Archie Gottesman is on the boards of Zioness and Democratic Majority for Israel, both of which fight anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hate through political and social action. Here are some thoughts she shared recently at a joint event for the organizations:
As a seventh-grader learning about the Holocaust, I had many questions, but a major one was: What was happening right before? Weren’t there signs? When did it become too late to fight back? I remember feeling sadness but not fear, because it was 1975 and this was history class. Fast forward to today; now I feel, perhaps not downright fear, but true unease. Is this what it felt like in Germany in 1938?
My friend Nessa is 95. She grew up in Warsaw, Poland. When she was young, Nessa and her mother, father, and sister, along with 400,000 other Jews, were moved into the Warsaw ghetto. One afternoon, in one of those tragic occurrences that happened countless times during the Holocaust, Nessa’s mother and sister were taken away and killed. Nessa escaped — and she is now my friend in New Jersey. We talk about our families and politics and, in the last two years, we talk a lot about anti-Semitism. Not long ago, Nessa said, “This country used to be magic. Now it reminds me of how I used to feel in 1938 when I heard about Hitler and Germany.” Then she said, “I’m going to be dead, but I am worried about you. What are you going to do about it?” She meant about the rise in anti-Semitism. So, I joined the boards of the Democratic Majority for Israel and Zioness. When I told Nessa, she wasn’t terribly impressed. She looked me right in the eye and asked, “But what are you going to do?”
So, here are five things I’m doing, and I would urge you to join me.
1) I learned how to use a period at the end of a sentence. I used to qualify my dedication when I spoke about Israel. It was always, “I support Israel, but… I hate Netanyahu…,” or “I don’t like the ever-expanding settlements…,” or “I have issues with the enormous strength held by the ultra-Orthodox….” But, but, but. Now I say, “I stand for Israel’s right to thrive and defend itself” — period. Why? One reason is that the world is looking to Jewish people to help them form opinions about Israel. And if Jewish people can’t support Israel’s right to thrive, how can anyone else? I have Jewish friends who say they are unresolved in their support for Israel, but what they mean is that they struggle with their feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I do too. Of course, it’s OK to question Israel’s policies, just like we question America’s. But people are listening; don’t confuse them with compassion for Palestinians that sounds like lukewarm support for Israel.
2) I’m not going to be forced to make false choices. Recently a progressive friend pressed me to answer the question, “Which is worse, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on the left or old-fashioned anti-Semitism on the right?” He was trying to convince me that delegitimizing Israel, like they are doing on the far left, is better than shooting up synagogues and marching with torches, like they are doing on the far right. I finally said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Our new bar of acceptability is so low that all you need to do is be better than a Nazi?” Another absurd choice is when someone tells me that what I am feeling is not anti-Semitism, but anti-Israel sentiment. First, I’m pretty sure I know what I am feeling and when. Second, I understand the difference, but trust me, plenty of people don’t. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world. I have yet to meet someone who loves Israel but hates the Jews. This obsessive criticizing of Israel but “not hating Jews” is a difference without a distinction, and it’s fueling hate.
3) I won’t be placated by excuses for anti-Semitism. Like: It’s Trump’s fault, or Jews have always been persecuted, or anti-Semitism is nothing new, or it’s just a few extremists. People make excuses because they’re scared. But when Nessa says this is what it felt like in 1938, you’d better believe we should all pay attention.
4) I speak up. I was at a parlor meeting with progressive Jewish women, and we were talking about the damage that the BDS movement is doing. (BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, and the movement’s goal is to see the end of Israel as a Jewish state.) One woman asked, “BDS is definitely bad, right?” And another said: “Well, there are two BDSes; one is bad, the other isn’t.” Instead of calling this out, I froze. I was 99.9 percent sure there isn’t a good BDS and a bad BDS, but she said it with such authority that I sat there in silence. When I left, I checked the Internet. Nope — just one BDS and, yup, it wants to see the end of Israel. Talk about a “This is what I should have said” moment. We all most likely know more than we think we do. Let’s not be afraid to join the conversation.
5) I’m going to worry only about my own community for a while. Now is the time for us to be bold and maybe a little bit selfish. Jewish people have always taken the idea of tikkun olam — repairing the world — seriously. I know amazing Jewish people who start orphanages in Africa, fund gun-control nonprofits, operate charter schools, establish organizations that collect clothing for women looking for jobs, and more. Jews give billions of dollars in philanthropy every year, and a staggering 80 percent of that money goes to non-Jewish/non-Israel causes. But now the Jewish/Israel community needs our support, and it’s time to turn inward. Of course, I have non-Jewish philanthropic passions that I care deeply about and support with time and money. But right now, with Nessa’s burning question, “What are you doing about anti-Semitism?” ringing in my ears, I am reevaluating my priorities. Anti-Semitism needs to be put on the front burner because if we don’t focus on it now, we might not have the chance later.
For more information about these organizations, please visit zioness.org and demmajorityforisrael.org.
Archie Gottesman of Summit is cofounder of JewBelong.com.