“I’m in a fight for my life – not for their death. I want to live, of course, but I don’t want another life lost, be it Jewish or Arab or Christian”.

 

Eyal Gelman and I are the same the age, but I feel oddly young and naïve, sitting at his desk in the Kiryat Arba security office. I’m there to meet him in his role as a security officer in one of the most dangerous areas in Israel, but also because he has been personally affected by the terror most of us only read about or catch snippets of on the 8’ocklock news.

 

2 weeks before I got there, Eyal’s brother Eliav was catching a bus back from his military base when he was attacked by a Palestinian man, 26-year-old Mamduh Amro, at the Gush Etzion junction. While fighting off his attacker who was wielding a knife, Eliav was shot by an errand bullet from the weapon of an IDF officer who had arrived at the scene, and a few hours later he was pronounced dead at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Eliav was the father of two, a deeply religious man and a decorated soldier, who had lived his entire life in and around Kiryat Arba, and his was the 29th death from Palestinian terror in 2016.

 

 

“My brother always said that people like us have to do more so that other people may be able to live normal lives, and I truly believe that. Heroism does not necessarily mean to do extraordinary things, it just means you do more”.

 

His brother is not the only person Eyal Gelman has lost in recent years. Gelman’s brother-in-law was Benaya Sarel, an IDF soldier killed during the 2014 Gaza war who was also from Kiryat Arba, and I ask Eyal the question that has brought me there to begin with – how do you stay and raise your family in a place where death is your door at any given time?

 

“Bereavement is the spinal chord of our nation, Annika, and just because I am hurting it does not mean I am wrong or that I should allow the hurt to change who I am or what I do”.

 

And more share his sentiment, it seems, as Kiryat Arba has been growing steadily in the past 20 years, along with other settlements in Judea and Samaria. Since 1993 and the Oslo accord, the settlement population has grown from 100.000 to 430,000, and at this point the waiting list for housing in both Kiryat Arba and the nearby Hebron is permanently full, and I ask Eyal what he thinks the draw is to come here, despite the constant waves of terror?

 

“People want more, they want to feel connected, and here the life is built on connectivity. We are not about the immediate satisfaction or the selfish, but a bigger picture that spans 3000 years. And that is also why we are not disheartened, because our perspective is longer than most, we see our victories through history and feel confident about our future in our ancient homeland. And it’s not merely a religious issue – 35% of those who live here are secular- it is about fighting for something larger than yourself”.

 

As we walk out of the simple office structure Eyal greets a white-bearded man sitting on a bench outside. The man has a friendly face and a loud laugh and when we’re introduced I realize he is Shalom Sarel, Eliav Gelman’s father in law and the father of Benaya Sarel, the soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza war. I sit with him for a moment, overlooking Hebron and the land that we both love and so many have died for, and I ask him how he got here and why he’s decided to stay.

 

“I came here as a newlywed, looking for a cheap house, because my wife and I couldn’t afford a place in the city. Many years and 8 children later I am in love, and I could never live anywhere else. It was a practical choice at the time, but a few months later we found ourselves on the frontline of the 1st intifada, and from then on, every time I leave the house I know I can be the victim of terror. It is a daily reality here, ever since”.

 

Shalom Zarel speaks perfect English and he smiles with his entire face, gesturing lively as he points out the houses of his family and friends. Kiryat Arba may be a war-zone in the news, but to Shalom, Eyal and the others living here, it is a tight-knit neighborhood and it is home. And to me, an outsider, it looks weirdly normal. Perfect rows of houses and well-kept gardens, plenty of playgrounds with monkey bars and colorful swings. It’s noisy, but not from gunshots or war, but the laughter and conflicts to be found wherever children meet to hammer out the details of an intricate game.

 

 

As we head for the car I say my goodbyes and I thank Shalom for living here, doing what most cannot stomach, but he laughs at me and shakes at head.

“You don’t get it, Annika. On Yom Kippur in 1941, Nazis murdered my great grandfather. Today I live here, in Kiryat Arba, with 8 children who have all contributed greatly to the Jewish state. This is not a sacrifice – it’s a privilege”.

 

The road between Hebron and Jerusalem is as treacherous as it is beautiful. Passing the infamous Al-Arroub camp, known to be a home for terrorists and then coming up on the hill overlooking Gush Etzion, the sun coloring the nearby valleys in deep pink and purple. Every bus stop here is fortified with concrete and hidden behind barriers, a way to create a normal-style life in the era of car-rammings and “spontaneous” stabbing attacks. As we re-enter Jerusalem I feel myself exhaling, ever so slightly, feeling as if I have visited a different world just 20 minutes away. But we don’t stop long, as we are headed to Samaria – the heart and midriff of Israel – to see more of the spinal chord that runs through this land.

 

“Would you like to see her room”?

