Saturday, Oct. 7 started out as an ordinary day for me. I had spent the morning cleaning my house, and wrangling my kids to do their chores, when my phone started to light up with news out of Israel. There had been some kind of terrorist attack? The first reports were unclear, but it sounded like something horrific and widespread had happened.
My heart sank. My first thought was my uncle (my father’s brother), who lives in Israel. I needed to know that he — along with my first cousins and their children — were okay. Luckily, my mom had already contacted him. He and his family were safe. He wasn’t worried for himself; he was worried about his fellow citizens who were impacted.
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The attack on Oct. 7 was the most brutal attack on Jews in decades, with more Jews murdered on a single day since the Holocaust. Jewish babies, children, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, women, and men — 1,400 of them — were brutally murdered. This depraved, large-scale, highly-organized massacre targeted people standing at bus stops, people in their homes, and hundreds of young people attending a music festival. The terrorists spared no one, killing children in front of their parents, raping women, and taking 200 people hostage in the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — Israel’s 9/11. The attacks themselves resembled the pogroms that plagued Jewish people in the decades leading up to the Holocaust, where Jewish people were targeted in their homes and towns because of their ethnicity and religion.
As the hours went on and the news came in, I started to understand the gravity of the situation. Israel has experienced many horrifying terrorist attacks in the past, but never on this scale.
Before Oct. 7, Jewish parents were already on edge. Personally, I’d already been more anxious than usual over the past few years about sending my Jewish kids to school and into the world. In elementary school, one of my kids was a victim of an antisemitic incident at school; that same month, my kids found an antisemitic slur carved into a seat on the NYC subway, and I had to explain to them what it means. We have friends whose Jewish schools have received threats, and other friends who’ve been accosted on the street just because they are Jewish. And this was all prior to the atrocities in Israel. What happens now that hate against Jews has reached a fever pitch?
When I first heard about the attack, I didn’t even want to tell my kids, because of how horrifying it all was; like any parent, I want to protect them from all the bad in the world. But they’re 11 and 16, and I knew they would find out anyway. I also knew I would need to warn them to be more aware of their surroundings, and to report any possible antisemitism to me right away. I also warned them to click away immediately if any graphic videos of the attacks came up on their phones.
At times, I have irrational thoughts, like wanting to tell them, “Don’t let anyone know you’re Jewish.” I would never do this, but I know I’m not the only parent who is terrified of something happening to their kids because people are targeting Jews every day. These past two weeks, each time I say goodbye to my kids, I hold them a little tighter. I worry when they are out and don’t text me right back.
I’m still mourning, grieving, trying to process the tragedy and its aftermath. I’m trying to process it as a mother who must send her two Jewish children out into the world every day and hope for their safety. I’m trying to process it as a woman, a friend, a writer, a humanist — someone who wants peace and safety for all people impacted by this war, right now.
I feel a need to stop and explain that there are many different kinds of Jewish people. There are religious Jews (of various different types), non-religious Jews, and atheist Jews. There are Jews who unequivocally support the state of Israel, others who are critical of its government and its treatment of Palestinians, and everything in between. There are Jews with few connections to Israel, and Jews with family and friends there.
I have a complex relationship with being Jewish. I was raised with no religion whatsoever, though we celebrated Jewish holidays, and were aware of Jewish history, including the Holocaust (many relatives of mine perished). I would say that I was raised “culturally Jewish”. My father is Israeli, though he’s lived in America since his 20s, and his relationship to Israel is complicated. I have been critical of the Israeli government in the past, and especially its current leadership. I am also someone who has always felt heartbroken and distressed about the oppression experienced by the Palestinian people.
Like me, each Jewish person has a unique relationship to their religion, Jewish identity, thoughts about the state of Israel, thoughts about the current Israeli government, thoughts on the Palestinian people. All this is to say that Jewish people are not a monolith — but on Oct. 7, it felt to many of us that our differences did not matter. On Oct. 7, it wasn’t just Israel that was under attack: It was Jewish people everywhere. Even Jews who didn’t know someone who was impacted directly felt targeted.
Here’s why: Hamas is not a defender of Palestinians, and does not represent all Palestinian people. Hamas is a terrorist organization whose stated purpose is to kill all Israelis — and after that, to exterminate Jews all over the world.
During the Holocaust, two out of three European Jews were killed. Right now, there are about 15 million Jews in the world, and we make up only about 0.2% of the population. Not only were the events of Oct. 7 triggering on their own for Jews as a whole, but because the global Jewish population is relatively small, almost everyone I know had some connection to the 1,400 murdered civilians.
This is just one reason why the attacks that day felt like an attack on Jews everywhere. The other is that it seems to have unleashed a wave of antisemitism around the world — a wave that had already been rising steeply over the past few years. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. has been rising dramatically over the past few years. 2022 saw the highest number of incidents since the ADL first started tracking antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in 1979.
Antisemitism since Oct. 7 has played out in many ways: some blatant, some more subtle. It has looked like chants of “gas the Jews” at protests and demonstrations. It has looked like a 500% increase in antisemitic incidents in the U.K. and a 388% increase in the United States. It has looked like Jewish schools and institutions across the country being on high alert, bolstering safety plans and hiring security.
Abject fear among Jews everywhere has been one of the most profound effects of Oct. 7. We are on edge. We are terrorized. We are not okay. The attacks and ongoing violence impacted Jewish communities worldwide in profound ways — yet many of us experienced silence from our non-Jewish friends. Or worse, some of us saw friends seeming to celebrate Hamas’s attacks, as though they were some kind of righteous uprising of the Palestinian people.
The situation between Israel and Gaza is complicated. It is a conflict that goes back centuries. It’s a conflict wrapped up in too much hate, too much unnecessary loss of life. I have been aware of the oppression the Palestinians face all my life. I have cried and felt sick upon learning of civilian deaths in Gaza, especially innocent children — during this conflict, and before.
But it’s been a rude awakening to realize that the lives of Jews are somehow not important to some people. Many of my non-Jewish friends have touched base with me, but many have not. Some people who seem to comment on every other awful thing that happens in the world have been utterly silent, as though they are sitting this one out.
Silence feels like a slap in the face to your Jewish friends.
How hard is it to say, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through right now”? To see hate for what it is — to separate it out from the geopolitical mess in the Middle East — and just say, “This was awful, and I’m heartbroken for you.”
I understand that many of my friends didn’t know what to say after that day. I understand that, and yet I don’t fully understand it. It’s hard not to wonder if it’s just a matter of, “This is too complicated for me to comment on,” or whether it’s a case of unconscious antisemitism. I don’t have any answers, but I will tell you that I have been forever changed by Oct. 7. I am hurt, scared, heartbroken, sick, disturbed, and grieving — as a Jew, as a mother raising Jewish kids, and as a human. I am rocked to my core, and I will never be the same.
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