Growing up, I used to think anti-Semitism was like the black death: tragic, nightmarish, and historic. It had wiped out millions of people. It was theoretically terrifying. But only occasional outbreaks in poor and faraway countries remained. It had ruined the life of my grandmother, but it would not be part of mine.
But now I realize that anti-Semitism is actually like the flu: uncomfortable, sickly, occasionally deadly, but constantly with us. Every few decades, it mutates into an epidemic. The rest of the time it lingers, producing headaches, sweats, and dizzy spells. Not killing us, just wearing us down.
As a British Jew, with dual French citizenship and Jewish family in Paris, I have felt the cold now for some time; I’m trying to remember when I first felt it coming on. Was it when the Labour splitter George Galloway was elected as a member of Parliament in East London on the back of an anti-Semitic campaign in 2005? Or was it when Ilan Halimi was abducted and murdered by anti-Semites in Paris in 2006?
I don’t remember. But I know I kept on telling myself that it would pass. It was an itch. It wasn’t going to make me a refugee, like my grandmother from Hitler’s Germany in 1933. It wasn’t even going to block me from this or that job, like the lost family she would, very occasionally, talk about, living in Hamburg and Berlin, before she was born in imperial Germany.
Anti-Semitism, I kept thinking, is just not that important, unless for whatever reason I decide to live and work in Cairo or Tehran. I kept thinking that even after I was pinned to a wall, throttled, and punched in the head by Galloway supporters in 2015 shouting, “Get out, you fucking Jew.”
I made a mistake. Just this week, eight Labour MPs have left their party to become independent, in no small part because of the protracted and bitter anti-Semitism crisis that has dogged Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. I felt a creeping horror watching the heavily pregnant Luciana Berger call the Labour Party she was leaving “institutionally anti-Semitic.”
But it wasn’t about the Labour Party.
I felt it again, stronger, like a cold sweat, when I saw the footage of the Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut being mobbed by gilets jaunes—the yellow-vested protesters—who had crossed his path. They yelled, “Palestine,” “France belongs to us,” “Dirty Zionist,” and “The people will punish you.”
Because, yet again, something that should have nothing to do with the Jews—a parliamentary split, or a protest movement sparked by fuel prices—was now all about the Jews. But the insults themselves were not the thing troubling me. What troubled me was what this said about being a European Jew. There was no escaping the flu; it had taken over.
Both Berger in Britain and Finkielkraut in France were telling the same story—the days that European Jews could lead public lives not defined by anti-Semitism were over. We were back, not to the days of Hitler, but to the days of Benjamin Disraeli and Pierre Mendès-France, when being a Jewish public figure was a constant struggle. Not deadly, not insurmountable, just exhausting. A process of endlessly navigating an ever-mutating conspiracy theory against you.
This goes just as much for figures on the left as for figures to their right or in the center. To watch Jon Lansman, the Jewish founder and chair of Momentum, the pro-Corbyn movement, endlessly defend his leader whilst condemning his most fevered supporters is to watch a man whose public life is now defined by anti-Semitism, too.
Countless British Jews on Twitter, from the fuming columnists condemning the left to the leftist comedian and Corbyn-supporting director David Schneider, are now tirelessly trying to parse anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism. Facebook is rife with vigilante anti-anti-Semitism accounts obsessively highlighting every anti-Semitic Labour comment. These are lives taken over, hijacked, by anti-Semitism.
And I hate this. I hate seeing lives taken over by anti-Semitism. I hate seeing people’s minds taken over like this. I hate the psychological damage I can see it causing, to so many Jewish people of all stripes.
I hate how it creates a state a mind so relentlessly negative, so embattled, so insecure. I hate how it turns the happiest, calmest people into furious Twitter warriors, into single-issue advocates. I hate the ugliness, the unhappiness, in the Jewish experience that it creates. I hate the paranoia, and how it makes Jews turn on Jews.
I hate how it seems to blot out everything else. How it makes Jewish life, the Jewish conversation, defined by others, not by its own terms. I don’t want to live like this.
It took me a long time to realize this, but I feel I have learned that the key to living with the flu is not to let my Jewish identity be defined by anti-Semitism. A Jewish life defined only by anti-Semitism, even the righteous fight against anti-Semitism, is a curse.
For Jews confronting the disease, the most important thing to remember and to share is the beauty of Judaism. Tweet a recipe, a book, a novel, not just your fury. Attend a Shabbat dinner, host one, light the Sabbath candles. Don’t just sit there seething; slip into the morning prayers, if only to meditate; say a blessing over a glass of water, as a point of mindfulness; or do whatever it is that you most identify with from Jewish culture or tradition. A bagel, an old song, even a joke. It all has healing power.
Don’t let your Jewish identity be defined by those who hate you. Instead make it a source of strength, something they can never touch, what our ancestors wanted Jewish life to be. They saw the rituals, the togetherness, the songs of the Sabbath as a palace in time, not a cage, a way of life whose purpose was to bring the deepest calm.
And the deepest confidence. Because whenever a Jew wanders around the British Museum in London, or the Met in New York and sees the Roman, Egyptian, and Assyrian remains, they can think, I was there. We are the people of forever. Not only the people killed by Hitler.
I think too many Jews have forgotten this. You can only live with anti-Semitism by not living by anti-Semitism. Etz Chaim is not only the name of the synagogue in Pittsburgh where the massacre took place last October. It is also one of the most beautiful phrases in our morning prayers, a description of the vitality of Judaism: “A tree of life”—Etz Chaim—“to those who seize it.”