 

Adva Biton is a beautiful woman, wearing a grey sheath dress, black high heels and a colorful jacket as she greets us in her house in Yakir, a village high in the Samarian Mountains. Last year, Adva’s 4-year old daughter Adele died as a result of a terror attack. Adele was critically hurt in a terror attack two years earlier, on March 14, 2013 near the town of Ariel when a truck driver suddenly hit the brakes after stones hurled by Palestinians struck his vehicle. The car behind him, carrying Adele, her two sisters and their mother Adva Biton, lost control and collided with the truck, wedging their car under the truck. The two other sisters, Avigail and Naama – aged four and five – sustained moderate injuries.

 

“There was an ambulance nurse there, an Arab man with the calmest voice, he took care of us. He carried Adele out of the car and saved the life of her sisters. He is my hero, and we still speak, he came to the funeral and he calls us every now and then and asks how we are”.

 

Adva tells me about Adele, about all that this little girl gave to the world in the short time she was in it, and how her life and death has helped others and changed the lives of many she never even knew. Tears start rolling down her cheek as she retells details. Her favorite game, the dress she wore that day, the party they were on their way home from. I’m fighting back my own sadness and anxiety, digging my nails into my palm as not to cry, however her words kill me I feel I don’t have the right to break down or break whatever professional barrier I’ve built. I have two children at home; one not much older than Adele, and to even imagine that loss or that heartbreak is to stand on the edge of a bottomless pit.

 

 

My train of thought is interrupted by a neighbor walking in unannounced, carrying a bag of groceries and gifts for the Purim holiday, and Adva, now 5 months pregnant, carefully gets out of her chair to greet her guest. We all chat for a while and I ask them both what I had asked Eyal, how do you stay here and raise your children, living in the heartland of this conflict?

 

“I wonder how they live in other places, how they survive grief and catastrophe in places where no one knows their neighbors”. Adva turns to her guest and says “look at this – it happens every day- people bring food and comfort and care for us here, because we are family and we have all chosen to be here, we are all in it together”.

 

For a period of a year and a half, Adele was hospitalized in various institutions, the attack having left her severely disabled and only partially conscious. Her parents Adva and Rafi immersed themselves in a battle they hoped would return Adele to life, Adva leaving her job as a doctor of medical chemistry to spend her days nursing Adele. In the middle of this battle, the family welcomed a new baby, a few weeks after the birth, Adele succumb to her injures and died, at the age of 4.

 

From the Oslo Accords in 1993 until September 2000 – nearly 300 Israelis were killed in terror attacks, and another 1,100 were murdered during the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (Sept. 2000 – Dec. 2005). Since December 2005, Palestinian terrorist attacks have claimed at least another 203 Israeli lives and injured three times as many.

 

According to data compiled by the Israeli Shin Bet Security Agency, 2015 was the deadliest year for terrorism since 2008. Twenty-eight people were killed in terror attacks in Israel during 2015: two foreigners, one Palestinian, three members of Israeli security services, and twenty-two civilians. So far, 34 people have been killed in terror attacks in Israel in 2016, and according to a report on terrorism published by the Israel Ministry of foreign affairs earlier this year, there have been 156 stabbing attacks (including 76 attempted attacks), 98 shootings, 46 vehicular (ramming) attacks and one vehicle (bus) bombing. These terrorist attacks are part of the Palestinian Authority’s strategy of “popular resistance” adopted by the PA and Fatah at the Sixth Fatah conference in August 2009. After every attack, spokespersons from Fatah and Hamas have issued statements describing the attacks as “heroic actions” and “the natural response to Israel’s crimes”.

 

On our way back, we stop for dinner in Tapuach, a small Samarian settlement with approximately 1,200 inhabitants, about 40 minutes North of Jerusalem. The modest restaurant opened just a few weeks ago, serving simple food grown on the premises, and the owners run a 2nd hand clothes shop out of an adjacent room. The girl serving us our food is no older than 15, she does not speak English but smiles at me, shyly, as she puts overflowing bowls and plates on our table. An older woman is standing in the doorway, watching us, and she doesn’t smile yet I feel that she is friendly. Her face is sad, her long hair tied and meticulously covered and she seems very protective of the young girl by my side.

 

“Her name is Raaya”.

 

My friend sees me watching her, and nods in the woman’s direction.

 

“Raaya’s sister and brother were murdered in a terrorist attack at the Tapuach Junction 13 years ago, leaving 6 children orphaned, including a 2-month old baby. Rayya dropped everything and moved with her husband and 8 children from the Galil to Tapuach to raise her sister’s children as her own”.

 

 

It’s everywhere – the sadness and the tragedy and the stories of insurmountable human loss, and suddenly I feel I need some air. Outside there is perfect spring air, pink flowers and hills for days, and I see why this place inspired songs and prayer and the hopeful dreams of my ancestors. In the distance I see Tapuach Junction, one of the most dangerous places in Israel, but right here I feel safe and calm and at home like few times before.

