That’s me, at age 12, with hair too big to fit into a ponytail and an awkwardly chubby body that few fashionable outfits could cover or even forgive. They called me the weird kid, at school, and they weren’t necessarily wrong. […]
They canceled Jewish winter camp. It sounds like a little thing, but in Sweden, where we have very few venues in which to lead our Jewish lives, it means a great deal. Winter camp is a yearly highlight, a place where our children can learn and play with other Jewish children, without worry. This year, they won’t be able to go, and for a simple reason—because it’s not safe. […]
Here in Stockholm this fall, we in the Jewish community have enjoyed our 21st annual Jewish film festival, a klezmer concert, and a number of other cultural diversions. I choose the word “diversions” advisedly. It’s thanks to such entertainments that so many of my fellow Jews can allow themselves to say that we’re doing okay here—that there’s no need to rock the boat or cause trouble.
But you know what? We are not okay, and this is not okay. […]
Dear Mr. Gurfinkiel,
On April 26 of this year, I was on a train with my five-year-old son Charlie. We were on our way to spend shabbat with friends in the city. You see, our town, significant in the history of Swedish Jewry, shut its synagogue in the late 90s. All that remains now is a plaque stating that there was once Jewish life here, while we are left with an hour-long train ride every weekend to attend services.
My son was wearing his kippah as we got on the train. He loves his kippah. He is not yet old enough to know the dangers entailed in wearing it, for this is a fact from which I have tried to protect him. But April 26 would change all that.
There was a gentleman sitting in our reserved seat. An Arab, maybe fifty years old, listening to music. Apologizing for the inconvenience, I asked him politely for our seat. He got up, inspected my son, and then leaned over me, saying:
You people always take what you want. You need to learn.
He then walked straight into my son, causing him to fall over, and took the seat behind us.
We sat. Hiding my trembling hands from my son’s sight, I picked up Shabbes for Kids and started to review the week’s Torah portion with him. We hadn’t progressed as far as a page before the man stood up and screamed:
Quiet! I don’t want to hear that! You take what you want and never think of others! Shut up!
He stamped his feet, grunting and glaring at my son. Fighting tears of rage, I assured Charlie that the man was just grumpy and tried to turned the episode into a game, one that required us to remain super quiet for as long as possible. I even managed to coax a conspiratorial smile out of him.
But even this failed to appease our tormentor, who spent the rest of the trip repeatedly kicking the back of my son’s seat. At one point I glanced around our compartment: there were four other people there, four adults witnessing a single mother and her five-year-old child being attacked by a grown man. They did nothing. I tried forcing them to meet my gaze; but they just turned away, put on their headphones, stared at their screens, ignored what was happening in front of them.
I did not summon the railway police. I did not scream back at the man. I know better. I know that the only way to survive as a Jew in my country is not to be seen as one. Not to be exposed but to shut up and fade into the woodwork. I’ve known this for quite some time. Unfortunately, my son knows it now, too.
In your fascinating and informative article you mention that ritual slaughter, kosher as well as hallal, is under threat in Europe. Well, in Sweden kosher butchering was outlawed in 1937 and has been illegal ever since. The threat is not a threat but a reality—for me as, on a much graver scale, it had been for my grandparents, forced into hiding in a Sweden silently collaborating with the Nazis throughout the world war. The next threat on the horizon is a ban on even importing kosher products, compelling me and many of my friends to smuggle kosher meat from Israel on our return trips from that land.
By contrast, hallal slaughter is not banned in Sweden. My government, when asked about the disparity, replies that the methods of slaughter in Judaism are uniquely barbaric.
“Barbaric” is also what I was called just this past June. As a political adviser to a Swedish party, I was debating the anti-circumcision bill that had just been proposed by another, right-wing party in our parliament, and things got heated. The bill called for a general ban on all circumcision unless medically prescribed, and it enjoyed much bipartisan support. During the debate, I outed myself as a Jew, only to be informed that what “we” were doing to our children was inhumane and barbaric, and should be summarily outlawed. I did my best to maintain my composure, but ended up crying in the courtyard—not for the first time, or for the last.
In your essay you mention that Jewish religious and cultural activities in Western Europe are everywhere on the rise. This, too, is not my reality. What I see is that the Holocaust wing at the Jewish Museum is crowded with visitors, while the synagogues are empty. I see cute Woody Allen-ish activities being promoted, and actual Jewish life being banned. The dead, suffering Jew is glorified; the healthy, active Jew is vilified.
