It’s been almost two weeks since it happened. The US has had a midterm election. We’ve cast our votes in the hopes of a better future. We continue to grieve for those murdered and injured while celebrating life in a shul in Pittsburgh. But the gunman, with his piercingly hateful words, isn’t the first person this year I’ve heard speak genocidally about my chosen family. But, like most of us, I heard the gunman’s words at a distance—from the safety of my laptop, I read of what he had done, with broken-heartedness and horror. But the person who shared her words with me personally was not someone posting conspiracy theories on social media, some guardian of warped patriotic purity. She told me to my face, in her own words: “Jews are disgusting—I’m Aryan.”
I didn’t think I’d ever actually hear words like that from anyone within the confines of a university, much less in my own home. I stared dumbfounded at my housemate Darya, who had uttered something so unexpected and incomprehensible that at first I thought for sure I’d misunderstood. We were sitting at our kitchen table, talking about ancestry. Out of curiosity, I had purchased 23andMe’s ancestry kit, and they had just sent me an update email. I told Darya about it as we ate lunch.
“Aryan?” I asked, as if I’d just hallucinated. She shook her head with definitive affirmation and pulled up a Wikipedia page about Hitler and his conception of the Aryan race, a page with which she seemed very familiar. She scanned the page, her finely manicured finger skimming the paragraphs, as if looking for something she’d seen before. “Ah, there it is: master race.”
Darya, an educated woman from Iran in her late twenties, had, prior to this, struck me as sensible and progressive. She didn’t cover her head with a religious garment, and she said she was, essentially, an atheist, though she had to conceal this when in Iran and had to cover up while there. She was at the University of Bristol to finish up an engineering doctorate.
I had thought that blatant anti-Semitism, of the form I’d just heard, was largely a relic of WWII documentaries, festering now amid the sluggardly ne’er-do-well margins of society, promoted by those who ought not to have any limelight shed on their heinously mistaken mindsets. It’s an ideology embraced by low-IQ conspiracy theorists with rifles and unkempt hair, spat out from between the rotting teeth of DUI-prone white supremacists, whose big-wheeled monster trucks are strewn with Bud Light cans—people just as likely to utter racial slurs about blacks, Muslims, Native Americans, Hispanics—anyone other than them. I didn’t expect anti-Semitism at a university, a haven of Enlightenment ideals and science. Darya, I had thought, was elegant and classy. My housemate had come from across the world, as I had, to get the best training she could. She and I were both foreigners, immigrants renting a space in the university’s staff accommodation while we sojourned in the United Kingdom. I had trusted her enough to share my ancestry results with her as casually as I’d shared my tomato sandwich. I had no reason not to trust her, as everyone I’d ever spoken to on a university campus had seemed to me to channel the same spirit of progress I believed knowledge was meant to inculcate. In disbelief, I questioned her: “You do realize that you’ve just pulled up a website of Hitler and that Hitler used Aryanness to justify genocide?” “Yeah, what of it?” she shrugged—quickly, definitively, and arrogantly—without flinching, pausing, or showing the least hint of regret: “Jews are vile.”
By this time, our third housemate had joined us at the table. I sat there, rattled and alarmed, having lost my appetite, with no ability to make sense out of what I’d experienced. Darya didn’t know I was Jewish by choice. My heart sank in despair and my knees went weak, a physical response that left me temporarily paralyzed by confusion, my faith in human decency and in our relationship both derailed. What I had fatefully shared just moments earlier was that I didn’t have any Ashkenazi ancestry. This was going to be my preamble to telling her that, although I was enthusiastic about genetics (I’m a geneticist by trade), my ancestry didn’t determine what I found meaningful, whom I befriended (and who had befriended me), how and for what I worked in the world, and what brought me my greatest sense of spirituality: our common humanity, hope and potential for love and goodness. Before I could share what I cared most deeply about, she revealed her thoughts about Jews. I didn’t know what to do. I was living with someone who thought the world would be better off if the people I’m closest to were dead. And, without knowing it, she had conveyed she wished I were dead. She had done so with the confidence of one who thought she would receive social approval for her views, a fact that scared and stunned me.
Though my disbelief was palpably obvious, I hid my distress as best I could, thinking it wise to stay calm. But I got up from the table once Darya and the other housemate had begun talking about Rothschilds and other supposedly rich Jews responsible for society’s woes, a theme I later learned wasn’t unique to them among University of Bristol staff and students.
Two days later, I told Darya I was Jewish. She shrugged her shoulders as arrogantly as she’d defended her thoughts about genocide and continued cutting her vegetables. No apology or remorse. I contacted the university’s housing department (we had been assigned to live together by lottery). I documented what had transpired and moved out. Before I left, I told my third housemate, who also happened to be a colleague in my department, why I was leaving. But she simply implied that I was being Islamophobic: “So, you think Darya is like ISIS?”