 

“I just love the air up here”.

 

Rayya is next to me now, watching the view as the sun slowly sets.

 

“I love the air up here, it’s the tension in it that I can’t stand”.

 

These people, my people, are so often dehumanized in the media simply based on where they live. But regardless of geography or where your political alliances lie, their lives need to matter, their loved ones have the right to be mourned and remembered as more than “settlers” on the 10th page of a newspaper or a meme in a media-feed.

 

The Palestinian Authority is waging a war, without uniforms or tanks, but with plenty of soldiers acting on orders from their leaders. Incitement leads to murder and murder leads to shattered families and broken homes, and the more we dehumanize their victims the more effective this warfare will be, taking more lives and causing more hurt.

When I sit down to write this piece my phone vibrates and I see a newsflash, saying that there has been another death. On June 30th, 13-year old Israeli girl Hallel Yaffa Ariel was stabbed to death in her bed at her home in Kiryat Arba, by 19-year old Palestinian Mohammad Tarayreh, who had broken into the family’s house. The attacker was from a nearby village, and climbed the fence into Kiryat Arba before breaking into Ariel’s home and locking himself inside, where she was alone. After the murder of Hallel Yaffa, her killer was hailed as a hero by Hamas and candy was passed out in the streets of Gaza as part of their celebration of the martyred terrorist.

 

Hallel leaves a devastated family behind, a life cut short and a story untold, as Adele, Eliav, Benaya and the hundred of other’s murdered by terrorists in Israel in the past years. These are stories that deserve to be told, faces that deserve to be known and human heartbreak that deserves its place in history. Not because of politics, nor geography, but because Jewish lives should matter, too.
On December 14th, Sweden’s largest daily newspaper published an interview with Bjorn Soder, vice speaker of the Parliament and member of the Swedish Democrat Party. Maybe some of you have heard of it, or at least seen the international headlines that said “Speaker of Swedish Parliament says Jews have to abandon their faith in order to be Swedish?” or perhaps the more popular “Jews not Swedish, according to Swedish politician”
Well, let’s just take a step back and look at what Mr. Soder actually said:

There are examples of people that belong to the Sami or Jewish Nation living in Sweden. I believe that most people with Jewish heritage that become Swedish leave their Jewish identity. But if they don’t it does not have to be a problem. One has to make a distinction between peoplehood and citizenship; they can still be Swedish citizens and live in Sweden. The Sami and The Jews have lived in Sweden for a very long time.

So what Mr. Soder is saying in this statement and throughout the interview is that he does not believe that one can be both a Jew and a part of the Swedish nation, but one can be a citizen and enjoy all the benefits and responsibilities of any other citizen. That distinction — and an important distinction it is — seems to have been lost on the frantic readers.

Within hours after this article was published, the avalanche of criticism came rolling down the medial mountain, and Jews and non-Jews alike were calling racism on the top of their lungs.

I read the article over and over again but was unable to find the source of this national upheaval. Instead I found that Bjorn Soder was saying pretty much exactly what I have always said, albeit with some eloquence left to be desired.You see, I am not Swedish. I’m Jewish. I am a part of the Jewish people who happens to be a citizen of Sweden. I pay my taxes and I follow the laws, but that does not make me Swedish. Nor do I have any desire to ever claim that title. Instead I value and protect my Jewish identity and it is with pride that I affirm that through action, faith and tradition.

So why the upheaval?

Bjorn Soder is saying that the Jews are a people, not merely a religion, and that there are commonalities such as language, history, loyalty, and culture that bond us together and set us aside. In his interview, Soder is using terms such as ‘peoplehood’, ‘nation-state’, and ‘national identity’ — and this touches a nerve in post-Holocaust Europe. World War II changed not only the Jewish but also the entire European narrative, and for the past 70 years religion, nation-states, and national identity have been deemed the culprit and the key to the dark European history that had brought on unparalleled suffering. The old was replaced with the new; a cultural relativism where no tradition, belief, or state should stake a claim on any moral high ground but all ideas and cultures are equally unimportant compared to the globalist, multicultural ideal.

Post-war Europe sees identity, religion and tradition as bad, and assimilation as good. In this John Lennon-esque ideal we are all different yet we all the same, like snowflakes that may be unique close-up but indistinguishable for all intents and purposes.

 

Right after the interview with Mr. Soder was published, the Jews of Sweden were fighting for the right to be identified as Swedish, and when doing so they quite happily aligned with politicians and intellectuals who were quick to score points in this much-publicized debate. The Left party and the Social Democrats, known for their ties to Hamas and Fatah, were suddenly the Jew’s best friends. We Jews, however, were, as always, our own worst enemies. Instead of fighting to be Swedish, we should fight for our rights to be Jews in Sweden, enjoying minority rights and protected minority status. Instead we fight for the right to be assimilated, joining any dodgy alliance that is willing to give us the time of day.

