The memories of my high school years are as distant as they are close.
If I close my eyes hard enough, I can still smell the mixture of linoleum and cafeteria lunches that wafted through the air long after lunch was over, but don’t ask me about what I learned in math class or AP biology. That, I will never uncover.
There’s one memory from high school that sticks out to me, though. Up until this past May, that memory was just another piece of evidence in the mountain of experiences where I felt loved and accepted as a Jew in a progressive space. Now, that memory is tinged with irony and indignation.
My high school was always ahead of its time politically. We brandished Black Lives Matter flags outside classroom doors, and we shared our preferred pronouns with every introduction. We even had a gender-neutral bathroom. So it should come as no surprise that, in the middle of August 2017, when right-wing Neo-Nazis marched the streets of Charlottesville, holding tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” my classmates were quick to share the story on social media and to condemn those who the president called “very fine people.” The people around me were horrified that the leader of our nation would say such a thing about our country’s oldest and most evil enemy: the Nazis.
As a Jew, I don’t have the privilege of forgetting Nazis exist. The intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust is an ever-present motif in my Jewish experience. When we say “never forget,” we mean it literally. Every day that I am alive and Jewish is a day that I am grateful for. Every breath I take is a constant reminder of the resilience my ancestors were blessed with time and time again; and on every birthday, I look down at my hands in amazement, unsure what I did to deserve another year in a world where my Judaism is not a death sentence. I choose to focus on that instead of the way the people who seek to destroy us are able to stick around with such an inconceivable persistence.
When I saw the Charlottesville videos, I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t scared. My first instinct wasn’t to prepare a hiding spot in the guest room closet like I did when I first learned about the Shoah. I had no nightmares, no tears to shed. It was the strangest thing. Despite the feeling of impending doom that my ancestors had so graciously gifted me, there was a numbness I experienced in response to the calls for the destruction of me and my people, most likely because I knew deep down that their wishes would never actualize. I knew that good would always prevail, and that this time around, there would be no bystanders. In the place of fear was a wave of relief that my peers stood against antisemitism, which meant they stood with me. For the first time in my Jewish, liberal existence, I knew what it felt like to be fought for.
It wasn’t until May of 2021 that I felt truly terrified again. When conflicts in Jerusalem made their way into every headline, I knew people would criticize the Israeli government, but I never could have predicted the way that they would take this conflict as an excuse to scapegoat American Jews on social media. People on the left of the political spectrum filled the comments of posts that were outwardly Jewish (and had nothing to do with Israel) with “Free Palestine” as if the Jewish person who made the post had the power to do so. They reposted graphics that invalidated our legitimate genetic ties to Israel and used Jewish trauma as a political tool. I never knew that the very same people who once outwardly expressed their desire to “punch Nazis” would then perpetuate the spread of tropes from actual Nazi propaganda.
I used to respond to them. I gave my former classmates the benefit of the doubt. I thought:
Maybe they just don’t understand what they’re posting. Maybe if I told them how offensive and inaccurate their graphic was, then they’d understand.
Unfortunately, the same people who hosted school-wide workshops on allyship and listening to members of marginalized communities were now shutting me down in my direct messages, telling me what was and wasn’t antisemitic. They held me responsible for Palestinian oppression and then told me that it wasn't antisemitic to do so. To them, contemporary antisemitism began and ended with The Right of the political spectrum. When it came from The Left, it was “activism.”
I, however, was well aware of the trend among leftists who went so far to The Left that they ended up agreeing with The Right, but I thought it was exclusive to the extremists. The fringes of progressivism. When the people I went to school with, and knew personally, began telling me that I, an American Jew, was “no different than white supremacists,” or that Zionism (the belief that Jews have the basic human right to self-determination in their indigenous homeland, Israel) is “the new Nazism,” I just shut down.
I’ll never forget the time Gal Godot wished for peace on both sides of the conflict, and a former classmate quote-tweeted it with the words, “die” and “terrorist supporting pig.” It never ceases to amaze me that, if this person knew that I shared these beliefs with Wonder Woman, that my death, too, would be their wish come true.
After this, I completely stopped arguing with people, and I began blocking them instead. It’s one thing to disagree over a government’s policies, but using it as an excuse to justify antisemitism and Xenophobia is not up for debate. By the end of May, I had blocked a majority of my graduating class, and the list is still growing every day.
Regardless, it became so difficult to think about good prevailing over evil because the people I once considered the “good guys” sounded no different than the ones I called “bad guys.” I even began questioning my own beliefs, thinking:
If the left of the political spectrum has always been on the “right side of history,” winning every battle thus far, where will that leave me when I’m the one fighting against them?
It was a question I didn’t want to answer. So I just stopped asking it. I felt like a hypocrite for identifying as left-wing while still holding beliefs “inconsistent” with contemporary leftism.
The thing is, though, it shouldn’t be inconsistent with leftism and progressivism to believe that everyone should be able to live in their homeland — meaning both Palestinians and Israelis. So if this is Zionism (which it is) and I believe in it (which I do), why were people acting like I was personally responsible for an “ethnic cleansing” in the Middle East, when I am a nobody living in the Midwest?
The answer: I’m Jewish, and antisemitism transcends politics. It mutates to fit the environment that is best suited for its survival. In this case, that environment includes leftism. The more socially acceptable version of “Jews are power-hungry globalists we must destroy,” is now, “the Zionists and Israelis are power-hungry imperialists we must destroy.”
“From the River to the Sea’’ isn’t as blatantly genocidal as “Jews will not replace us.”
Which is why it is far more terrifying.
I used to say the Shema, my favorite Jewish prayer, every night before bed, and because I could never seem to remember the entire Ve’ahavta (the part that comes after it), I would instead add my own English addendum, asking Hashem to “please please please please please let me wake up tomorrow.” Nothing was ever wrong with me, I was always just anxious that someone or something would kill me in my sleep, and asking for a small ounce of protection before leaping into the uncontrollable expanse of unconsciousness eased my mind. I would recite it before taking off on a flight, I’d say it backstage before a play I was in, I said it before I got my wisdom teeth out, and even when my dog was sick. It was like I had someone on the inside. Someone who would keep me and my loved ones safe if I only just asked.
When I got older, I eventually stopped asking every single night. I now save it for the big moments, and I often whisper it under my breath when the time calls for it. When I couldn’t scroll through Instagram without being called a Nazi, and I saw my former classmates wishing for the death of my people, I prayed. Every night was a big moment again, and I’d never felt this scared to be Jewish. Saying my little prayer was the only thing that got me off my phone and back into the real world. It was the only thing that gave me the strength to stop hiding. To stop staying silent.
It’s the reason I’m here today, writing this article with Jewish on Campus, not afraid of people thinking I’m some kind of evil to be defeated. I know who I am, and I will never, ever forget.