Unsafe haven:

How Oct. 7 has changed the lives of US Jews

The upheaval has permeated family and social relationships, their feeling of identity and the understanding that America is no longer the place they knew.

Protesters in support of terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah gather near the White House in Washington, June 8, 2024. Source: X.
Protesters in support of terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah gather near the White House in Washington, June 8, 2024. Source: X.

Last Shabbat in the Washington periphery was an extremely pleasant one. The crowds thronged the National Mall lined with its many museums, extending from the Capitol grounds to the Washington Monument, while downtown Washington, D.C., was the scene of a vibrant, multicolored gay-pride march that snaked its way across the hub of the city, in an exuberant atmosphere of celebration and fun.

But at the same time, opposite the obelisk in memory of George Washington, a completely different march was slowly crawling along—a march of hatred, ignorance and evil. Thousands of protesters in red costumes, keffiyehs and PLO flags proceeded along the heavily protected sidewalk: “No to a two-state solution—we want 1948,” “From the River Jordan to the Sea,” “Free, Free Palestine,” “Intifada—Revolution.”

Later, not far away from there, the annual conference of the American Jewish Committee, the large and senior representative organization of U.S. Jewry, which has assumed an even broader function as the “global advocacy organization for the Jewish people,” opened at the Marriott Hotel.

More than 2,000 representatives gathered here, fueled by a profound sense of emergency. The war in Israel has become intertwined with a sense of battle for their own home, manifested by the demonstration of hate that marched a mere stone’s throw away.

The discussions were replete with experiences similar to those on the daily news. Most of those attending the AJC forum were Jewish Americans, staunch supporters of Israel—not Orthodox Jews, but those, who for more than 100 years, until last October, firmly believed that their strong connection with the liberals would guarantee both their rights as Jews and their lives.

Something was undermined in the wake of Oct. 7. Although U.S. opinion polls show that support for Israel remains widespread and unflagging, many Jews have experienced trauma that has undercut their sense of personal security, alongside their confidence in their existence in America.

Columbia University protests
A view of protesters demonstrating outside the campus of Columbia University in New York City, April 25, 2024. Photo by Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo.

No longer remains in the family

The situation in the universities—the demonstrations, the hatred, the treachery of many lecturers took center stage at the conference.

But nobody made any attempt to sugarcoat the situation. On the contrary, it was evident that we have gone back 100 years in time, to a time of frightening antisemitism.

In an AJC survey of U.S. Jews published earlier this week, 64% of those questioned testified that the events since October have had an impact on their relationship with their fellow Americans. Worrying statistics were revealed regarding the impact of these events on their daily lives.

Many Jews avoid engaging strangers in a conversation broaching issues connected to events on the news. Some actively conceal their Jewish identity, while many testify to an underlying sense of a lack of security.

Two elderly Jewish women from Los Angeles told me over dinner that they had severed relationships with several friends and acquaintances, due to their accusations against Israel. One of them no longer speaks with her 22-year-old grandson after he provoked her by saying that the very existence of the State of Israel is what led to the establishment and existence of Hamas.

A former Israeli woman who lives in Jersey City shared with me the profound sense of shock that has taken hold of her. She discovered that a teacher at her 10-year-old daughter’s school handed out to the students a Palestinian book that erased the existence of the State of Israel.

Double shock

A key figure who is well connected to the heart of the matter is Alexandra Herzog, the niece of both Israel’s President Herzog and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog.

She lives in Boston and serves as the AJC’s national deputy director for contemporary Jewish life. Herzog monitors educational material at schools and universities in the United States and has been seeing an anti-Israel/anti-Zionist connection develop for years.

“The largest problem in the universities,” she said, “is that many of the heads of the universities do not assume responsibility and fail to enforce their own rules for protecting the students against antisemitism. This modern incarnation of antisemitism is new to many American Jews.”