This is not a puff-piece for Bjorn Soder, nor is it an excuse for the ban on both circumcision and the import of kosher meat proposed by the party he represents. Instead it is an attempt to lift the debate above the comfortable knee-jerk reactions caused by post-war trauma and to realize that there are more than two choices in the oh-so-popular identity game.

My grandmother always told me that he who stands for nothing falls for everything, and I believe that by saying that I have no desire to be like you I am giving you the freedom to be who you are. I stand for me, thus I stand by you. Not by being the same, but by being an equal. If that is a distinction we as a country do not grasp, our problems are much bigger than one man’s words or a viral interview.

Bjorn Soder was attacked for a principle that readers lacked the political will or intellectual integrity to fully understand. Thus was the opportunity to debate him on policy lost in a sea of opportunism and hyperbole.

I agree with Mr. Soder on the principles of peoplehood and the nation-state, yet I disagree with him on much of his politics. We should be capable of holding those two thoughts in our heads simultaneously, shouldn’t we? Just like we should be able to be Jews in Sweden without being Swedish or live in one land while calling another our home.

I have a Swedish address and a Jewish identity. My home is Israel and my passport says Sweden. This should not scare anyone, but instead affirm the values we share as we revel in our differences. The more firmly I stand for me, the closer I can stand by you. Not like you, but for you, as an equal.

It really isn’t that hard.

 

This article was first published on Ricochet

 

Some issues are harder to write about than others.

Some touches of the keyboard are ‎preceded by doubt and confliction, juggling the impulses of the heart alongside the ‎knowledge of the mind. Nothing sums up this battle more than the sorrowful saga of the Israeli soldier Sgt. Elor ‎Azaria, and as I follow the news of the verdict in his case, I gather that little resolution or ‎healing will come of it. Azaria has come to be a symbol of whatever either side of this ‎argument thinks is right, and that is a form of emotional argumentation that is perhaps ‎understandable but potentially harmful to the fabric of the Israeli nation. ‎

Three judges convicted Azaria of manslaughter for shooting Palestinian terrorist Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif in the head, 15 minutes after al-Sharif had already been ‎incapacitated after he had attempted to kill a soldier in the town of Hebron. There was video of the ‎event used as evidence in the highly publicized case — and despite several attempts by ‎politicians on all sides to influence the case or use it to further their own careers — the 97-‎page verdict shows that the proceedings were surprisingly straightforward. The ‎aftermath, however, proved to be anything but. ‎

The judges presiding over the case have had their lives ‎threatened, and similar threats have been made at IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. This comes as many, particularly on the right, are calling for Azaria to be ‎pardoned. The reasons for this are that he is “the nation’s son,” “a child,” and that his ‎actions are understandable given the enormous pressures he was under. Saying otherwise ‎is now referred to as “breaking ranks,” and I guess that is what I am about to do. As a ‎right-winger and a Diaspora Jew, I will surely travel well beyond my purview. ‎

The men and women who serve Israel and ensure its defense are not children. They are ‎somebody’s child but they are not children, and saying they are infantilizes them ‎individually and undermines their heroic efforts collectively. Furthermore, the IDF, like ‎any army, is dependent on the chain of command, and breaching it endangers the entire ‎army, including many parents’ children. Pardoning one soldier ‎sends a very mixed and confused message to all those who serve alongside him. However ‎understandable Azaria’s actions were on a human level, we ask the superhuman of ‎our IDF soldiers, and in an overwhelming majority of cases, they live up to that steep ‎expectation.

If we pardon Azaria, a soldier who broke the chain of command and acted of ‎his own volition, what does that then say about all those who go against their own hearts ‎and wishes while following orders to evict Jewish residents from illegal outposts, hold fire when feeling both fear and ‎threat or go into the lion’s den when every bone in their body tells them to retreat? The ‎soldiers of the IDF do the impossible and unthinkable time and time again, and despite the ‎horrors presented by their enemies, they remain the world’s most ethical army — or is it ‎perhaps because of this very fact? ‎

I learn Torah weekly with a study partner, and the lessons we learn leak into events throughout the following seven days. Last week, as I saw the reactions to the verdict, I ‎recalled the conversation we had about the massacre of Shechem, in which Simeon and Levi avenged the rape of their sister Dinah by killing all the newly ‎circumcised men and looting the city. I instinctively sided with the brothers against their ‎father, Jacob. Jacob’s level-headedness angered me, knowing full well how I would react ‎if, God forbid, something of that caliber happened to a child of mine. But my study partner quite ‎rightly pointed out the burden of leadership and the importance of not making strategic ‎decisions based on impulse or emotion. The pain Jacob felt must have been ‎doubled by the fact that he was forced by his role as leader to keep his emotions in check.

