“You think it’s over? It’s not o-ver,” my Great-Aunt Lee used to warn me, in a singsong voice, her forced smile wrapped up with some sort of awful knowing. “Antisemitism isn’t over. It’s never o-ver.”
My dear Aunt Lee was clearly crazy, I’d think. Superstitiously spitting-after-compliments crazy. What antisemitism?
Then the mayor and city council of my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, enacted a resolution in support of what Jewish Voice for Peace dubbed “Deadly Exchange,” a toxic campaign to spook well-intentioned people into blaming Israel for policing issues in the United States. Suddenly, Durham Jews found themselves having to deny that Israeli Jews were instructing local cops on how to torture Black Americans. And deny that hating people of color was a Jewish thing. And deny that we were the most sinister, vile people on the planet. Anyone feel like going to the Hope Valley Diner while wearing a Jewish star necklace tonight?
We began hearing rumors that similar campaigns were afoot in cities nearby. So I plunked down the $600 AIPAC registration fee and bought a long Tory Burch dress at T.J.Maxx, figuring a serious dress would help me get taken seriously. Surely someone, someone, among the twinkling constellation of Jewish muckety-mucks at that conference would listen to my story and then help me fix what left me sitting in numb disbelief on my cold bathroom floor night after night, once the kids were asleep.
My husband designed business cards for me. “Fight Back Now,” they said, with a Jewish star. We printed an optimistic 200 cards on flimsy stock at FedEx, and then to Washington, D.C., I went. I didn’t care that I’d be spending my birthday alone. It was 2019. The world was on fire.
Walking through the soaring, glass-paneled lobby of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, I somehow felt things might be looking up. The place was abuzz with some 20,000 AIPAC attendees. A veritable army! In one of the conference rooms, a star of the Jewish establishment was holding forth about he had converted an Israel critic into an Israel supporter by employing a few gentle talking points. The takeaway: Understatement can work for you, too.
I raced up to the front of the room the moment he was done. Deadly Exchange is spreading, I told him, breathlessly. How can we respond? What can we do?
He seemed flummoxed. A circle of people pressed in around us, anxious to pump his hand. I shifted uncomfortably in my black boots.
Surely, he had something for me. Anything, really. Could you give me a few sentences, I asked, that will help me fight back against the logic of Deadly Exchange, which is turning my family and other local Jews in Durham, North Carolina, into pariahs unless we publicly renounce the evils of Zionism? No, he said, he didn’t have those sentences. He turned away. I clamped my hand around the business card I held ready. It suddenly seemed so presumptuous.
That scene would become a loop in the three days I attended the conference. I’d sit tensely through the speeches or panels, waiting to make a beeline afterward to the People Who Mattered. Now clutching my Kleenex instead of my cards, I’d tell anyone who would listen that bad things were afoot in Durham. Really bad. We had to reverse the city’s boycott. We needed help. We needed a plan.
They sized me up. Shook their heads. Tsk, tsk, what a shame. Some handed me their business cards, thick card stock bearing the names of hefty organizations: Jewish Federations, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Israel Action Network, Jewish Community Relations Council …
But somehow, that was it: a business card to cheer you through your troubles. A few times, someone would take me gently by the elbow and lead me to someone else. Maybe so-and-so will have some ideas, they said. So-and-so didn’t.
I plodded on: Anti-Zionist posters have gone up in Durham. Swastikas have come out. You really, really should care. Because, you know, what starts with us, might not end with us …
Someone suggested that I meet with my local officials, behind closed doors. Explain things. Don’t you get it? They laughed us out of municipal meetings! After the 20th fruitless exchange, I began to understand. No one was going to fix this. Maybe they didn’t know how. Maybe they couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps it was a combination of both. But one thing was increasingly clear: I’d be going back to Durham empty handed, the same old doomsayer as when I’d left.
As my despair grew, I began to take stock of the inverse relationship of my happiness to theirs. The AIPAC crowd was a chipper-looking one in 2019. The men in sharp ties and women in sensible heels all seemed to have somewhere to go, and usually someone to go with. In the evenings, they dashed off to some party or another, ducking into Ubers while taking very important calls.
Meanwhile, I’d go back to my room at the Embassy Row Hotel and study a cityscape of bleak roofs outside my window. “I’m such an extraneous presence here,” I wrote in my journal on March 25, 2019. “There’s no booth set up for people whose towns are crashing and burning. No kiosks in here to connect with other disbelieving, horror-struck Jews who see the schisms coming and need help to stop them.”
On my third and final day, an old friend from New York led me to a small table and introduced me to a dark-haired woman, the director of outreach at such-and-such organization. My last hope. Exhausted and frazzled, I told her that although we’d lost, I was still making blistering speeches at Durham City Hall, directly calling out the mayor and city council for legislating against the Jews.
