But then look how things turned,” I replied.
I showed him a Torah scroll, took them into a synagogue for the first time and explained a little of the philosophy of the Jewish religion.
The wife said they were mind-blown and had so much to think about. On parting, they both thanked me and warmly shook my hand. Twice. They left with greater understanding. Perhaps a new perspective.
As for me, I was so grateful to be able to stand there, proud of who I was, no need to feel I had to hide my identity, and have the opportunity to explain the history of my people. Without fear.