The IDF is lucky I am not in charge, for I would have rushed into Shechem on heart and ‎anger. And I am lucky that others are willing to hang that heavy crown on their heads, ‎facing many awful choices. Our enemies care little for honor, regulations, or accountability, ‎but we are not like them; we couldn’t be if we tried. We Jews are defended by the most ‎accused and least guilty army, and there is great pride in being able to speak those words, ‎perhaps not knowing but sensing the sacrifices that they entail. I feel for Azaria and I ‎cannot say I would act differently in his shoes or even that I, on an emotional level, ‎condemn him. But I also see his place in a larger entity, and we cannot act out of compassion in ‎one case if it endangers the welfare of all others.

Many have said that the IDF is betraying Azaria by charging and convicting him and that ‎parents no longer can be expected to give their children to this potentially life-threatening ‎service if the IDF does not have their backs. But the IDF does, by honoring the code under ‎which they serve, and we owe it to the IDF to honor them right back. This is not a left- or ‎right-wing issue; it is a matter of trust in the eye of the storm and faith when the heart fails ‎us. That is what we ask of the soldiers, and we should ask it of ourselves, to trust the ‎leadership and the code, knowing it is there to protect us from human emotion, no matter ‎how hard that may be. ‎

“The main difference between the Principalists and the Reformists in this election is not our views on and goals for Iran — on these we are of one mind — but rather political theory and execution.”

Dr. Moshen Keshvari is a short, dynamic man and he speaks in sharp staccato, flicking his wrist to emphasize the end of every sentence. We are sitting in his office at the Principalist headquarters in central Tehran, and the room is buzzing with intensity as Iran nears its 10th general election since the birth of the Islamic revolution.

I ask Keshvari, on top of the conservative list for the Majlis, if the Iran deal influences the election, and his answer is surprisingly unabashed.

“These are uncertain times, and we expect a record turnout because of it. People either want us, who will safeguard Iranian values and meet American promises with the suspicion it deserves or they will choose the Reformists who recklessly trust America and the West.”

When I point out to Keshvari that many in America and the West believe that Iran was the winner in the 5+1 deal and that President Obama fully conceded to Iranian terms he smiles and says, “I agree.” I laugh in astonishment at his honesty and ask him if he worries about Obama’s replacement or follows the American presidential elections, where several Republican candidates have campaigned on overturning the deal, but at this he shrugs with apparent contentment.

Rothstein and Dr. Keshvari, top Principalist candidate. (Photo by Annika Channa Rothstein)

“Believe me, Miss Rothstein. We are ready for whatever candidate is chosen, and we are prepared for one that rips up the deal. When he does we will produce … what’s it called … an ace up our sleeve.”

It’s a strange experience sitting in that stuffy office with Keshvari, smiling and conversing. I am a Jewish woman traveling alone in Iran and though the tension across the marble table is palpable, I cannot help but find myself liking this man and his complete and utter lack of shame.

 “America needs us now, and we know it”.
“The entire West needs someone to control the Middle East and keep [the Islamic State] and the barbarians at bay. They need us now, we do not need them, and like a small child we cannot be infected with the Western ideas because we have been inoculated

Bullying is the word Moshen Keshvari keeps using to describe the Western ideas he opposes, bullying from the entities he sees at the heart of this weaponless war — America and Israel — the former more intensely despised than the latter for reasons the good doctor is happy to divulge.

“America and Iran have real history, but we do not consider the Zionist regime legitimate so we do not consider it at all, nor do we care who the leader of that regime is. It is nothing to us. If, however, Israel makes one wrong move we will eradicate it from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, just as the Ayatollah has promised.”

My translator pauses as he translates this part, well aware of who and what I am, he throws me a glance that is somewhere between amused and apologetic. I smile back, not knowing what else to do, then look at the floor in order to avoid even feigning agreement.

“He lies.”

 Top reformist candidate Ali Reza Mahjoub does not mince his words when it comes to Keshvari’s statements on the deal or the doctor’s opinion that the differences between their parties are minor. “The Principalists say they want a relationship to the West, they say they want democracy and are open to change. It is all lies and everyone knows it. These are the differences between us. I don’t lie.” Mahjoub is angry and he is not yet ready to concede the fight, even though more than 60 percent of the candidates on his list have been excluded before the election by the infamous Guardian Council, working directly under the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“I am very hopeful that change is coming to this country. This cannot be stopped. We have 60 percent women in our universities now and young people are learning more about the world through Internet as well as through formal education. This is an enormous social energy that is waiting to be unleashed, an army that refuses to use guns but instead will use their minds to shape their future.”

Mahjoub was a leading figure in the Islamic Revolution and he has 20 years experience in Iranian politics. Representing the Reformists, he runs on a platform of so called “moderate openness” toward the West in line with President Rouhani. But as we speak he makes it clear to me that he is far from blind to what he sees as the double-talk of America and its Western allies.

“I believe we should establish consulate-level relationships to most countries, but as an Iranian I have a natural suspicion toward America. What reason have they given us to trust them? I am hopeful but I am no fool.”

