Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times, Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

November 25, 2023

SCHWARZ | The Israel-Hamas War and the Effect on the American Jewish Experience

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If Israel ought to be abolished because it is guilty of displacing native inhabitants, then the same should go for the United States or Australia, among many other countries. If Israel is racist, then how is it that more than half of Israeli Jews have non-Ashkenazi roots, because their ancestors came from places like Iran, Yemen and Ethiopia? If Israel is an apartheid state, why are Israeli Arabs in the Knesset, on the Supreme Court, attending Israeli universities, staffing Israeli hospitals?

Bret Stephens

The American Jewish experience individually and collectively has always been a dialectic between inclusion and exclusion, between being accepted, although often grudgingly, and being regarded as intruders.

Why, we need ask, are Jews now feeling more beleaguered, anxious and even frightened, and more identified as Other, than at any time in our adult lifetime? The immediate answer is that Jews are being identified with Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza. But the more complex answer is that this recent cycle of violence, begun on Oct. 7, by the horrific murder and kidnapping by Hamas, is uncovering vestigial feelings that Jews are an Other that have been developing for quite some time. An example is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinians, a movement that has singled out Israel as the one country deserving of economic punishment while other countries, far more guilty of human rights violations, are not mentioned.

After the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, there was was a brief spate of sympathy for the Israeli victims of atrocities but that has mostly evaporated. Now much of the world has turned against Israel and Jews. Anti-Semitic rhetoric and incidents in the U.S. and all over the world speak to the increasing demonizing not merely of Israel but of all Jews. Evidence includes a rising tide of hate crimes against Jews.

With anti-Israel sentiment growing as an excuse for anti-Semitism in this country and worldwide, Jews are once again regarded as intruders by some students on campuses as well as in a wide array of public demonstrations. The result is that the most assimilated Jews — even those who barely observe Jewish religious customs or those who have a mixed ethnic heritage — are becoming more aware of their Jewish heritage. Certainly I, whose grandparents were born in the U.S. in the 1880s, am more aware that I am a hyphenated Jewish American than I was on Oct. 6. While this is not the first time in recent years that this has occurred, it is more intensified this time. 

For many Jewish families America has been a land of opportunity but not without scattered experiences of anti-Semitism and exclusion. This ambiguity is reflected in Jewish ethnic identity. Jews in the early twentieth century were not regarded as white; even now, for many Americans and not just right-wing Christian nationalists, Jews are a kind of special subcategory of white.

From Henry Ford to Walt Disney to Charles Lindbergh, there is a long history of Anti-Semitism in America. Hitler’s viciously discriminatory policies to Jews had considerable support in the U.S. in the 1930s before the U.S. joined World War II in 1941 and before the revelation of Nazi genocide.

Excluded from various businesses, investment and banking institutions, law firms and clubs, Jews formed their own parallel social and economic institutions. Growing up in a NYC suburb, I was aware that among white people there was a hierarchy and Jews were at the bottom, unwelcome at private schools, some resorts, social clubs and even restaurants.

I was born in 1941 in the U.S. during World War II and the Holocaust. When I was a boy, even though I lived in a suburban enclave in Nassau county, I was very much aware of the difference between Jews and non-Jews.  I knew that my family was considered white enough to live in Rockville Centre, but not white enough to live in Garden City which, until the 1968 Fair Housing Act, had covenants restricting to whom you could sell your home. It was accepted knowledge that some companies and even industries did not hire Jews and that private colleges were more difficult to get into if one were Jewish because of quotas on the number of Jews. Some of our neighbors were quite cold to the very few Jews on our block and seemed to regard us as intruders.

As a Jewish academic, I have benefited from opportunities that would not have been available a few decades before I entered graduate school in 1963, but I have also been met on occasion with skepticism and resistance.  I was made to understand more than once by Jews and friendly non-Jews not to be “too Jewish.” I was fortunate to be in a graduate program at Brown where there were a few Jews among the department’s faculty and to find a few at Cornell when I arrived here, although none belonged to the local synagogue, and some did not speak at all of their Jewish background. Lecturing widely in the U.S. and beyond, I have been on occasion in situations when as a Jew I was a curiosity among people who rarely saw Jews and barely knew what to expect when they did.

