Antisemitism: a personal encounter

August 9, 2019

I knew that she was called Ruth and that she was Jewish. I spoke to her only once very briefly, and somehow managed to work some extremely harsh criticism of Israel into the conversation. Similarities with the Nazis were mentioned. She looked at me briefly, but didn’t respond and the conversation was suddenly over.

That was about 25 years ago. I had strong opinions about Israel — so strong that they were almost bursting out of me. I could almost feel my skin reddening, my breath changing and a shot of adrenaline rushing into certain combative muscle groups when I thought of it. Why? I didn’t know much about Israel at all. No, that’s a lie. I didn’t know anything at all about Israel, beyond that there were Jews living there. I saw them as rich and white, and that they had stolen land from the Arabs or something.

Why so much anger? Well, my best friend used to get very angry about it, and I looked up to him. He seemed to know a great deal more about everything than I did. I was about 25, he was in his early 40s, was better educated, had traveled widely, and had a much stronger personality than I did. He seemed to know what he was talking about, and I generally agreed with his (left wing) politics. It seemed important, and I saw how angry it made him, so I identified with his anger. It made me angry too.

But why did I speak to Ruth in that manner? I wasn’t angry with her about it. Why did I do that?

A decade and a half later, in 2007, I started a relationship with a woman who was Jewish. She was an Israeli citizen, having fled a part of the former Soviet Union after it collapsed. I didn’t speak to her at all about the politics of Israel. I still had strong opinions about it, but somehow I’d managed to apply the normal distinction between people and their government to this case as well. So I was happy to learn a little about Judaism from her, but didn’t really believe her when she spoke of this or that person not liking her because they “don’t like Jews”.

I had almost never encountered Jews while growing up in Australia, and the idea of antisemitism was completely abstract to me. I thought it was some mysterious prejudice held by Nazis and maybe some biblical freaks, but beyond that, it doesn’t exist. Why should it? Beyond that, I thought, the term was only used to silence people criticising Israel.

We visited each other over the next few years — she’d stay with me in Germany (where I was living), and I’d visit her in Israel. I made a point of not expressing political opinions, and avoided looking into the history of Israel, as I didn’t want to get angry and say anything offensive.

I did notice, however, that Israel was very different from what I was expecting. Certainly there were soldiers with automatic rifles everywhere, but their body language wasn’t aggressive. I had expected it to be highly militarised, full of right wing red-necks, with everything centered on the occupation of land and suppression of opposing forces. But it was a fully functioning, kind of “normal” society, at least away from the border crossings and conflict zones. (This impression is indeed reflected in the statistics: it’s the third most stable economy in the world, and in the top ten most innovative.)

Something else struck me. I’m Australian, but I’ve lived in Germany since 2000. When my girlfriend would introduce me to people as her “friend from Germany” I’d flinch, but none of them ever did.

Some years later we split up. Shortly after that, a conflict in the region escalated into a war, (this was in 2014). I followed the conflict in the media, especially in the distinctly anti-Israeli Guardian, interested to see in real time how the Israeli government and military behaved. I was surprised: I had the very strong impression that the right wing government of Netanyahu was trying to de-escalate the situation and avoid a full-blown military conflict.

Even from the very biased reporting in the Guardian, it was clear that it was Hamas who fired the first rockets at Israel. The response from Israel was to bomb targets, often civilian buildings, from where rockets had been launched, as well as military command centres.

Believe or disbelieve Israeli military intelligence, it was indisputable that they going to unusually great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. A dud bomb would be dropped on the rooves of any civilian buildings used by Hamas; then 15 minutes later a real bomb. Sometimes the people ran onto the roof after a dud hit their building, in which case the Israelis held their fire. This is indisputably not the conduct of a military that is indifferent to civilian casualties. Even more clearly, it shows that the Palestinians know this too.

As it happened, I was on holiday at this time — traveling with the friend I mentioned earlier, whose strong anti-Israel attitude I had once adopted. He was furious. Each morning before meeting up with him I’d check my email in my hotel room and find a barrage of messages from him, with links to news stories showing bombed buildings and Palestinians crying and carrying their dead.

