Guest columnist Frank Roberts: Protests against Israel sow hatred, dread

Photos of Israelis missing and held captive in Gaza are displayed on a wall Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Photos of Israelis missing and held captive in Gaza are displayed on a wall Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Israel. AP PHOTO/OHAD ZWIGENBERG

By FRANK ROBERTS

Published: 10-29-2023 11:47 AM

As the conflict in Israel enters its fourth week, I find myself thinking more about the future than the past.

Initially I was angry. I found my thoughts drifting from outrage to sadness to revenge. I have constantly imagined what I would do if it were my family murdered or held hostage. For many Americans, Israel is very far away, a distant and strange land, full of history and conflict. But for American Jews, it feels much closer. Most American Jews I know have only one to two degrees of separation from someone intimately mired in this conflict.

While I have not found much rest in those thoughts since then, I find myself thinking about what comes next. We all know what makes America great — a democracy that values and promotes free speech. A society thrives when people with opposing viewpoints can amicably engage in dialogue and discussion about the best path forward. But when protest groups immediately side with Hamas and align against Israel, without any empathy toward the innocent Jews who were slaughtered because they were Jewish, it promotes hatred in a way that becomes all too real and close.

Many Jews I know continue to bear some form of inter-generational trauma. They may have parents or grandparents who are Holocaust survivors. Some, like my family, immigrated to this country to escape pogroms in their home country. What they found in America was better, but not perfect. I still bear the last name of a patriarch who felt it was better to have an American-sounding last name than a Jewish one.

Part of our tradition is teaching our children about our history, and how we have persevered despite those who would see to our destruction. While society may repeat itself, as Jews, we never forget.

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Still, in the grand scope of Jewish existence, I feel lucky. Having lived in western Massachusetts almost my entire life, I have felt blessed to live in a time and place where I felt comfortable and proud to be Jewish. Now, I cannot help but wonder what the future looks like for my children.

More than 50% of religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S. today are against Jews. In the last few weeks the physical signs have been more than obvious — increased police security outside many private Jewish schools and public schools due to increased threats against Jews.

In addition to the physical threats, I see the growing emotional trauma in our community, especially those with young children. When protesters in my hometown are waving Palestinian flags, I feel a new sense of dread. Hamas has clearly perpetrated unspeakable violence in Israel, yet in the spirit of free speech, it enjoys a safe space in the U.S., where some people celebrate its successes.

It normalizes terror and foments hatred — a sign that our country will accept hatred and the celebration of antisemitism and cloak those successes in the constitutional freedoms we hold so dear. How do I explain this to my children?

The events of the past few weeks have forced me to acknowledge how lucky I was to grow up feeling safe and proud to be Jewish. It is something I took for granted. I now see how hard it will be to raise my own children to feel as proud and comfortable as I was.

We live in a time when diversity, equity and inclusion as a movement is experiencing incredible growth, yet many in our society feel OK leaving Jews behind. I do not know how this evolved, but I do know how it makes me feel.

To those who support Hamas and protest Israel in our streets, while hostages are in peril, you have already succeeded in making it more difficult to be Jewish and proud in America. Is this a scary time? Absolutely. Am I afraid? Absolutely not.

Now is the time for Jews to bond together and support each other in the fight to continue our way of life for future generations. As Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but does often rhyme.” To my many friends, Jewish and otherwise, who support Israel’s right to exist and how important that is for Jews in America, thank you for your support. Just remember that many Americans see this conflict much differently than us.

Frank Roberts is vice president of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and lives in Easthampton.