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When my fiancée and I first met as freshmen at Middlebury College seven years ago, I didn’t know much about Judaism. Despite getting confirmed as a Catholic while growing up in Baltimore, I always related more strongly with services at my Episcopalian school or chapel at my Quaker-rooted summer camp. I skipped the Torah reading of the only bar mitzvah I was ever invited to, failing to appreciate that the day was about anything more than dancing to “Jump Around,” and getting my money’s worth at the Cold Stone Creamery truck.
By the time my fiancée and I started dating, I knew enough about Judaism and Israel to forward her The New York Times articles about Israeli occupation on my feed—those weren’t hard to come across—but not enough to recognize that her reticence was born of pain rather than defensiveness. I knew that her family celebrated Shabbat, but not enough to know that she’d learned the Hebrew prayers she sang phonetically, that such an ostensibly religious practice could be so entirely cultural. I also knew that her sister lived in Tel Aviv, that her grandparents had survived the Holocaust—her grandfather, PopPop, in Auschwitz, and her grandmother as a hidden child in Slovakia—and that her family was staunchly supportive of the Jewish state. I failed, at first, to recognize the connection.
Over the years, as I grew to know and love her family, visited Israel, became an uncle-in-spirit to Israeli nieces, and generally shared in Judaism’s rituals, wisdom, and community, I grew to understand the tefillin-tight bonds (see, I’ve learned a thing or two) between Jews—so much so that I decided to convert to Judaism, and enrolled in a Judaism 101 course slated to start, auspiciously, this past October.
There’s a story my soon-to-be mother-in-law has told me a few times since:
Her father—PopPop, the survivor of Auschwitz who lived a proud Jewish life and helped raise a proudly Jewish family—had been chatting with his adopted granddaughter (a survivor of the Rwandan genocide) about her decision to convert.
“Haven’t you been through enough?” he asked her, more than half serious.
While it’s ludicrous to compare any of my experiences to hers, the story feels painfully apropos in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Because although I’ve learned much in the first few months of the conversion process and the introduction to Judaism class in which I’m currently enrolled, what I’ve mostly gotten is a global crash course on antisemitism.
That’s not to say the last few months have been my first encounter with the oldest hatred. I’d done my best to comfort my fiancée after the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and in previous flare-ups of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. What I’ve only come to recognize since Oct. 7, as I’ve seen graffiti reading “Jews are bad”—and heard Jewish friends call it “refreshing” because “at least they’re not trying to hide their hatred”—was that the quivering fear and weighty resolve I’d heard in their voices was rooted in a generations-long understanding that the world will not stand with the Jews.
But recently, I’ve also heard antisemitism decried as the ultimate safety blanket against fair criticism of Israel’s government. Surely people can and do protest the Israeli government without being antisemitic?
As I’m converting, I’ve sought to understand and recognize this old hate to which I am newly subjecting myself. One of my first steps was to speak with the rabbi who is sponsoring my conversion. She urged that I look for nuanced opinions, cautioning that they are hardest to find during moments like this one, when they are most needed.
Perhaps naively, I attended a “free Palestine” rally at the University of Washington, hoping to hear a condemnation of terrorism alongside advocation for the Palestinian people, who deserve the right to live in peace alongside Israel. Instead, the mass murder, rape, and infanticide of Oct. 7 was glorified as “righteous resistance.” Israel was belittled with seething tongues as a militarized wing of U.S imperialism in need of dismantling, its people (the majority of whom are refugees escaping persecution from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa) as violent “white colonizers.”
Still, from 10,000 feet up—far enough away that the thousands of rockets fired at Israeli civilians blur with the devastating retaliatory wreckage of Gaza, where more than a few of them have landed—I agreed broadly with the protesters’ calls. Colonialism is evil to indigenous populations (though in this case, that includes the Jews). All people have the right to self-determination. Peace should be honored. Hospitals and schools should not be military targets.
I wondered if I read the same stuff as the students at the rally, as my friends on social media, I might come to agree even more strongly? So I went searching for things that disconfirmed the views of the stout Zionists in my life.
I dove into social media channels advocating for the Palestinian cause, I read historical accounts of the Nakba, “the catastrophe,” which in effect created the Palestinians as a refugee people. I learned about the slow-burning violence of permitting in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, about the horrific massacre of Deir Yassin and other towns during the war of 1948. I read accounts from civilians in Gaza and from the West Bank, where extremists on the Israeli religious right are an obvious, even intentional roadblock to peace.
Following the advice of my rabbi, I tried to cast the benefit of the doubt like a fine wide net, ensnaring all but the obviously hateful: the chants to “gas the Jews,” the woman who casually yelled “Heil Hitler” at my fiancée and me as we marched for a hostage release, the man two blocks later who sneered at us and called us “white supremacists.”
And there have been times, to be sure, when this faith has been rewarded.
By the people who gladly agreed to stop saying “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” when they heard it was actually a call to destroy Israel, and deeply hurtful to most Jews.
By the protesters at the pro-Israel March on Washington holding signs that said “Pro Israel, Anti Bibi, Pro Palestine, Anti Hamas.” What’s more nuanced than that?