And this is key. Despite being posed as enemies in a contentious election, both Principalists and Reformists are gathered in solidarity against the common enemy. Everywhere I go in Iran they are there — the symbols, murals and chants against the US, depicting and enforcing an age-old animosity. Obama is featured in many of them, standing alongside classic Persian villains, and I can’t help but laugh at the folly of his Middle-East turnaround. This may be referred to as the election of change, but as often in this region our Western timelines have very little to do with the reality on the ground. Keshvari expressed the sentiment perfectly as I asked him about Obama’s Cairo speech and the new relationship toward Iran.

According to Mahjoub the main differences between the Principalists and the Reformists are that the Reformists want a moderate foreign policy, a strong civil society and to open up toward democracy in a “more traditional form.” The latter, though, will, according to Mahjoub, take some time.

Ali Reza Mahjoub, top reformist candidate alongside his foreign affairs executive. (Photo by Annika Channa Rothstein)

“In other countries they have soft negotiations but produce hard results, in Iran we do the exact opposite. This will not be done in a day.”

And many I have spoken to this week seem to share the sentiment expressed by Mahjoub. One young man I met at a trendy Tehran cafe said that his parents, living in a small village two hours north of Tehran, would vote this year for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

“They know the reformists won’t win but they want their voices to be heard in the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts. The supreme leader is old now and he will be replaced by whoever is elected now, and many of us think that this is the chance to achieve a soft revolution — a slow change for the better without bloodshed.”

But that dream, however beautiful, seems less than achievable; all candidates in the Iranian elections are vetted by the Guardian Council, a political entity directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, and by election day on Feb. 26 a whopping 66 percent of the candidates had been disqualified for “lacking religious qualifications.”

Those who remain are all in the Supreme Leader’s good graces, making the elections a closed system without any real hope of change. Despite this, people show up to vote, most likely because not having the literal stamp of loyalty in your birth certificate can cause significant problems for anyone dealing with the government and those I spoke to on election day mentioned that not having voted is a common reason to be denied employment or government aid. Keshvari and Mahjoub may represent the outward drama at the heart of this election — between those who see the openness toward the West as a threat to the values of the Islamic State and those who see it as an opportunity to improve it, but the similarities between them clearly outweigh the conflict.

There is no reform here in the Western sense of the word, and even those most adamant about achieving change do not want a western-style society. American culture is widely perceived as being a threat to all that is good and holy, causing breakdown of families and deterioration of societies, and the message pumped out by the regime for the past 37 years has been as effective as it has been clear — the two paths being resistance or death. The past is not forgotten, no matter what Obama may say, but its beating heart is everywhere as I walk down the Tehran streets. “Death to America” means life to the conflict, a conflict that sustains the system and ensures survival for the powers that be.

 

This article was first published in Washington Examiner

“The Jews are a base, whoring people, they are not a people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth. The Jews are full of the devil’s feces, which they wallow in like swine, their synagogue is an incorrigible whore and an evil slut.”

—Martin Luther, 1543

 

                      I know what you are.

He smiled at me, the boy in the brown cargo pants, so sweetly that I was sure I had misheard him. But no. He knew what I was, even before I did, and he wanted me to know. The year was 1994, I was in middle school in a small Swedish town, and my country was experiencing yet another surge in Neo-Nazi activity. Maybe it was the economic crisis, maybe it was the weather. Or maybe it was the same forces that had conspired four decades earlier to bring my mother to the front of her middle school class so that she could be drawn in profile next to the neighbor boy in order to show her peers how to tell a Jew from an Arian. […]

Speaking up for Israel is an act of supreme bravery in South Africa these days, particularly if you are a member of the ruling African National Congress. After more than two decades in power, the ANC is becoming discernibly more hostile to Israel with each passing year. The small number of activists inside the movement who have questioned this policy have rapidly become political outcasts.

[…]

A few months after I had entered high school, the boys with the boots showed up. I called them that because they had paired their historically accurate Hitler Jugend uniforms with shiny 10-hole Dr. Martens, white laces dramatically contrasting their perfect oxblood shade.

I could always hear them approaching, the boys with the boots. The sound of rubber soles against linoleum would cut through the noises of my high school hallway and as soon as I turned around, there they were.

My family had settled in that sleepy coastal town some 70 years earlier, leaving the big city for a better place to raise a family. The war came, and what happened after that I only know through scattered pictures and hushed-down questions. I was told life had become difficult, so they adapted, as the children of their children would also be taught to do.

A year ago, to the day, I went to a foreign policy conference in Washington, DC, to attend a lecture by a State Department official who specializes in countering anti-Semitism. I had come there to ask for help, and when I asked this man whose job is to monitor and combat this scourge of hate around the world what the administration was planning to do about the European crisis, his response to me was that this is not 1939 and while the situation may be dire, the sky is not falling.

