Unlike my parents and grandparents, I never experienced much anti-Semitism in person. The one incident I can think of now is that in 1959, when I was applying to colleges, the guidance counselor told me not to bother with Cornell as they had a Jewish quota. But I’ve become aware, during at least the last two decades, of a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the U.S., conflated—oddly enough—on the left with anti-Zionism and on the right, under Trump, with pro-Zionism.
For the most part I stayed out of the crossfire. In 2002, however, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco announced that it would boycott Israeli goods in protest against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. I was no supporter of the Israeli government or its policies toward Palestinians, but I wrote to Rainbow Grocery asking if they would also stop selling Chinese goods to protest China’s treatment of Tibetans, or goods made in the U.S. to protest our government’s wide-ranging violent interference in other countries. I didn’t get an answer. Eventually, demonstrations by the Jewish community, a boycott of the store by customers, and a vote by coop members led management to scrap the Israeli boycott.
In 2014 Israel bombed Gaza. Jews in the town of Sderot, which had recently been hit by Hamas rockets, set old couches and lawn chairs on a hill and watched as though in a movie theater, eating popcorn and cheering at the explosions. I expressed my horror at this behavior to a nephew who is married to an Israeli. He replied that if he was there he’d do the same. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” he said.
Allan Sørensen, a Danish reporter, said this behavior was nothing new—he had seen the like when Israel was bombing Gaza in 2009. He had also seen Palestinians cheering the news of bombings that had killed Israelis. This is what happens in war, he said. People on both sides “go through a process of dehumanizing the enemy.”
In 2017 the Chicago Dyke March banned a group of Jewish lesbians from carrying a rainbow flag with the six-pointed Star of David. The organizers said that the march was pro-Palestinian, and the Star was a symbol of Israel. The Star, in fact, has been a symbol of Judaism since at least the 14th century, long before the state of Israel existed. Two years after that march, when I attended the festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I brought armbands with a pink triangle and a yellow Star (sewn for me by a Christian fundamentalist friend) and several of us wore these armbands in the Reclaim Pride march.
Behind our Gay Liberation Front contingent, in the march, was another group chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” I wondered whether they meant that Palestinians would be free of oppression and live alongside the Jews in peace, or that the State of Israel would be wiped off the face of the earth.
Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes—A Bigger Picture
Hate crimes against all minorities have been rising since 2014. Even before that, after 9/11 we saw a surge in hate crimes against Muslims. The election of Donald Trump brought about a significant upsurge in hate crimes in the United States. For example, after he called the current pandemic the “Chinese virus,” there has been a rash of violent attacks against anyone who looks Chinese. This rise in hate crimes includes right-wing anti-Semitic attacks. Anti-Semitism has also been increasing across Europe, both from neo-Nazis and pro-Palestinians.
I haven’t witnessed any of this personally, but attacks in the U.S. spiked during the recent bombing of Gaza. A reporter friend in NYC covered an assault on Jews who were eating at a restaurant in Manhattan and sent me a video. Readers may also have seen a video of the attacks on Jewish patrons of a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, or read about similar thuggish behavior by both Jews and Arabs in Israel.
The Law of Return—Population Figures
An issue for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians is the Israeli Law of Return, which gives Jews from any part of the world the right to enter the country and apply for citizenship. The law also applies to non-Jews with a Jewish background, or those living in a household with other Jews. Palestinians who left Israel or were driven out want that same right.
What if they all came? Let’s look at the numbers:
Population of Israel, Jews and non-Jews included 9.2 million
Population of occupied West Bank 2.9 million
Population of the Gaza Strip 1.8 million
Diaspora Jews and those non-Jews
who are eligible for citizenship 16.7 million
Diaspora Palestinians 7.3 million
That’s 37,900,000 people to occupy a land of 8,778 square miles (m2)—which includes the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Gaza Strip. 172 m2 of the total is inland water, like the Sea of Galilee, and 4,633 m2 is desert. Although part of the desert is under cultivation, most is not. Water, both for household and agricultural use, is in limited supply. If all the world’s Jews and Palestinians arrived immediately, Israel would be the most densely populated nation on earth.
Realistically, though, 24 million people aren’t likely to immigrate any time soon. Most people who are reasonably comfortable where they live tend to stay there. That would include the majority of Jewish Americans. Poverty, oppression, and violence motivate those who do leave their homes.
From 2008 to 2018, the total number of Jews who moved to Israel was 252,507. How many Palestinians (and their descendants) would return if they could? Of those in Diaspora, over 1.5 million live in refugee camps, dependent on international aid for survival. Another 3.5 million are essentially stateless persons, living in various Arab countries without the right of citizenship, and sometimes being expelled or having to flee those countries because of conflicts, including the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, and the civil war in Syria. The remaining 2.3 million have made lives for themselves in countries that accepted them, mostly in Jordan, with around 400,000 scattered throughout the world. In other words, around 5 million would have a strong motivation to make use of the Law of Return if it applied to them.
In any case, even if nobody immigrates, and if Israel’s high birth rate remains the same, by 2065 that small country will become the second most crowded nation on earth.
Every pundit and politician knows how to settle the conflict. One columnist insists that the area should be divided into two states, and proposes borders according to some decades-old agreement. The next opines that the only workable solution is a single democratic state. Ultranationalists on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides have their answers as well—they each want to drive their opposite numbers out of the country entirely.
I don’t pretend to have a solution, and if I did, who would listen to me? I’m not optimistic. About 2,000 years ago, a Jewish preacher said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” They may be blessed, but these days the thugs seem to be running the show.