There are 20,000 Jews in Sweden, a country of close to nine million. As for Muslim immigrants and their children, they, as you point out in your article, amount to 10 percent or more of the population: perhaps as many as a million people, fifty times the number of Jews. Still, I would not say that demography is the only threat to Jewish life in Western Europe, and maybe not even the biggest one. What frightens me most is that my government is proscribing Jewish life. Yes, by outlawing circumcision, banning kosher slaughter, and telling us forthrightly that the only way to avoid being harassed in the streets is to distance ourselves from Israel, they are reinventing the conditions of the Eastern Europe past that brought our community to this country in the first place. This is what is driving us out: one by one, bill by bill.
In the “Comments” section following your essay, I noticed a debate among readers over the perceived harshness of your article. I am writing to you because I do not believe it was harsh enough. I value Jewish thought, but I crave Jewish action. More than I need eloquent eulogies, I need people—the same people who so passionately debate our future in Mosaic and elsewhere—to help me fight.
We in Sweden are still here, but we are feeling lonely and forgotten. We want a strong Jewish community in the Diaspora. We want to live. We are fighting every day against the pressure to turn us into plaques on the wall of former synagogues or into exhibits in guilt-wallowing museums. We need the help of our kinsmen.
My son no longer wears his kippah in public. Now he does what the men at my shul have done for years. He carries it in his pocket, donning it only when we are safely within the iron gates. Guarded and hidden from the world.
With kind regards,
This article was first published in Mosaic Magazine
“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. […]
Citing threats to “inner order and security,” Sweden announced this week that it would reassert control of its borders. For decades, Sweden has been known for its generous asylum policy. Only the relative difficulty of getting to the geographically isolated and historically homogenous kingdom kept the flow of refugees at a manageable level. In the 1980s, Sweden welcomed approximately 25,000 asylum seekers every year. In a single week last month, however, 16,000 individuals from the Middle East and North Africa sought entry, throwing this nation of 9.5 million people into full-blown crisis.
Prior to entering the European Union in 1995, Sweden balanced its generous asylum policies with an onerous visa system. Like most European countries, it refused to grant visas to individuals from countries suffering from “unrest,” and it imposed hefty fines on any airline or shipping company transporting individuals from such countries. After entering the E.U., however, Sweden became subject to the terms of the Schengen Agreement, which abolished Europe’s internal border controls. Migrants who made it to Italy or Greece could travel within Europe to the most generous countries—such as Sweden—and apply for asylum there.
Last month, the Swedish Migration Agency released its official immigration projections for the next two years. In 2015, the agency said, 190,000 individuals are expected to arrive in Sweden—nearly triple what the agency had projected a few months earlier. The agency estimated that it would cost $3.5 billion to manage the influx, a cost that could reach as much as $8.6 billion by 2017. The Swedish government wants to finance the cost of resettling these asylum-seekers through loans and by raising municipal taxes.
If the influx was overwhelming, Sweden had only itself to blame. Until this week’s announcement, the government in Stockholm had elected not to enforce the Dublin regulation, an E.U. law stating that a refugee has to apply for asylum in the first European country he or she sets foot in. This meant that Sweden didn’t send asylum seekers back to the countries where they first arrived in Europe, instead allowing the application process to begin in Sweden. In the interim, the applicant had full access to Sweden’s social-welfare system, including health care and education, even if he or she was living underground. Most asylum seekers who have made it to Sweden have done so illegally, usually by paying someone to smuggle them in.
Where are these migrants coming from, and why now? Many reports suggest that the civil war in Syria is responsible for the surge, but in fact, just 34 percent of the mostly young, mostly male asylum seekers pouring into Sweden are Syrian. Unaccompanied adolescent males from Afghanistan make up the largest cohort. During the 13-year, American-led war in Afghanistan, a total of 1,000 Afghan immigrants arrived in Sweden; during a single week this past October, 2,000 came. They’re not fleeing war. They’re responding to incentives—Sweden’s generous system of social benefits coupled with Europe’s open invitation to come.
In Sweden, as in much of Europe, skepticism about this open-door policy is interpreted as racism. Sweden recently cut $950 million from its foreign-aid budget. Those funds will now go toward dealing with the massive influx of refugees. The scale of the crisis is likely to require more cuts from other welfare programs.
