Growing up as a Jewish American in the 90s was a good time. The Wisconsin winter began with Chanukah menorahs warming up the house in the living room window, and we walked to our synagogue throughout the seasons, playing 20 questions. Sure, security was at the front entrance, as well as at our schools, but that faded into the background as I played tag with my friends.
I grew up in a liberal household, in which I was encouraged to seek out social welfare for all that I met. True to these ideals, I volunteered full-time at homeless shelters, studied sociology and sought to make a positive impact for those around me.
Only later did my father share that someone had drawn a swastika on our house when my brothers and I were young, and that when he was 20 and in upstate New York, a boss had felt his head for horns, certain they were hiding under his hair. In an old diary of when I was 15, I still have an article about a bomb threat at my family’s synagogue. I remember being told before field trips that we needed to behave and act respectfully, as we were representing Jews. I didn’t understand the significance of the request at that time, but of course, we took this seriously. Nonetheless, while I was vaguely aware of antisemitism lurking in the shadows, my experience was that American Jews were supported by the public, and that most supported Israel’s existence. I look back at this time with such fondness.
Towards the end of obtaining my college degree, the classroom debates changed, and I graduated with my jaw hanging open. Israel, a country that had been largely ignored by America’s public for as long as I can remember, was suddenly the newest, sexiest thing to be mad about. Jews in America are familiar with hatred – Arabs and Neo-Nazi hate are a part of our existence and are the perfect backdrop to a rainy day. I began to feel like I was on a spinning ball, constantly trying to keep my balance. As my classmates and later co-workers and friends began to debate passionately with me, I found myself very aware that I was experiencing a new brand of antisemitism I hadn’t experienced before. While many brought their anger and accusations and thought this was sufficient material for a debate, none had done any research on the history of the conflict. Suddenly, I felt my liberal identity raise up to fight my Jewish identity. What did it mean to be both? Could I be both if both were at odds with each other? If being a liberal meant, “a supporter of policies that are socially progressive and promote social welfare,” then what happened to supporting the 15 million remaining Jews in the world? How did we fall out from the umbrella of social welfare and empathy? Meanwhile, violence towards Jews is increasing worldwide.
French Jews are fleeing France amidst violence towards them. British members of parliament either were expelled or voluntarily left the Labour Party in England due to antisemitism running rampant. American Jews are getting shot, stabbed, assaulted, part of a hostage situation, and are becoming increasingly fearful of lighting menorahs in their windows. Friends share that they would love to hang an Israeli flag from their house but are fearful of violent consequences. Conspiracy theories are no longer hidden behind closed doors. Jewish organizations provide “hostage training.” Louis Farrakhan’s campaign to propagandize hate towards Jews spreads. I watch the BBC accuse former prime minister Naftali Bennet of killing children.
As I stand on my spinning ball, I wonder if other liberal Jews are as disoriented as I am. I knew my place confidently until the cognitive dissonance made it impossible to question that it didn’t seem like anyone was on our side anymore. I look at my non-Jewish liberal friends, and for them, nothing has changed. However, for me, I don’t know how to exist in a party that has thrown us to the wolves, while commending themselves on protecting those who need protection. I wonder if perhaps the Democratic Party has felt a bit too entitled with the liberal Jewish vote. Since we advocate hard for social welfare, we are an easy vote. But we are being asked to vote for it now, at the expense of ourselves. While I am not disillusioned that either the Republican or Democratic party is particularly supportive of Jews, I do have to question which will keep Israel safest, the place all Jews have automatic citizenship to go to if the world becomes too unsafe. Without Israel, Jews are subject to whatever trends their society follows at the time, and history reflects that this has never been good for Jewish survival. While my non-Jewish liberal friends do not often have to question their survival, Jews do. As I try to explain over and over again what this feels like to my non-Jewish liberal friends, I realize that no one understands this, they can’t. Our histories aren’t the same. Perhaps it is a feeling that only a liberal Jew can understand.
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Simone Bruch was raised in the Milwaukee area, and after living in London, Munich and Chicago, returned in 2019. She lives with her husband and two dogs, and enjoys writing, making art and gardening.