Antisemitism has existed since the days of Abraham. It followed us as we were chased out of country after country. Laws were enacted against us. At times we were killed. At others, our property was confiscated. We were barred from certain professions and even from owning land. This is a sad and tragic story of suffering and persecution. But it is also the story of our uniqueness and resilience. We bounced back time and time again. Perhaps this too fuels the antipathy towards us.
As a child growing up in post-war Hungary, I heard many stories from my parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. I heard how my mother was chased out of college in 1930 by hordes of Jew-hating students, urged on by university professors and presidents. Many students who didn’t leave were beaten. This antisemitism culminated in Auschwitz. Although my parents somehow survived the horrors of the death camps, their families perished. Growing up under the shadow of the Holocaust, I was taught early on that gentiles cannot be trusted, because they will ultimately turn on us when we least expect it.
Playing soccer with my eight-year-old Hungarian friends, it was not unusual for me to be called a “dirty Jew” and told that the goal I had just scored didn’t count. Thus, I learned that, in some societies, Jews must live “under the radar.” When my family sailed into New York Harbor, it felt like we were breathing the air of freedom. We left most of our possessions behind in Hungary and, as an 11-year-old boy, I imagined that we left antisemitism behind as well. I was now in America, the “goldene land,” the “golden land” where everyone was equal and free. The U.S. Constitution guaranteed it. I certainly believed this.
I became an American Jew, proud to live in my adopted country. Still, some of the older generation, including my father, would warn us that “it could happen here too” and “don’t be so sure.” I never really thought they were right.
Most American Jews have always believed that “it could never happen here.” Just like the German and Hungarian Jews before the war, who thought it unthinkable that they were in any danger, American Jews also felt protected. Anyone suggesting otherwise is deemed a radical or a dangerous lunatic.
We are a logical, thinking race. Education has always played a dominant role in our culture. We respect educated people and want advanced diplomas for our children. We support universities, donating large amounts of our money to their upkeep. Our children are enrolled in them, basking in the certainty of a guaranteed and successful future upon graduation.
Thus, the recent genocidally antisemitic demonstrations on many campuses came as a shock and a wake-up call for many. Some offered halfhearted excuses, saying they were caused not by antisemitism but anti-Zionism. But as the mobs continued to yell the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” it became obvious that shrieking the Hamas creed expresses the desire to eradicate every Jew in the Land of Israel.
American Jews were suddenly nervous and especially disturbed by the sight of many of their children marching in lockstep with the most radical Jew-haters. They saw as well the total indifference or even collaboration of university leaders in this orgy of antisemitism.
It suddenly seemed as if the genie of antisemitism, long thought to have been locked up in the bottle forever, had escaped again—and we were left alone to face it.
The congressional hearing at which the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT refused to say that calling for the genocide of Jews was against their universities’ code of conduct was the final nail in the coffin. Even worse, reports have circulated that liberal Jews’ great hero, former President Barack Obama, supported Harvard president Claudine Gay and strongly urged university trustees not to fire her. Obama, it seemed, had no compunction about betraying the very Jews who had worked so fervently to elect him. It had finally become clear that, with the collaboration of a former president, antisemitism had entered the American mainstream.
It now seems that, with some parents urging their children not to wear a kippah or a Star of David in public, we have come full circle. We have arrived at what my parents and so many other Jews were told 80 years ago: “Stay under the radar.” We find ourselves in the shoes of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who were told by people like Ze’ev Jabotinsky that there was a fire burning in Europe and it was time to get out. Those who heeded his call and fled to Palestine survived. Those who thought he was a radical alarmist and stayed in Europe perished.
American Jews have been asleep for a long time. They must now wake up and ask themselves: When the Israel-Hamas war is over, do you really think the genie will quietly go back into the bottle?