(May 25, 2021 / JNS) I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I’m actually nervous—as a Jew—about my upcoming trip from Tel Aviv to New York.
For one thing, the United States has been safer for the tribe than the rest of the Diaspora. For another, it’s pretty ridiculous to fear anti-Semitic assault in America after spending the past two weeks running for cover from Hamas rockets in Israel.
The worry is especially odd, given the many decades I’ve spent trying avoid and protect my family from Palestinian rock, Molotov-cocktail, suicide-bombing, stabbing and vehicular attacks. But there’s clearly something about the dangers one knows and has come to expect that make them less daunting, or at least more manageable.
Growing up in a rough Manhattan neighborhood the 1970s, I was no stranger to perils that felt familiar. The area around our apartment on the Upper West Side was rife with junkies, muggers and deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients. The subways, filled with vagrants, were filthy and covered in graffiti.
The stations, particularly at night, were so menacing that even the cops were hesitant to police them. Central Park, though passable in the daylight hours, was the site of rapes and murders after dark. Riverside Park was iffy at all hours.
And don’t get me started on Times Square, where drug dealers and prostitutes aggressively solicited passersby.
I took all of the above for granted, instinctively crossing the street before reaching a corner at which certain thugs hung out, for example, and knowing when not to “eyeball” the wrong group of girls sparring for a fight.
And though my complexion often made me somewhat of a sitting duck, my Jewishness never was an issue. Indeed, by the time that I moved to Israel at the age of 19, I had experienced a total of two anti-Semitic incidents.
The first took place at an Italian diner in the Bronx, where my best friend and I ate breakfast every morning on the way to school. The year was 1973, and it was the height of the Yom Kippur War.
The owner of the establishment—who, up to that point, had been very chummy with us—began to rant against Israel. While my friend promptly engaged him in a counter-argument, I was taken aback by the hostility in his tone, and I coaxed her off the premises.
As we exited, she announced—with the over-confidence of a sassy 15-year-old—that from now on, we would boycott the place and tell all our classmates to do the same. Enraged, he followed us outside and slapped her across the face, growling, “I’ll get you, you f***ing Jews.”
The second time that my being a Jew aroused a negative reaction was the following year, during a college interview in New England. Though it involved no physical or verbal violence, it cut me to the core.
“Why would someone like you want to attend this institution?” the admissions officer asked. “There’s no Bloomingdale’s here.”
I understood that she wasn’t referring to the location of my upbringing; plenty of New Yorkers studied at and graduated from that university. Many Jews did, too. But maybe not those, like me, who were so obvious about it.
Later, at the college that did accept me and which I attended before making aliyah, fellow students from around the United States would remark, “Oh, you’re from Jew York,” without a hint of anti-Semitism. Their good-natured quip was apt, after all, as the city of my birth was so “Jewy” that even the Puerto Ricans there were conversant in a number of Yiddishisms.
And that was long before every grocery store in my old ’hood proudly displayed signs about kosher food for Jewish holidays in their windows. It was certainly years before it became fashionable for even non-Orthodox couples in the area to name their kids “Shoshana” and “Ari.”
The very idea, then, that Jews are being beaten to a pulp today in the streets of New York, of all places, is as inconceivable as the acts are criminal. Yet, at least the mobs in Midtown Manhattan who’ve been emulating Arabs in Lod, Jerusalem, Akko, Jaffa, Bat Yam and Haifa—while siding with terrorists in Gaza—are acknowledging in word and deed that their hatred of Israel is indistinguishable from their attitude towards Jews.
As is and has always been the case, it makes no difference to the perpetrators of these anti-Semitic attacks whether their victims are liberal or conservative; nor does it matter to them if a guy in a kipah is critical of Israel or a champion of the Jewish state. The only ideology at the root of their riots is that which the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their backers in Iran espouse and foment.
I’m used to living comfortably in Israel with the above reality, just as I navigated New York during the 1970s, despite its many life-threatening pitfalls—decay and degradation that have returned almost in full force. What I couldn’t have dreamed in my worst nightmares, however, was that visiting my hometown would become the source of trepidation for me as a Jew.
This has been such a horrifying prospect that I replaced my delicate Star of David pendant with a large, bold one, to flaunt wherever I go in the city. A can of pepper spray might be in order, as well.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”
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