Months passed. Then a senior faculty member at my (now former) department at the University of Bristol endorsed Jeremy Corbyn and told a group of aspiring physicians they should back Corbyn if they cared about the future health of their patients. When he said this, I remembered Corbyn’s support for an anti-Semitic mural, depicting Jews as hook-nosed bankers playing monopoly on the backs of the poor. I raised my hand during the question-and-answer session and asked the faculty member about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. He was shocked that I’d even raised the issue. Later, he emailed me saying that it was ludicrous to think Corbyn could be anti-Semitic. He enclosed an essay suggesting that Jews invent anti-Semitism as a slander against Muslims. The essay specifically reported that Netanyahu’s son had been accused of inciting anti-Semitism to ward off his father’s critics and argued that this behavior was “emblematic” of strategies used by Israelis to maintain power. Thus, the idea that Corbyn could be anti-Semitic was portrayed as an invention, made up by Jews, to serve their duplicitous political purposes. For Corbyn supporters, reports of anti-Semitism can be plausibly denied and denounced as premeditated attacks, mere political smears, designed to prevent Corbyn from making life easier for the people. Just as Israelis are portrayed as manufacturing anti-Semitism to subjugate Palestinians, Jews in London must be wielding it to thwart Corbyn, the progressive, wholesome victim of sinister Jewish smears. The professor hadn’t known about my (former) Iranian housemate. He knew virtually nothing about me, except that I’m American. I wrote back and shared what had happened with Darya. He never replied to that email—offered no sympathy or concern. Instead, he left me with only the implication I drew from his callous silence: he thought I must have made it up. Perhaps I’d been duped by Netanyahu.
A few months later, in France, an elderly woman and Holocaust survivor was murdered by Muslim men whom she knew—one of whom was her neighbor. She was poor. They stabbed her 11 times and burned her and her apartment. In the days following the event, the Jewish community in London held a protest —to try to induce Corbyn to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism, so that what happened in France didn’t happen in England. I told the professor who supported Corbyn that I endorsed the protest and that I believed Corbyn was unfit to lead, if he didn’t tackle the anti-Semitism in the Labour party, which takes the form of accusing Jews of being miserly conspirators out to greedily protect their own interests at the expense of the many. Again, the senior professor defended Corbyn. He also gave me physical copies of three books by a demographer, who writes about how rich, selfish bankers in London are responsible for the bad health outcomes of virtually everyone else. I read the books and I wrote back to the professor. I told him I was sympathetic to the accusation that the Trumps of this world were carelessly sequestering wealth, but that I was concerned about the books’ clear, latent anti-Semitism, their thinly veiled euphemisms and the way they blamed the Jews for the fact that poor people don’t live as long as those with more money. In this view of the world, it isn’t Trump and his cronies who bear the burden of the blame. (No, it’s those people at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh). Of course, the professor never responded to my email.
I cringe at the thought of the authoritarian identity politics that divide us. I’m not here to shower Trump with blame—although he has signal boosted the anti-Semitic rantings of those who hang on his every word, providing others with a sanction, an excuse to go after those perceived as other. Four years ago, Nadine Epstein, editor-in-chief of Moment magazine (which has a web page to monitor worldwide anti-Semitism) reported that anti-Semitism appeared largely to be a problem in Europe—but not in the US. But when recently asked about anti-Semitism in the US, Laurie Goodstein reported that Epstein’s understanding had changed:
we live in a very different world where nationalism, and with it anti-Semitism, is on the rise, stirred up by the rhetoric of one candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s been building ever since, and now that we are in the run-up to the midterms, the first national election since, we are seeing the consequences of such dangerous rhetoric.
Trump is culpable in this. But so are the far Left, who blame Jews for their privilege. The Left, both in the US and the UK, is willing to acknowledge and denounce Hitlerism, but as Ruth Wisse puts it, “[a]nti-Semitism is not synonymous with Hitlerism—the only form of anti-Semitism that has gone down in military defeat. Anti-Semitism is a politics of misdirected blame.” In their insidious anti-Semitism, Left and Right stand united against an imaginary mutual foe. The hatred has also infiltrated academia, which is largely left leaning. Intersectionalists embrace it under the banner of hatred for Israel and, by doing so, strengthen a dominant ideology that has united the Muslim and Arab worlds since the end of WWII, while, at the same time, becoming the unwitting allies of the far Right, with their caricature of Jews as money-hoarding puppeteers who manipulate the world’s resources (see recent Republican campaign ads featuring Jews with fistfuls of cash). It’s time for this to stop. The Left, especially the woke Left, must stop blaming Jews for society’s woes, must stop accusing Jews of inventing anti-Semitism, and end the conspiracy theories they share with some of the world’s most deranged and dangerous ideologues. It’s time to let go of conspiracies about rich bankers and the top 1%. Just as Trump is culpable for fueling hatred amongst the misguided on the far Right, the far Left is culpable for ignoring anti-Semitism when it comes from Muslims and when resentment, envy, and conspiracy theory are disguised as a desire for justice or a concern for the plight of the poor.
We do not have to be born Jewish to be mensches—good human beings, people of integrity and honor. Our goodness, the use of reason and empathy to help each other, is part of our common potential. I’ll cite Bari Weiss, who recently shared these words from the Talmud: “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh. All of Israel is responsible for one another.” By all of Israel, I do not mean only those who were born Jews. We all need to show enough integrity to love each other despite our differences. We share the responsibility of making our world—with its democracies, universities, and communities that celebrate life—safe. We have a moral obligation to disavow all forms of anti-Semitism—we must take responsibility for those at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.