Malmö, the Swedish city with the highest concentration of immigrants, offers a glimpse of what the future holds. Already essentially bankrupt, Malmö stays afloat thanks to a yearly $600 million bailout from the federal government. It consistently ranks as the worst Swedish city for income, education, employment, and quality of life. Without help from Stockholm, Malmö’s structural deficit would exceed Greece’s. And yet, even with such a cautionary example to learn from, Sweden has no plan. In two years, the country will spend the equivalent of two defense budgets—or the entire cost of unemployment benefits for the current population—on welfare for new immigrants. The government has not announced which spending programs it will cut or taxes it will raise to pay for it.
What’s happening in Sweden, and in Europe as a whole, is not a refugee crisis but a migration crisis, one caused less by world events than by Sweden’s generous welfare system and Europe’s open-border policy.
This article was first published in City Journal
It’s 4:00 AM, and the departure hall in Istanbul is crowded and humid, bustling with activity despite the hour, and I’ve resigned myself to sitting on the floor with my cup of hot tea, bought mostly to occupy my hands, which are shaking with nervous excitement.
Three months prior to my midnight arrival at Ataturk Airport, I made the decision to apply for a journalist visa to go to Iran, without ever thinking it would really come to pass. I dreamed of visiting one of the most elusive Jewish communities in the world, of getting behind the veil of this ancient culture, but through all the arduous paperwork and embassy interviews that pushed the process forward, I kept the reality of entering Iran far from my mind.
Persian Jewry dates back over 2,700 years, to the reign of the Persian Empire in 539 BCE, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. But despite their proud ancestry, the Jews of Iran remain isolated and largely unknown to and undiscovered by the rest of the world.
At its height, just ahead of the Islamic Revolution, the Jewish community in Iran numbered approximately 80,000 individuals, and they were thriving. Overwhelmingly middle- or upper-middle class, the community boasted a wide array of educational and cultural institutions alongside at least 30 active synagogues in Tehran alone. While the ancient Jewish community had been growing steadily under the protection of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution brought on mass emigration, reducing the community to a tenth of its original size.
The advantages the Jews experienced under the rule of the Shah—high socioeconomic status, strong ties to Israel and the United States—became liabilities in the age of the ayatollahs. As in many other dark eras in Jewish history, the Jews were accused of stealing the country’s treasures, and flyers were circulated throughout Tehran urging vengeance against them. There was mass confiscation of wealth along with rampant anti-Semitism and violence against the Jewish population, and as the streets filled up with hordes of people chanting “death to America” and “death to Israel,” many Persian Jews fled to those very countries, bringing what they could with them to start a new life far from the home they once knew.
Some of the Jews who remained in Iran decided to embrace the revolution and the nation’s new rulers. Some 5,000 of them even took part in welcoming Ayatollah Khomeini, the future Supreme Leader of the country, when he returned from exile in Paris on February 1, 1979. The Jewish welcome committee led by then-Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet carried banners supporting of the Ayatollah and chanted “Jews and Muslims are brothers” as a sign of allegiance and hope. The hope didn’t last long, however. Habib Elghanian, the official head of the Jewish community of Iran, was publicly executed later that year, accused of spying for Israel.
The flight is half-empty and I’m fiddling with my black hijab, carefully folded up in my purse, my headphones filled with the music of Israeli singer Ehud Banai, as if I am holding on to the comforts of home until the very last minute. As the plane descends there is a rush for the bathrooms by women hurrying to put on their head-coverings before reaching Imam Khomeini International Airport and the regime’s ever-watchful eye. I join them, folding and pinning the fabric as I’ve practiced in front of the YouTube tutorial, and when I meet my own gaze I do a double take at the woman in the bathroom mirror, immediately more humbled by the heavy cloth and the weight of the meaning it holds.
As I am traveling to Iran as a journalist, I am appointed a driver and a translator, both employed by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It’s a mandatory service, and these young men are to stay by my side throughout the 20 days of my stay. I am picked up at my hotel each morning and dropped off at my door at night, and at the end of each day there is a debriefing at the ministry where we are taken aside and spoken to separately in order to make sure our stories match.
I’m there to meet with the Jewish community, and this involves a costly and time-consuming process to get ahold of the necessary permits to do so. Tehran is the Jewish center of the country, housing a deeply traditional and religious community with its own schools, restaurants, and religious institutions, as well as a Jewish parliamentarian chosen to represent the group’s interests in the Iranian parliament. The Jewish minority, now consisting of approximately 15,000 individuals with organized communities in Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz, is a protected group according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, alongside Christians and Zoroastrians. The 13th paragraph of the constitution states that Jews, “within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.”
