Reflections on Anti-Semitism

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This last week:

It’s Sunday evening and I am lying in bed when the news of the second desecration of a Jewish cemetery comes. Something deep inside me sinks. I have nothing to say, no analysis to offer. I fall asleep, half expecting to wake up to the news there has been a shooting at a synagogue, but I fall asleep every night half expecting this.

On Monday, I have a small breakdown. I am in the middle of a lengthy discussion in Hebrew that is part of the preparation process for my chanichim’s upcoming journey to Poland. I am mostly following, but I cannot get images of the vandalized Jewish cemeteries out of my brain. Something about the overturned headstones, the disrespect to those we’ve lost, clings to my mind with the usual grip of anxiety or grief. The coordinator of our trip briefly mentions the vandalization as though to remind us that while the journey to Poland focuses on the past, anti-Semitism is a modern phenomenon as well. The faces of my fellow madrichim are long and they quickly comment on how sad it is, but we keep moving. I can’t keep moving; my brain is stuck. Overturned headstones. They hate us. Overturned headstones. They want to intimidate us. I become overwhelmed and the tears begin to flow, right there in the board room with all those people. I try to breathe, to calm myself, but I cannot calm down. My sense of security, that Poland is in the past, collapses in that moment. They hate us because we are Jews and there is nothing I can do about that. Me, I’m a Jew. They hate me because I’m a Jew.

It’s Tuesday; I wake up. This time, the bomb threats are to elementary schools. Schools like mine. I lie in bed thinking about Tehiyah Day School, my sunny little safe haven in the El Cerrito hills. I remember the playground, being too hot in my Purim costume, my Israeli Hebrew teachers whom I loved, the security guard, the time they took out the lockers for fear someone would put a bomb in one, and a lot of sunshine. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be safe, that learning about anti-Semitism in the past had any relevance to my life. I didn’t understand then, when I was a little girl, that I was a Jew in the world.

My mom texts my brother and me, “The Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco had a bomb scare yesterday and I am really upset.” I tell her how sorry I am. She calls me; she is upset, confused. She asks, why us? She understands how Trump is causing Islamophobia and why it’s happening. She understands the backlash against immigrants and refugees. She doesn’t agree but she understands why. We aren’t a part of any of this, she says. Why us? Why still us? I have no answers for her, other than to suggest she join me in Israel. I know this isn’t really an answer, but I want her to leave. I want her to see that she is a Jew in the world. She gets angry at me. She is right to be angry at me. I am angry at her. I feel lied to – no one told me I was a Jew in the world. No one told me they hated me, hated what I am. 

I have no answers, no wise conclusion from this. I am shaken to my core. I have no idea what the future will bring. The educational process leading up to the trip to Poland has put me in a mindset of only expecting worse. My brother suggests that maybe Jews will be on guard, making violence more difficult. I think, as a Zionist and an olah, that anti-Semitism is a deep cultural code in Western societies; it is an illness not easily cured. But really? America in 2017? How could we be so naïve as to understand ourselves completely outside the regular course of Jewish history? How could we have expected this national backlash against progress and acceptance would somehow leave us out? 

I have no answers, only questions. I do, however, expect my movement to have answers, both the one I grew up in and the one I just joined. In that Poland meeting, I wondered if Dror Israel is a movement just for Israeli society or for all Jewish people. If the latter is true, I expect you, my partners, to have more to offer me than long faces. I expect solidarity, responsibility, and deep partnership. HDNA is a movement for diaspora Jewish youth and I expect you to have something to say to our chanichim. The youth movements, after all, always have had the wisdom to see. What do our people need? What do the Jewish youth of North America need? I know that it is difficult for me to demand answers when I myself have none. I strongly believe we, the Zionist pioneering youth movement, have the answers and now is our time. I’m waiting on our leadership.

– Emma Pasternack


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