On Saturday morning, one week after more than 1,300 Israelis were killed on the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I attended a Shabbat prayer service.?
I was traveling in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is not exactly a hotbed of world Jewry but does have a small and vibrant Jewish community. I am not overly religious, but I desperately needed to be around my mishpacha (family) and to hear the ancient prayers that even the least observant Jew knows by heart. Doing so gave me a much-needed feeling of community at a time of such intense Jewish anguish.
After a week of furiously texting with my Jewish and Israeli friends, doomscrolling on social media and reading one heartbreaking and horrific story after another about the lives lost in the Oct. 7 massacre, I felt, as a Jew, alone.
But like many American Jews, I also felt betrayed. Rather than a full-throated condemnation of the slaughter in Israel, far too many supposedly progressive allies held their powder. They provided “context” or argued both sides were to blame and offered a host of “yes, but” responses:?
'Yes, what Hamas did was bad, but Israel brought it on itself.'
'Yes, murdering babies is awful, but Israel has been doing the same for years.'
'Yes, violence is wrong, but what option did the Palestinians have?'
These are charges reminiscent of the age-old antisemitic trope that Jews are responsible for their own suffering.
Others placed all the “responsibility” on Israel, while some particularly depraved souls actually celebrated the massacre, posting pictures of paragliders with Palestinian flags as if Hamas’ barbarism was not only justified but a cause for celebration.
But my palpable feelings of abandonment and isolation are hardly unique these days. American Jews are angry. They feel abandoned and discarded, their suffering again ignored. But many are now finding their voice and demanding that the political left (where most Jews feel at home) finally start taking antisemitism seriously.
American Jews have the unique privilege of living in perhaps the most tolerant country in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. The United States has never witnessed the pervasive and institutional antisemitism and recurrent pogroms that defined Jewish life in Europe and the Arab world for centuries.
Part of that is a credit to America, and part comes from the inclination of American Jews, particularly in the decades after the Holocaust, to keep their heads down out of fear that too much attention could make us victims again.?After the 1967 Six-Day War, a younger generation, emboldened by Israel’s triumphant victory over three Arab armies, demanded recognition and an end to the ghetto mentality that Jews must remain silent.
Yet, somewhere along the line, that confidence faded. The seemingly never-ending conflict between Arabs and Jews and the growing power of right-wing governments in Israel made it more difficult to stand with the Jewish state. That was particularly true in progressive spaces where support for Palestinian statehood (and disparagement of Israel) has become akin to a litmus test. A generation of Jews unfamiliar with the existential antisemitism that once defined Jewish life came to see Israel as an embarrassment rather than a reason for pride. Too few voices were willing to speak up as criticism of Israel veered into antisemitic territory.
The election of Donald Trump and the subsequent increase in antisemitic incidents punctured long-held assumptions about the safety of Jews in American society. But the abrupt recognition of Jewish vulnerability has been matched by a larger and more essential question: Who else has our back?
For close to 100 years, Jews have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates because they knew the answer wasn’t Republicans. But while elected Democrats have been by our side, what about the activist progressive communities that are often defined by Jewish engagement? When right-wing antisemitic violence flared, like the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, progressives jumped to our defense. But what about violence from communities that traditionally vote Democratic? When Jews were killed in 2019 in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Monsey, New York, allegedly by individuals with links to the antisemitic Black Hebrew Israelites, why weren't progressives more vocal in their condemnation? When orthodox Jews were regularly assaulted on the streets of Brooklyn (as reported in 2019 by the Tablet), why didn't we hear from the communities that have long spoken out against racial and ethnic targeting — and demanded our solidarity? When anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses — and statements from Democratic members of Congress — recall antisemitic tropes, why don't progressives speak out more forcefully?
I heard from multiple American Jews that the response to Oct. 7 reinforced the palpable sense among many American Jews that we are a community alone — and far down the list in the pecking order of vulnerable minority groups. And it’s already leading to a re-examination of where Jews stand in the progressive community.
“I’m a liberal, not a progressive, but I viewed the differences as a matter of degrees and tactics, not fundamental values,” one friend wrote to me. “This has made me fundamentally reevaluate whether we are operating from the same ethical basis. I wouldn’t want to make common cause going forward with people who celebrate Hamas violence against Jews.”
A commentator on Twitter told me, “I am beyond disappointed in a good portion of the communities I (we as a group) have supported. I marched with them, monetarily supported them, and verbally spoke out. Their silence and or support for a group that wants to kill me is mind-blowing.”
For too long, American Jews have been unwilling to demand their progressive allies take antisemitism seriously, to address the antisemitic attitudes that have found shelter in their communities? — and to recognize the vulnerability of the Jewish community as they would that of any other minority group.?
In an essay on Facebook, which quickly was passed around on Jewish listservs and group chats, Heather Libman Kafetz, who described herself as a Quiet American Jew, vowed that she no longer had that luxury.?
The flip-side to this painful story is the steadfast support of elected Democrats, in particular President Joe Biden, who, in the words of so many Jewish friends this week, has acted like a mensch. These declarations of support provide reassurance, even if the abandonment by erstwhile allies —?coupled with the inability to empathize with Jewish suffering — may leave more indelible marks.?
History has taught us that while some righteous gentiles will advocate on our behalf, we cannot rely on that alone. It’s why Israel, warts and all, remains so essential to Diaspora Jewry. The only group that can tackle the crisis of antisemitism in America are American Jews. And that means channeling the anger of the past two weeks and reminding our political allies of the risks we face and demanding that they confront the antisemitic attitudes that have metastasized in progressive spaces.
If the Oct. 7 massacre — and the reaction to it — has shown us anything, it is that we are alone, but as long as we have our voices, we will not be defeated.