The “limits of the law” mentioned by the constitution is a larger issue than the humble passage lets on, as it applies to the Sharia law that has ruled the country since 1979. In other words, despite being a recognized minority, Iranian Jews are still ruled by Islamic law, and if broken the consequences of that law are as permanent as they are dire. One example is the oppressive inheritance law, which states that any Jew who converts to Islam automatically inherits the assets of their extended family, potentially impoverishing many Jewish families. During my meeting with the Jewish MP, Dr. Moreh Sedegh, he told me that the issue is being addressed in talks between him and the regime. But should it be solved, it does not change the framework that holds these Jews hostage or the regime that is the arbiter of their fate.
I’m taken to the Jewish community center in Tehran, located on the third floor of a modern stone building on an unassuming corner street in north Tehran, which is home to most of the city’s 7,000 Jews. I see Hebrew writing on the walls, an old man is making chai in a quiet kitchenette, and when I greet him with shalom aleichem he stares at me blankly and then quickly turns his back. My Muslim interpreter shrugs and points to a room at the end of the corridor, where a man in a bright blue suit is talking on the phone in smooth and rapid Farsi.
He is Yoram Haroonian, the head of the Jewish community. I hand him my Swedish identity card and he says,
“Recite the Shema prayer.”
I silently curse myself for never properly learning the Ve’ahavta section. I stare straight at him as I struggle through the lines with increasing discomfort, my government handler observing the exchange with a subtle mix of annoyance and amusement.
“Should I call you Annika or Channa?” Yoram asks as I finish, smiling for the very first time, and I exhale when I realize I have passed the initial test.
Yoram’s office is beautifully ornate. There is a large conference table in the center of the room; at its head are two Iranian flags and a golden frame holding painted images of Moses and the aging former ayatollah. It is a poignant symbol of Jewish life in Iran and the constant struggle between tradition and the regime. As Haroonian tells me, life in Persia is unlike any other in the Jewish world:
The Jews of Iran are loyal to the regime, and we were actually the first to volunteer for the war against Iraq. Jewish and Muslim traditions have mixed, in some ways, where Passover mimics the Persian holiday of Nowruz and the traditions of modesty are in accordance with the Muslim tradition perhaps even more than Jewish tzniut. We are Iranian Jews, and that means Iranian first, and we are loyal first and foremost to this country while remaining Torah-true.
The words flow from his mouth with such fluency that I can’t help but feel they are not only far too deliberate, but oddly well-rehearsed. He speaks of loyalties and I can see why he does so, as I have brought an agent of the regime into his somewhat protected space. Jewish life here comes with carefully constructed rules and understandings, and one of the basic tenets involves separation from and defamation of Zionism and Israel. Outbursts of loyalty to the regime are expected, whether in the form of volunteering for a war or sharing an enemy, and that aspect of Iranian Jewish reality is something I as a European Jew can relate to and fully understand. It is clear that the Jewish community lives with a constant level of suspicion toward outsiders and insiders alike, always fearing treachery and infiltration; and much like in the Soviet Union, people are trying to weed out informants, unsure how to tell friend from foe. In short, there are no real answers, only truths in the untold, and I realize that for this man there may be a hefty price attached to every word and every answered question.
I ask him about Israel, even though I know whatever answer I get will be measured and made to fit the party line, because I want to know what the Jewish state means to Iranian Jews and if the ban on travelling there has really been lifted, as was reported back in 2013.
“We are free to visit, of course, and we can even move if we want to, but we have our lives and history here,” he says. “This is the second-oldest Jewish community in the world, and we are proud to be here, and very proud of this country.”
Before I leave, Yoram asks me to join him at his synagogue for Shabbat services the next day and then dinner at his nearby home in order to meet more members of the community. As I accept as profusely as I have been taught is the custom here, Yoram makes a point of inviting my translator as well—as if he is pretending that the man’s presence is optional and not a symbol of the chains he cannot break.
An older black-haired woman is waving at me from behind the mechitza, the divider separating the genders, and urging me to come and sit down. As I approach, she introduces herself as Yoram’s mother, and within minutes I am greeting all the women in what I gather is the “honor row” where elegant women of some seniority are seated. The century-old Abrishami synagogue is located on Palestine Street in north Tehran, housed in a beautiful stone building that includes a fine kosher restaurant, a ritual bath, and the busy Tehran Yeshiva. Every day there are two minyanim, and on Shabbat the synagogue welcomes around 250 people, filling it with the same warmth and airlessness that I know from my temple back home. And it is like home to a surprising degree, down to the same music and characters and faces: The nosy women who immediately ascertain my marital status, the off-key men singing harmonies on the familiar liturgy, and the beautiful children running wild in the pews, much to their hushing parents’ chagrin.