By the students at the University of Washington who went to hear an Israeli speaker, hoping to learn more about the Israeli perspective of the war.
By the man who protested for the Palestinian cause while holding a sign that read: “Hamas are terrorists.”
But unfortunately, these instances have been like pearls in a chum bucket.
The man holding the “Hamas are terrorists” sign was beaten by the people he marched alongside.
Only a dozen or so students at UW—more than half of them Jewish or Israeli American—cared to hear the Israeli speaker’s perspective, while several weeks earlier hundreds had walked out of class to shout, “intifada, intifada!”
Many activists who say accusations of antisemitism silence their justified criticism of the Israeli government in reality make almost no effort to distance themselves or their rhetoric from those who vow only to destroy Israel. Indeed, many have celebrated the image of one of the terrorists who massacred 260 innocent people as they danced at a music festival. Too few show any concern for the Israeli hostages; even fewer acknowledge Israel’s right to exist or its justified grievances with neighbors sworn to its elimination.
One college professor clubbed an elderly Jewish man with his megaphone. He was charged only with involuntary manslaughter when the victim died of his injuries.
I found well-financed videos that horrifyingly compared Hamas—the group of terrorists who behead Jewish babies and rape young Jewish girls—to the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
I found silence about and denial of this rape from the women’s organizations who historically and in all other contexts tell us that ignoring or not believing victims is the most harmful thing one can do.
I found the origins of the term “Nakba,” so widely used today to describe Zionist aggression in the war of 1948. “Nakba” was actually coined by a Syrian intellectual to describe the failed aggression of the Arab League, who rejected the U.N. resolution that would have created a Palestinian state, and attacked Israel instead, aiming to annihilate it. I learned that many of the descendants of the Arabs who did not fight against Israel now have full equal rights as Israeli citizens.
And I found that when Hamas, the internationally recognized terrorist group, proclaimed that Israel had bombed a hospital and killed 500 civilians, the world rushed not to search for truth, but to blame the Jews.
Ultimately, it was this that has led to my current understanding of antisemitism.
The most silently dangerous form of Jew-hatred isn’t the swastikas on dorm room whiteboards or hateful genocidal chants. It is in the speed at which educated, otherwise decent people—like the doctors and lawyers who signed on to the Final Solution in 1941—ignore their impulses for truth and misinformation, right and wrong, to believe the worst about Jews.
The antisemitism is The New York Times or The Washington Post or the BBC rushing to believe Hamas and blame Israel for the hospital explosion, in headlines and push notifications, even though U.S. intelligence later confirmed Israel’s version of the story: that a rocket fired at Israel by terrorists in Gaza landed in a hospital parking lot, killing close to 50, not the 500 originally reported. It should go without saying that any loss of human life is horrific. But it needs asserting here, since those who oppose Israel’s existence truly believe the IDF wants to kill the civilians of Gaza. That’s despite the lengths Israel goes to avoid civilian casualties: warning of incoming military strikes, calling Gazans’ phones directly and assisting them in evacuating civilians.
The antisemitism is in all the smart people who learn of those extreme lengths and see only evidence of Israel’s genocidal rage.
It is the Freudian slip of the BBC anchor who reported with a grave voice that Israel was attacking medical personnel and Arabic speakers at the Al-Shifa hospital, and not that, in fact, the IDF brought in medics, doctors, and Arabic speakers to support and aid the Gazans.
It is in the mental gymnastics required to argue, as an acquaintance of mine does, that kidnapping babies and elderly women is allowed under the rules of war, because Israeli “settlers” (by their definition, anyone living in Israel) are not civilians, and that families living in kibbutzim represent the Israeli use of human shields and are equivalent to Hamas firing RPGs from hospitals or rockets from refugee camps.
These things, which in any other context might inspire hesitation from even the most gullible, are taken unquestioned as truth when they apply to Israel.
I realize that this understanding of antisemitism, as an insidious force operating beneath the consciousness of the well-intentioned, poison in the water, is terrifying. To see it in this way is to see that antisemitism is even more widespread than the hundreds of thousands of people marching on the streets of Europe and North America, louder even than the chorus of student voices chanting to “globalize the intifada.”
But it is also to see antisemitism as something that can be stopped.
Because one of the lessons I have learned from Judaism is that the strength of any conviction must rest upon a compassionate search for understanding, and that, as the rabbinical quote goes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Quelling antisemitism and healing our society feels like an impossible task right now. The fast-opening wound looks too wide to stitch back up. But to those who say they oppose antisemitism while shouting “from the river to the sea,” or marching alongside those who fail to condemn Hamas, that doesn’t let you off the hook. Quite the opposite.
PopPop may have warned of the persecution and hate that comes with being Jewish. But having experienced the most utterly violent form of that hate, he remained a deeply kind-hearted person, an adoring grandfather and colorful painter who was fiercely proud of his Judaism. I’ve tried to follow his example of leading with an open heart as I’ve learned about Judaism, and it’s only strengthened my conviction that as a Jew I’ll have so much of which I can be proud.
I’m not saying you should convert. But I am saying that if you too do the uncomfortable work of at least trying to disconfirm your beliefs, of trying to understand the Jews, it might just temper your rage.
Henry Wilhelm is a writer based in Seattle.