I’ve always felt safe as a Jew in America.
While anti-Semitic incidents always take place from time to time (swastikas painted on synagogues, tensions between Jews and African American communities in Brooklyn), these have always felt like the exception, and, although disturbing, have not been of life-changing concern for most Jews in this country. But in the past few weeks, this has changed – I no longer feel safe as a Jew in America.
In the past week, pro-Palestinian rallies have been held in major American and European cities – Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris and London. In each case, these rallies have morphed into anti-Jewish mobs, where slogans such as “Jews back to Birkenau,” and “drop dead you Zionazi whores,” and other anti-Semitic catchphrases are shouted.
Pro-Israel American citizens who have encountered these rallies have been in physical danger. Police have had to intervene, and American Jews have reported being afraid of bodily harm in their own cities. For anyone who thought it couldn’t happen here, it already has.
This feeling of insecurity reminds me of why Zionism was born in the first place, over a hundred years ago.
Usually, Theodor Herzl is called the “father of Zionism.” But Herzl wasn’t the inventor of Zionism – rather, he was its main distributor, convincing western European Jewry that there was indeed a need for a Jewish homeland. In the 1890s Herzl repackaged the Zionism movement that had been gathering strength for a good 15 years. He gathered Jewish leaders together in Zionist congresses to discusses practical and financial ways of supporting the movement, and even made multiple but unsuccessful attempts to convince the Ottoman sultan that Zionism was not a territorial threat to the Ottoman Empire. But Herzl didn’t start doing any of this until he witnessed the anti-Semitism of the 1890s in France, during the course of the Dreyfus Affair. This anti-Semitism looked a lot like what we’ve been seeing here over the past few days – angry mobs shouting anti-Jewish slogans.
But Herzl borrowed much of his rhetoric from something written much earlier, in 1882. This was a pamphlet called “Autoemancipation,” published by Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jewish physician and lawyer. Pinsker had witnessed anti-Jewish riots in his native Odessa as early as the 1870s, but it was the large-scale anti-Jewish riots of the 1880s that swept over many regions of Russia in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II that caused him to feel unsafe in his homeland – and formulate a plan to make sure that Jews would never feel unsafe like that again.
His concept of autoemancipation – freeing oneself – stated that Jews cannot rely on the countries in which they are citizens to protect them, no matter how friendly and supportive those governments sometimes are.
He said that Jews would only truly be safe if had their own homeland, a place where they could be looked at as an equal to other nations, a place where they could protect themselves rather than relying on any other government to do so.
Sixty-six years after Pinsker wrote this, the State of Israel came into being, a fulfillment of his idea of a Jewish nation-state existing as an equal to other nations, so that Jews would have a forum to protect themselves.
And today, 132 years after Pinsker wrote, his ideas are more relevant than ever, as Jews in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Paris and London are seeing that they cannot rely on their host countries to protect them from strong anti-Jewish feeling. These weeks of out-ofcontrol anti-Israel riots are a test of just how free and protected American Jews really are, how secure they feel, and how defended they will be by their own institutions and law. The concept of “autoemancipation” in America hopes and expects the continued defense of Jews’ rights as citizens, but also demands that American Jews take responsibility, perhaps by uneasily looking around for exits.
Simultaneously, “autoemancipation” puts in relief how important it is for Jews to protect themselves in their own homeland – which is exactly what the country of Israel is doing today.
The author is professor of history and Jewish studies at Purchase College SUNY, and coordinates the Jewish Studies Program.