Her exact words: “Please don’t take your show on the road. We would rather not have a vote than have a win vote.”
I found myself saying for maybe the 100th time that the city resolution mattered. That I had neighbors who thought Jews were out to get them. Who were being taught that their solidarity with other groups and their moral standing in their community depended on loudly opposing something called Zionism, which also meant opposing my very existence. That this was a programmatic, effortful campaign, supported by copious organizing energy and ideological manifestos and speakers flown in from out of town, targeting my neighbors, who aren’t Jewish.
“I would invite them over,” she began, speaking slowly and deliberately, because that is how one speaks to the witless.
I burst into tears. At the sight of a grown woman, publicly reduced to a weepy lump in a serious and very long dress, my friend was speechless. He finally said, “I guess we forget, living on the Upper West Side, what it’s like in regular America.”
Indeed. You there, the lucky ones, standing by the spotless windows of your multistory co-ops, peering down occasionally at us if you remember we’re there. From our perspective, you appear something akin to the “privileged Viennese bourgeois” of whom Herzl despaired.
Perhaps we are the wretched Eastern Europeans in the evolving story of America. We are the not-lucky people like Mel Waldorf, railing alone against the Alameda County school board; or John Kovac, battling the public library in Highland Park; or Andrew Pessin, thanklessly exposing BDS’ latest maneuvers; or Victor Muslin, chronicling which Columbia University professors whom students would do well to avoid; or Naomi Reinharz, penning a solitary howl against Israeli divestment at Brown University; or Deborah Friedman, Amy Rosenthal, and Josh Ravitch, persisting in the Sisyphean labor of holding accountable Durham’s most powerful civic leaders and the (usually sanguine and occasionally colluding) Jewish establishment here.
We are the ragged ranks of isolated objectors doing the dirty work of calling out anti-Zionism in America’s powerhouses and hinterlands. Because that’s the stuff that rots the floor joists, leading to the moral collapse of otherwise good Americans who will grow to favor Deadly Exchange, and reject things like funding the Iron Dome that protects innocent Israeli children from rocket fire. And once that happens, they’re just a breath away from justifying why someone might want to smash the face of, say, one Joseph Borgen, a red-headed accountant who had the misfortune recently to walk through Midtown while Jewish.
Do we lone protesters move the needle? Not by much. Believe it or not, Jews are not all-powerful. The Jewish people are a small minority group—and an increasingly unpopular one in the precincts of fashionable or even semifashionable opinion. We are thoroughly outmanned and outgunned. We break ranks and seek shelter where we can. Some make a misplaced calculation—maybe if I separate myself from the ranters and ravers, the brazen Zionists, the mob will come for them, and not for me.
After the Durham resolution, I watched in nauseating astonishment as my local Jewish community center platformed the very mayor who had spearheaded Durham city’s boycott. I noted, to my horror, how my Reform synagogue, under its “big tent” policy, regularly amplified anti-Zionists through study sessions, committee appointments, and even board election slates—while simultaneously shutting down strong Zionist voices as “divisive.” I wrote regular letters, pointed but polite, about the damage they were causing to our community, our people, and our country. My letters were ignored. My application to sit on the shul’s Israel discourse committee was denied. My request to establish a committee on the scourge of anti-Zionism went unanswered. Last week, my synagogue named our Durham mayor one of its volunteers of the year. I am composing another letter: Dear Temple Executives and Leaders …
In our own way, my peers in this movement are the new screamers in Arthur Koestler’s stunning essay, in 1944, The Nightmare That Is a Reality, which Eric Weinstein read last summer in his podcast “The Portal,” and which resonated so deeply that we can’t stop talking about it. Koestler’s screamers tried in vain to awaken a slumbering world as to the urgency of saving European Jewry from the ditches and the ovens. Some of us have been screaming for several years now about the urgency of awakening a slumbering Jewish world as to the dangers of dismissing, excusing, and normalizing anti-Zionism.
For the longest time, our screams seemed to fall on deaf ears. On the occasions when we were loud enough to cause people to put down their lattes for a moment, they largely dismissed us as hysterics, or “right wing,” or simply too Jew-y for genteel American Jewry.
And so it is with equal parts dismay and empathy that I watch as a familiar hatred appears in the sacred double-digit streets of Manhattan, far from “regular America”! Will the people with their hands on the levers at our shuls, our Jewish studies departments, our federations, associations, and committees take our warnings seriously? Maybe. Or maybe not.
A virus is a strange equalizer. It turns out that the disease we feel so keenly out here in the shtetl-burbs doesn’t stop at the county line. It now lies in wait on every city street of our tinsel new Jerusalem. It is knocking on all our doors. And if I have learned anything, it is this: The cavalry is not coming. We are the cavalry.
In Durham, we are here for you.
Kathryn Wolf is a writer and former reporter, living in Durham, North Carolina. Reach her at ThisIsZionism.org.