As we went around the room and I stated my name he smiled and acknowledged me as the Swedish girl who applied for asylum in my own country. Funny, he said. You don’t look like any refugee I’ve ever seen. The crowd erupted in laughter, and I sat silent, waiting to be clued in on the joke. I had come to tell my story, but the man in front of me did not really listen, and as I would later learn, neither did the world.

That was one year ago. A year of writing, fighting and sounding the alarm, and each time there was another isolated incident I told myself that this must be as bad as it gets.

Each time I was proven wrong.

The boys with the boots would talk to me sometimes. Without a hint of aggression they would tell me that my relatives had become soap in camps, not too far away from where we stood, and that I should follow suit. There was no physical violence, not even once. Instead they would sit next to me in the cafeteria, wait for me at the top of the stairs, or stand to attention as I passed by them. I didn’t know why they despised me, but I knew that it mattered. It mattered to them, and so, it had to matter to me.

When I was 15 years old I shaved my head. It was a last resort, a final measure, after spending years changing for and adapting to a world that seemed set on viewing me as a stranger. I had tried so hard. Taming the wild, dark curls, bleaching and straightening to resemble the shiny blonde girls. It didn’t help; neither did hiding in bathrooms and libraries to escape the silent warfare that recess had come to be. It was as if the more I altered myself to be like them, the more they despised me for even trying.

The whole process took over two hours, and when I finally met my own gaze in the bathroom mirror I could see that the venture had been in vain. All the traits I had grown to despise—the big nose, the wide mouth, and the bushy black eyebrows—were all the more visible without the aid of an untamed hair. That was the night I realized there was nothing I could do to change what made me deserve all this hatred. It was also the first and last time I ever saw my mother cry.

In the past two years, Europe has exploded, from gruesome murders in Belgium and France to riots, torched synagogues and defaced Holocaust memorial sites, along with a dramatic spike in hate crimes all over the continent. Jews are being singled out and persecuted, once again, and most recently Paris and Copenhagen were added to the list of cities synonymous with terror, as more Jewish blood was spilled before the eyes of the world.

Some would say this summer changed everything, but the situation for European Jewry was dire well before Operation Protective Edge created open season on us and the link to Israel came into question for Jews across the continent. There is nothing new about the anti-Semitism we see now, but the dormant hatred seems to have reached critical mass, using anti-Zionism as a handy and creative outlet. I experienced this shift firsthand this past summer as I traveled from Sweden to Israel during the war. I had had the audacity to display the Israeli flag on my luggage, and that gave someone handling my bag enough reason to rip off the flag, stab the bag and its contents several times, and then pour soda onto the precious siddur that goes with me everywhere. No matter what the airline officials tried to tell me, this was no accident, nor was it political commentary. It was terrorism, having been given the excuse to move above ground, into broad daylight, without any pushback or consequence.

My mother sat me down and told me that once, when she was just a little girl, she had gone driving with her father. Suddenly she had asked him what it meant that they were Jewish, and why all the children at school were telling her that she was. Her father had slapped her across the face and yelled, “Don’t ever say that word again! If anyone asks, we are Walloons. That’s what you tell them. Walloons.” They rode back to the house in silence, and my mother did not broach the subject again.

The terror that haunts the Jews of Europe is not a local one, but part of the global war that is now killing the Christians of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria and displacing, raping, and torturing minorities all over the world. When concessions are made toward Iran, when the Muslim Brotherhood is treated as a reliable partner, when moral relativism is used in dealing with Hamas, gas is poured on the fire that is scorching the earth beneath our feet. The walls have come down, as President Obama so eloquently put it in his 2008 speech in Berlin. For better and for worse, everything is connected and the web woven in the hills of Afghanistan traps Jews in a kosher supermarket, thousands of miles away.

A few weeks ago my son didn’t come home from school at four o’clock, as he always does. I tried his phone, with no answer. I would have tried his friends, but he’s been keeping to himself. The hours passed and just as I was about to call the police, he walks in, breaking down in tears before his bag even hits the floor. He tells me he had joined a few boys to play soccer after school, and everything had gone well until there was a dispute over the rules, and then the group had turned on him. The leader, a classmate of my son, had said, “This is why I don’t play with the cheating Jews.” My son had looked to the rest of them to protest, to stand by him in any way, but instead they had left him to make it back home alone.

Hearing my son speak I felt anger, yes, but also a deep sense of resignation. My great-grandparents came to this country as the Other, almost 200 years ago, and it seems as if not much has changed. The sound of rubber soles against linoleum echoes through each generation, and now they had come for my child.