I didn’t say anything for a while, until he confronted me. “They’re murdering children!” he yelled at me over breakfast one day.

Why was he angry with me?

I realised he had been very angry with me these last few years, for associating — absurd as this sounds, but I can’t put it any differently — with a Jew.

I asked him if he’d noticed that the Israelis had just declared a unilateral ceasefire, and had waited two days to see if the rockets would stop. He drew back a little, but the colour in his face didn’t change. He said the rockets are “symbolic”. I asked symbolic of what?

He ignored that and said the rockets are small and not very dangerous. I pointed out that the rockets had destroyed buildings in Israel and killed people. Poorly aimed rockets had even destroyed the power lines bringing electricity into Gaza, causing a massive blackout.

He said “Can’t you understand how angry they are?” I said I could understand that, but I couldn’t understand why he was so angry about it. He repeated a slogan about a country with nuclear weapons shooting children throwing stones. I pointed out that this involved rockets, hundreds of them being fired into civilian areas. How else does he think Israel should respond.

He spluttered a bit and then yelled, “They should withdraw to the ’67 borders!

Clearly he thought that if Israel would withdraw from the West Bank, (giving up the land that Jordan had illegally occupied from 1949 until Israel captured it in the Arab led Three Day War in 1967), there would be peace…. Peace in Gaza — on the other side of the country. Gaza, controlled by a theocratic military dictatorship hostile even to the Palestinian Authority ruling the West Bank. His logic seemed a little tangled, but I let the matter drop.

Later I shared with him on a personal level, that I was finding it hard to be going through a break up with someone I knew I should not contact — the relationship was ultimately bad for both of us and she had kicked me out in a very unpleasant manner — but whose city was being bombed. I wasn’t imminently concerned for her safety — where she lived was fairly well protected and not especially within range, but still, it was deeply upsetting.

My friend listened, but with his head twisted away from me and his face like thunder. Finally he demanded to know where exactly she lived. He clearly wanted to know if she had “stolen land” from anyone to live there, and when I said Tel Aviv, he wasn’t sure whether it meant that she had or not. So he demanded to know if she was “really Jewish”. “Because they’ve been importing Russians who aren’t really Jewish to take over the land.

Why was he so angry with me? We’d been friends for over 20 years. The closest male friend I’d ever had, and he said the same. Yet something stronger than that had engulfed him.

Soon, thankfully, the very uncomfortable holiday was over and he went back to London, I to Berlin. Then another barrage of emails started. “The Jews are like Nazis!” he cyber-yelled at me.

“That’s absurd,” I said, and suggested he read the Hamas Charter, which reads like Nazi propaganda, because indeed it is — it cites the same fabricated document that the Nazis used, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” accusing Jews of a global conspiracy, and calling for their total extermination.

He answered that they didn’t really mean it but had to say it “for political reasons”. He followed this up another barrage of links to Jews describing Israel as being like the Nazis. I pointed out that they were holding their own culture to a higher standard than they expect from others. To simply carry over that higher standard and pretend it’s an objective measure to use against them is a misunderstanding. And it doesn’t absolve anyone who says it, Jewish or not, of saying something rank and absurd.

It went back and forth a bit more. I had started reading up on the history and tried to discuss with him some of the things I was reading about, but all he did was just scream slogans about Nazis and child murderers. I was surprised at how ignorant he was. Above all I was shocked at his complete lack of interest in the issues.

Instead, he blustered that the US “Won’t protect them for ever you know!”, and that sooner or later the Arabs will “find their own final solution“.

And with that, a twenty year friendship was finished. Mutually. He had finally decided to boycott a person who was supporting “genocide”. And of course, for me, someone who thinks my loved ones deserve to be killed because they belong to a supposedly morally unclean race is not a friend.

This hatred, this blind visceral hatred, is a virus. It enters the nervous system through words and ideas. If these ideas are not treated in the usual manner — filed away according to priority and personal relevance, or considered critically in the light of information from a variety of sources — then they automatically start to reach down into the emotions.