Life behind the mechitza offers some much-wanted and rarely-found protection from the eyes and ears of the regime. It is there the women and I speak beyond a whisper, and before the Lecha Dodi prayer, I feel a hand on my arm, grasping desperately for my attention.
“Pray for us, will you, please?”
Her words are sad and real and stark, and they break the wall put up by her masters. I nod but fail to answer; I see a glimpse of her life but fail to fully understand; and I know there is nothing I can do but say a prayer and tell her story.
After services, my translator ushers me out, and as the diners gather we slowly make our way to the Haroonian family home for Shabbat dinner. I’m walking alongside the women, and the natural physical distance between the sexes offers a rare opportunity to speak without constraints. I ask them in broken Hebrew if they are really allowed to visit Israel or even make aliyah as I had been told.
“We are allowed by law now,” Yoram’s mother says, “but when you leave the country you have to put up collateral, often everything you own, and usually there is only one visa per family offered at one time. So we can visit, if we do it discretely, but rarely someone leaves. The price would be too high for the rest of us.”
Another woman in the group tells me that Iran has the world’s highest number of agunot—Jewish women separated from their husbands but not allowed to divorce. I am shocked at this notion, as it speaks to a deep desperation—a husband leaving his wife and family behind to flee life in Iran.
The Haroonian home is warm and colorful, overflowing with guests wanting to eye the Swedish Jewess who has traveled so far to be in their midst. The grandfather pulls out a bottle of wine, something allowed for Jews under a religious exemption from the general ban on alcohol, and he makes Kiddush as my Muslim interpreter looks at me and smiles, as if unsure what to do. The mood is surprisingly relaxed, and the women all want to compare notes on Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi food as we are served overflowing plates of ghormeh sabzi. They ask me about my customs and the world outside, and by the end of dessert the forbidden subject enters the conversation:
“Have you seen Jerusalem?”
“Have you visited Hebron?”
“Do you have pictures of the Western Wall you could send us after Shabbat?”
It is fascinating to see this 2,700-year-old Jewish community that has only related to Israel through text still feel the longing for the land in such a real and powerful way, and while I answer their questions in vivid detail, I am moved beyond words by the innocence and curiosity of their query. Despite the regime’s policy of Holocaust denial and unabashed anti-Zionism, it has failed to sever the bond between a people and its homeland, even with so much at stake. Religiously, the Iranian Jews have prospered despite living under Sharia law. Ironically, it may have contributed to their observance, as intermarriage is punishable by death and religion is hailed as the one absolute they may keep to themselves and each other.
As his wife is clearing dishes, Yoram presents me with a gift: a large Jewish prayer book in Hebrew and Farsi, with scribbled writing across the back page.
“To our friend Channa Hernroth-Rothstein. May all your prayers be answered and may you come back to us soon.”
I choke up and neither of us says much, but we understand each other perfectly, and as I say my goodbyes, I pray to return safely one day and, if nothing else, that prayer will be heard and answered.
As I leave the Haroonian family home it hits me: The overwhelming mix of joy and sadness, of being in Tehran on Shabbat with my people, a scene so familiar and foreign all at once. To a certain degree, the Jews of Iran enjoy greater freedom than I, a European Jew, have ever known. Their synagogues are unguarded, their Jewish identity on proud display, and their religious life lauded and encouraged while mine is increasingly outlawed and oppressed. But their freedom exists inside a large and impenetrable prison, their homogenous traditional orthodoxy that I long for back home is only possible in a place where the alternatives are deemed illegal.
But most of all, I am struck by their longing for Israel.
My connection to Israel is a backbone, an integral part of my identity as a Jew. Being in Iran showed me what it would be like to live without it. How completely untethered and unsafe I would feel. On my continent, people are fleeing their homes because they are Jewish, their Jewish identity making it unsafe for them to stay. What if there was no Israel to come home to? What if we were left alone, like shards of crystal, dispersed in the Diaspora? How would we act? What would we be? What would we have to do in order to please our master?
I leave Iran with a heavy heart, knowing I may never return to see the people who became family in an instant, because they always were. I worry what will become of them once I board that plane; if I caused them harm by even coming. Iran was not what I thought it would be, and Jewish life there is not as hellish as I thought, but in many ways it was worse and more sinister than I could ever imagine. The Jews of Iran are not persecuted, but they are very far from free. They live in a gilded cage with freedoms and rights that can be taken away at the behest of their master without notice or reason.
This article was first published in The Tower
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. […]