The State Department official said he knew me as the girl who applied for asylum in my own country, and to him it may have seemed like a joke. But to me, this was anything but. I used this desperate measure in order to make my government live up to its responsibility to protect my right to live a religious life, to preserve my cultural identity, and to allow my children and I to be who we are without fear of persecution. Kosher slaughter has been outlawed in my country since 1937, and a bill is now pending in parliament that would ban even the import and serving of kosher meat in spaces partially or fully funded by the government. Circumcision is also under threat; it is one of few issues in Swedish politics where the Left and Right find common ground. In Sweden today, home to 15,000 Jews amidst a national population of roughly nine million, publicly displaying Jewish identity through symbols or dress means putting yourself at risk of verbal or physical harassment. Synagogues are heavily guarded and Jewish children play behind bars and heavy metal gates. My government has failed the Jewish minority, as they failed my family for generations, so I turned to the world out of anger and sheer desperation.

I believe that the state of a society can be judged by how it relates to its Jews, as we have always acted as the canary in the coal mine for all of Western civilization. What you read about in the news are no isolated instances of violence, no random bunch of folks in a deli, and no simple conflict between countries. This is a historical clash of civilizations, and everything I have done in these past years have been attempts to find out on which side of that clash the world is choosing to stand.

This was not the first time my son had been singled out as a Jew, nor will it be the last. From bullying at school to armed guards at his synagogue, he knows to equate Jewish life with fear and a lingering threat of violence. This is a given for any Jew in Europe, and it has taught us all to alter our lives to deal with this reality. But the events of the past year have driven us beyond the point where alterations keep us safe. The eye of hate has been fixed on us and there is no longer a place to hide.

The State Department official in Washington insisted that this is not 1939, and while he may be right, his use of the Holocaust as the litmus test for persecution allows new and evolved forms of anti-Semitism to fly well beneath the radar. Human rights violations should not have to be quantified. The reaction to these violations should not be dependent on their likeness to other crimes. Nor should any lack of likeness be used as an excuse not to act. It may not be 1939, but the sky is falling and Jews are, in record numbers, making the choice between flight and assimilation, neither choice guaranteeing safety. This is a question of neither chronology nor ideology, but of the universal truth that freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and that we in the name of human decency must never be neutral between them.

 

Shortly after U.S. forces liberated Buchenwald, the inmates put up handmade signs with the words “never again.” Since then, those two words have become synonymous with the promise made by the world to remember how we got there, vowing never to return. But now, a mere 70 years later, the promise of eternal remembrance has turned into a strategy of doing nothing until it is safe to say that there is nothing left to do. In 1914, Europe was home to 10.5 million Jews. Today, there are 1.5 million, and the ongoing pogroms are causing 29 percent of European Jews to contemplate emigrating—no longer trusting that anyone in the Diaspora is willing to help them. I am one of those Jews, having to give up on the dream that spurred my great-grandparents some 200 years ago. So, while we may utter the words “never again,” they are not an all-encompassing incantation, nor do they apply only to circumstances identical to those we’ve already experienced. “Never again” does not merely mean never again allowing another Holocaust, but never again being blind to evil, no matter what form it may take. Remembrance is not simply a phrase, but an action, and a solemn responsibility.

Just last year I got it in my head to find out what became of the boys with the boots and the blank, icy stares. I was hoping against hope that they were crawling on the underbelly of society and that somehow the world would make sense again if only their life would reflect the terror they caused me to feel. But of course that wasn’t the case. The boys with the boots are fathers, businessmen, and local politicians. Someone loved them enough to be their wife; someone looks to them for guidance and support. They are not broken, nor are they lost, and there would be no righteous conclusion to my story.

As I was comforting him, my son asked me if we could just stop being Jews. It’s too hard, he said, and I just want it to go away. With those words, I felt as if I had fallen through a black hole into history. We have had this talk before, I have cried these tears before, the hatred may be wearing a different outfit now but the death we are dying is no less dark.

I teach my children about right and wrong, trying to instill in them a faith in good always triumphing over evil. To me these are no fairytales, but values to live and die for. As I write this, I wonder if the world still believes in these ancient truths, and if there is anyone willing to keep the promises made at the gates of hell 70 years ago. If not for the Jews, then because this is an attack on each and every one of us, where we as Jews merely act as a first line of defense in a war that won’t subside once we’re defeated.

I now travel with a plain, black suitcase, and my children are no longer allowed to walk outside with any visible Jewish symbols. These may seem like small choices to some, mere adaptations, but it’s the small things that eventually get to you. It’s the many small details that, stitched together, create a chain of fear that ties you to the ground.

 

 

This article was first published in The Tower

They’ve been in that back room for a while. I’m standing by the door, trying to ascertain what’s going on by the mumblings and the gestures. I feel like a child, trying to coax my superior with an insecure smile. The policeman comes back, eyeing me up and down, holding my passport in his right hand.

You’re a journalist, he says. You’re not allowed to enter.

I have already been there for almost two hours, waiting to be allowed to ascend, but the line allocated for Jews isn’t moving. The other one is, though. The tourist line is moving bodies as were it the entrance to an amusement park. I had stood in that line, swooshing past security, just a few months earlier. […]