She continued, saying “the Jews thought that they would be completely safe here. Now, all of a sudden, they understand that they are not as safe.”

This is a double shock; it encompasses the threat against Israel, which was always perceived as a potential haven, and, of course, the feeling that America itself is no longer as safe as Jews thought it was.

Another disappointment was the result of the efforts to forge ties with the large Hispanic community in the U.S., which encompasses more than 60 million people. The person in charge of this effort on behalf of the AJC is Dina Siegel Vann, a native of Mexico City and director of the AJC’s Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.

Vann invested considerable effort in linking up with Hispanic organizations and even brought a delegation of Hispanic American leaders to visit Israel a year ago, including visiting the Gaza border communities. However, all of them disappeared following Oct. 7—not a single one of them stood beside Israel and the Jews, and their silence is deafening.

“We have changed since Oct. 7,” said Vann. “Our expectations have changed. We at the AJC have always believed in the struggle for all ethnic minorities, as indirectly this is something that should work for us too, but in hindsight, it now appears that this effort has not worked at all.”

Daniel Schwammenthal is the director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute, AJC’s E.U. office in Brussels. He says that “the problem is that a new threat has emerged that goes beyond social media and terrorist threats, against which your government protects you. Now, as a Jew, you are threatened on the streets, on campus and at work, and antisemitism is being thrust in your face.”

Then, he continued, “add to this the fact that a number of governments, like the government in Belgium, are engaged in efforts to demonize the Jewish state, thus fanning the flames of antisemitism. The whole situation is simply intolerable.”

An opening for hope

Born in Germany and now resident in Belgium, Schwammenthal closely monitors the social and political trends in Europe. He noted a positive change that had occurred in recent years in Israel’s relationship with Europe, a marked improvement that simply collapsed several months after the outbreak of the war, with a growing negative trend sweeping across European governments and the decisions of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

However, Schwammenthal believes that overall, the public in Europe is not against us, a claim that has gained support from the results of the elections to the European Parliament held last week, and the ensuing impressive rise in power of right-wing parties in Europe.

This paradox has been reflected, for example, in the staunchly pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli state of Florida, where this writer flew immediately after the conference in Washington. In those states with dominant support for the Republican Party, especially where strong Republican governors exist, such as Ron DeSantis in Florida or Greg Abbott in Texas, the situation is different.

DeSantis—a sworn supporter of Israel and the Jewish people—crushed the initial appearance of the antisemitic demonstrations at the University of South Florida in Tampa, with police officers firing rubber bullets and detaining 130 protesters.

Abbott declared the demonstrators at the University of Texas in Austin to be supporters of terrorism and in breach of the law, and he then sent the police to detain them and choke this antisemitic protest the moment it began.

That dissonance and confusion are all too apparent among many of the people I spoke to. However, the contempt for and fear of Donald Trump, makes it difficult to arrive at any conclusions as to its impact on internal U.S. politics. A poll published by the AJC last week shows that 61% of Jews questioned intend to vote for President Joe Biden. This is a considerably lower percentage than those who voted for him in the previous presidential elections, 85%.

At the AJC forum, senior speakers stressed and reiterated: “Now of all times, we are especially proud to be Jews,” expressing their unwavering support for the State of Israel.

In this spirit, the poll conducted by the organization has established the trend: 57% of the Jews questioned in the poll said that they feel more connected to Israel and their own Jewish identity, and 17% said that they had begun to attend synagogue services since the Hamas attack.

Avital Leibovich, director of the AJC Jerusalem office, summed up the situation: “There can be no doubt of the strong desire of Diaspora Jews for unity. Oct. 7 marks a new era for them—an era of closeness to the State of Israel coupled with a greatly enhanced sense of their Jewish identity, each individual acting in his or her own way.”

American actor Michael Rapaport, who also appeared on the central stage, managed to sum up the basic message to all our enemies in a nutshell, with two words: “F*** them,” duly earning rapturous applause from the crowd.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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