From there they infect the viscera and impel one to speak them out publicly, where they can infect others. The ideas become physiologically isolated from the usual critical or skeptical treatment of ideas, and dissonant information is repelled by the same visceral inflammation that leads to their verbal expression.

I had a mild form of this virus when I spoke out the ideas to Ruth, and of course I still feel a flush of shame. But the infection didn’t hold. Maybe this was partly because of her non-reaction and ending of the conversation confused me and feeling a bit ignorant and foolish.

More likely — and less flatteringly — it was because I only encountered the virus from one source.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. An interesting post.
    Indeed, Yakaru, growing up in a tiny town in the wheat-belt of Western Australia, I knew nothing meaningful about Jews, Judaism and the like. I’m sure I heard this or that about them but they were faded into the mass of my childhood memories. As time went on, I moved to the capital and no-doubt heard more occasionally about the subject but still it was too little to sink into my forming collection of knowledge. My year 11 subject of history included ‘Nazi Germany’ which taught me a lot but because of a lack of other reference points when it came to Jews, I only knew the victim-hood angle. TV, while helping, also taught me little more than I had learned in history class. Some of the people who I came to know had varying knowledge and attitudes about Jews, apart from the default insults which one hears from the masses in general, i.e f’ing yanks, f’ing pomms, f’ing Jews and so on and so forth.
    Over time, the subject of Israel was described to me almost exclusively along the lines of the speakers political leanings, it’s telling how that was a clear decider of the kind of stuff I would hear about the subject.
    When I slowly joined the on-line community, blogs and such, I had many areas of interest to examine and one was Atheism. I learned far more about Judaism, not to mention the other abrahamic faiths and the peoples that most commonly practiced them.
    A theme I noticed from history class and from Atheism sites was that anti-Semite attitudes and propaganda were much older than World War II.
    I remember just a few years ago on a suburban train, hearing from the other end of the carriage an explosion of foul and hateful anti-Semitic comments. Casting my gaze down there I noticed it was a group of young men, probably high-school students. As I listened I realised that they were pretty much repeating verbatim lines from the character ‘Cartmen’ on the animated comedy ‘South Park’.
    I’ve greatly enjoyed some of the episodes, like the one taking the piss out of John Edwards or Scientology or ‘Ghost hunters’. I have thought nothing of the anti-Semitic stuff because I have no views about the people, not sure if any of the folk I have known well were Jews and have never been to the country of Israel.
    I’ve heard a lot of the views and the television has not been quiet on the subject, especially American shows.
    But i’ve also mouthed-off before about a subject that I really didn’t have the personal knowledge to back up the stuff I was saying. It was more a sad episode from my youth and embarrassing when I look back upon it.

    All the best mate,

  2. Thanks, Woody…

    The former friend mentioned in the article had had nothing whatsoever to do with Jews either for the whole of his life.

    I remember telling him that more people had died in the last 6 months in Syria than in the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948, and he looked shocked and then screamed “No!”

    Anyway, yeh, it is an utterly weird prejudice. I think that’s one reason why it isn’t taken seriously — there’s no visible basis for it in the way there is for normal racism. But it’s a weird confluence of motivations. Some Christians hate them for killing Jesus (on one interpretation of a gospel) — the Pope only declared them *not* collectively guilty for it in 1962, but it still hasn’t sunken in. Some Muslims hate them because they’re told to in the Koran.

    The Russian Czar hated them for being communists. The Nazis hated them for being capitalists, and spread their propaganda through the Middle East during WW2, and it’s still there.

    And the left hates them for being supposedly capitalists and ever since the end of communism, they’ve thrown their lot in with radical Muslims to oppose western capitalist neo-colonial hegemony, repeating Stalinist/Czarist propaganda.

    And I’d bet that the majority of the larger countries in the world, have done worse things than Israel has since 1948, including all of their neighbours, but no one complains about that.

    (Sorry for ranting, I wanted to touch on more of this in the post but it got too long.)

    Anyway Woody, thanks for your thoughts, and good luck with your fiction writing project (that you mentioned on John’s site)!

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