I have always taken it as a given that as a Jew I was a little more vulnerable to insult and ostracization than non-Jews. I have seen non-Jews get favorable treatment that Jews did not get. While Jews should be careful not to blame every disappointment on anti-Semitism, many times I have wondered if misunderstandings at least in part resulted from cultural differences or people being put off by my New York accent or my mannerisms that are identified as Jewish.

I have seen barriers come down, but thinking about the increasing rage against Israel the past month, I worry that some will be subtly reestablished. In recent years, economically comfortable Jews have lived in a bubble, perhaps unaware that they are often identified first and foremost as “Jews,” no matter how much they contribute to human effort and money to their communities, including universities, libraries and the arts. Has not the reductive identification of Jews as Other become more prominent in the last month both on the so-called Progressive Left and the extreme Right?

Burgeoning feelings of anti-Semitism have been cultivated by Trump in his references to supposedly Jewish “globalists,” his attack on George Soros as if one person could manipulate the world economy, his use of the term “vermin”— used by the Nazis to reduce Jews to nonhumans — to describe fellow citizens whose views he dislikes, and his toleration for those who chant “Jews will not replace us” while wearing Nazi insignias. Given Elon Musk’s flagrant anti-Semitism and endorsement of the ludicrous Replacement theory — a supposed Jewish conspiracy to replace white people of European descent with Jews and people of color — I have suspended my participation on X (formerly known as Twitter).

In evaluating rising anti-Semitism, it is not always easy to separate ignorance from malice. In this country some young people who see themselves as Progressives but who know little about the history of the Middle East or the support Hamas gets from governments that define themselves as antagonists of the U.S. — Iran, Russia, China, North Korea — cheer for Hamas and condemn Israel’s response. These young people may not realize that Hamas and the Palestine Authority on the West Bank hate the U.S. almost as much as they hate Israel, and that they identify Jews with Israel and Israel with the U.S. Even while Arab governments made economic arrangements with Israel, most of the population of these countries were taught in schools and mosques to hate Jews and view such rapprochement with suspicion.

When does anti-Semitism deriving from ignorance end and anti-Semitism coming from malice begin? Recently, an undergraduate student told me: a) What happened Oct. 7 in Israel was exaggerated. b) Hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions had been killed in Gaza. c) The Gaza bombings were worse than Hiroshima. d) Hundreds of millions of Palestinians are deprived of their homeland (There are actually about 14 million Palestinians in the world, over 2 million in Gaza, over 3 million in the West Bank, and over 2 million in Israel). e) “From the River to the Sea”— which calls for the end of Israel and the Jews who live there either by death or deportation — was not anti-Semitic.  When I questioned her source for these statements, she told me she had no time to do research about facts but heard this from others whom she believed.

Now you know why I began by quoting the powerful paragraph about Israel, a paragraph that reminds us of what Israel strives for. Listening to this student’s statement, I said to myself: We as teachers at every level beginning at elementary school have a moral responsibility to teach our students to be informed by reading reputable material rather than simply repeating often malicious and false information.

Has our education system failed this student by not explaining the history of Jews, including the Holocaust and why Israel was formed?  Or has she been infected by the disease of anti-Semitism? Or both?  What can we do at Cornell to give students the time and motivation to learn about others and think critically. Should the faculty and administration be thinking about a required two-semester course in World History as a requirement? Were more students aware of the Middle East History, would the current Jewish-American experience at Cornell be improved?

That said, it is important to acknowledge that Netanyahu’s recent government has done great damage to Israel. I affirm my support for a two-state solution, one state of which is an independent Palestine nation that would respect Israel’s right to exist just as Israel would respects theirs. Finally, at this point, the release of the surviving hostages should be Israel’s first priority. While lacking military expertise about how to control the ongoing threat of Hamas to Israel, and understanding the necessity of Israel’s retaliation, I have doubts that the continued destruction of Gaza with its concomitant loss of civilian lives is justified or in the long-term interests of Israel or of Jews in America.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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