Why I Can’t Stop Writing About Oct. 7

Dec 19, 2023 | History, Voices

This will be my last column for the year, and it will be more personal than most. It’s an effort to explain, to myself as much as to readers, why I can’t stop writing about Oct. 7 and its aftermath.

A few weeks ago, my mother was watching footage of a Jewish student being taunted and mobbed by anti-Israel demonstrators at Harvard after he tried to film them. “I was born in hiding,” she told me. “I don’t want to die in hiding.”

My mother was born in Milan in 1940, to a family that had fled the Bolsheviks in Moscow and then, a few years later, the Nazis in Berlin. She was baptized to avoid suspicion; one of her earliest memories is of being abruptly hidden under a nun’s habit. It was only after the war, after she arrived in New York as a refugee, that she learned she was Jewish. America, to her, was the land in which you didn’t have to hide.

That’s no longer true. Well before Oct. 7, Jews were tucking their Stars of David under their collars or hiding their kipas under baseball caps to avoid being shunned or harassed. Synagogues and Jewish community centers were under constant armed guard. The ultra-Orthodox — who, courageously, do not hide their identity from anyone — were routinely assaulted in their communities by bullies who think it’s fun to sucker-punch a Jew. But that reality was shamefully underreported by news organizations that otherwise see themselves as champions of the marginalized and oppressed.

Everything that was true before Oct. 7 became more so after it. Hate crimes against Jews, which had nearly quintupled in the previous 10 years, also quintupled from Oct. 7 to Dec. 7 compared to the same period in 2022. Subtext became text: “Gas the Jews” was the chant heard from protesters at the Sydney Opera House, “From the river to the sea” from the quads of once-great American universities. The same students who had been carefully instructed in the nuances of microaggressions suddenly went very macro when it came to making Jews feel despised. The same progressives who erupted in righteous rage during #MeToo became somnambulant in the face of abundant evidence that Israeli women had been mutilated, gang-raped and murdered by Hamas. The same humanitarians who cried foul over migrant “kids in cages” at the southern U.S. border didn’t seem particularly bothered that Israeli kids were being held in tunnels, or that posters with their names and faces were routinely torn down on New York street corners.

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Where does all this hatred come from? If your answer is Israel, then, to borrow a line I once heard from Leon Wieseltier, you aren’t explaining antisemitism; you’re replicating it. No self-respecting liberal would argue that Islamophobia is understandable because Muslims perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11 and other atrocities. But somehow the types of excuses that are unthinkable when it comes to some minorities become “essential context” when it comes to Jews.

As it is, the single-minded loathing of Israel is another expression of antisemitism. Turkey flies F-16s in bombing runs against Kurds — while relying on U.S. security guarantees backed up by nuclear weapons — and progressives shrug. But after Israel experienced the equivalent of more than a dozen Sept. 11s on a single day, some progressives instantly cheered it as an act of justified “resistance.”

This side of the left, perhaps larger in cultural influence than it is in number, has the moral credibility of David Duke. Much of the right, with its dog-whistling obsession with “replacement theory” and its conspiracy theories about nefarious “globalists,” is no better. The fact that each side is in denial about its bigotry makes it that much more pernicious and pervasive. When progressives think the most despicable name in the world is Benjamin Netanyahu and the far right thinks it’s George Soros, we have a problem.

There’s a historical pattern. In the early 1920s, the most important scientist in Germany was Albert Einstein, the most important politician was Walther Rathenau and the most important philosopher was Edmund Husserl. All Jews. They wound up exiled, murdered or shunned. Today, the U.S. secretaries of state, Treasury and homeland security are Jewish, as is the majority leader in the Senate and the president’s chief of staff.

Too often in Jewish history, our zenith turns out to be our precipice. Too often in world history, that precipice is also the end of free society itself. Antisemitism is a problem for democracy because hatred for Jews, whatever name or cause it travels under, is never a hatred for Jews only. It’s a hatred for distinctiveness: Jews as Jews in Christian lands; Israel as a Jewish state in Muslim lands. Authoritarians seek uniformity. Jews represent difference.

I don’t think my mom will die in hiding. I wonder about my kids. America has been good to Jews since 1655, when the Dutch West India Company rebuked Peter Stuyvesant for refusing trade permits to some Jewish newcomers in what was then New Amsterdam. But if there’s one lesson of Jewish history, it’s that nothing good stays — and why we still say, at the end of every Passover Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Bret Stephens is an Opinion columnist for The Times, writing about foreign policy, domestic politics and cultural issues.

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