For Jews in this latest war, a fear of the past is haunting

by | Oct 22, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

In the summer of 1942, on a hot July morning in Thessaloniki, Greece, all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 45 were ordered to gather in the main square. No one knew why. This was a Saturday, and most had planned to be in synagogue, observing their faith.

Instead, 9,000 of them were forced to stand for hours under the beating sun and ordered at gunpoint to do meaningless calisthenics by glaring German soldiers. Up. Down. Up. Down. Hands straight out. No water. No breaks. If the Jews faltered, or grew weak, they were beaten. If they fell, they were kicked or attacked by dogs.

The only purpose was humiliation. While this happened, non-Jews watched, not objecting, including women on balconies who took pictures and laughed.

No Jew could believe it. After all, Thessaloniki, for many years, had been a majority Jewish city. When you hold a majority, what could happen?

This is what happened. Jewish businesses were stolen and given to others. Jewish homes were stolen and given to others. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed, the tombstones used for building material. And Jewish families were rounded up — nearly 50,000 people — and shoved onto trains headed for death camps, where the last thing they had left, their lives, were taken as well.

The goal of the people doing these things?

Wipe out the Jews. Deny them the right to exist.

Sound familiar?

Fear of history repeating itself

Ever since Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people, many have been screaming for their various sides. Well. I cannot speak for Palestinians. I cannot speak for Muslims.

But I can speak about Jews and antisemitism, the oldest form of hatred in the world. And perhaps I can explain why, at the core of Israel’s response — and at the core of those who support the only country where Jews hold a majority — is not the swagger of a bully of a nation, but fear.

Fear that what happened so many times before will happen again.

If you are Jewish, being hated is part of your history (as it is for some other religions). From the biblical accounts of Pharaoh enslaving the Jews, to the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, to the 14th century, when Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague, to the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust and all the way up to recent shootings in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Being persecuted. Being chased. Being blamed. Being killed. It is woven into the tapestry of the Jewish people. Antisemitism is as old as the faith itself.

The state of Israel was created in the aftermath of the worst of such virulent antisemitism. Six million Jews were wiped out by Hitler in the 1940s. A few years later, many of the survivors — broken, wounded, or having lost most of their families — gathered within the borders of a new Jewish state, established by the United Nations in 1948 with the idea that perhaps, finally, Jews would have one place on Earth where they would be safe.

Not a chance.

Indoctrinated hate

From its very inception, there have been those who wanted Israel wiped out. There were major wars in 1948, 1967, 1973 and countless battles ever since. Outside critics will say Jews in Israel are only being attacked because of where they are living. But many Jews believe it’s because of who they are.

They don’t ignore — as others inexplicably do — that Hamas, the democratically elected government of Gaza, has in its original charter the phrase, “The stones and trees will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’ ”

They don’t ignore that schoolbooks in nations that surround them contain maps in which Israel is not even depicted.

Can you imagine if America bordered countries that taught their children such things? How safe would you feel? Especially if many nations around the world supported such beliefs?

In her excellent book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” Bari Weiss writes, “While racists or homophobes or misogynists see themselves as punching down, anti-Semites see themselves as punching up.”

Exactly. There is a perception that Jews are perpetually powerful and therefore deserving of a comeuppance, when, as Weiss correctly points out, the only perpetual thing about them is being scapegoats.

“Anti Semitism successfully turns Jews in to the symbol of whatever a civilization defines as its most sinister and threatening qualities. … Under communism, the Jews were the capitalists. Under Nazism, the Jews were the race contaminators.

“And today, when the greatest sins are racism and colonialism, Israel, the Jew among the nations, is being demonized as the last bastion of white, racist colonialism. …

“Whatever role ‘the Jews’ are needed for, that is the part they play.”

Weiss understands that people often hide their antisemitism by claiming they don’t have a problem with Jews, just Israel’s existence. But hate often uses semantics to disguise itself. Remember that in Nazi Germany, the law that gave Hitler the power to turn Jews into subhuman scapegoats was called, in part, “the Law to Remedy the Distress of the People.” Who would argue with something called that?

Or consider this. There are currently 126 countries where Christians are the majority population. There are 50 countries that are predominantly Muslim. There are several countries where Hindus dominate, including India, the most populous nation on Earth. And the bulk of these places get to live in relative peace.

There is only one country, the size of New Jersey, where Jews are the majority.

And it has been under siege since birth.

Do the math.

No one should have to live like this

That 1942 incident in Thessaloniki was called “Black Saturday.” And 81 years later, here came another Black Saturday, in which 1,400 people in Israel, almost all Jews, were shot, stabbed, raped and ultimately murdered, and several hundred more were taken hostage.

Jewish people don’t need to hear the phrase “history repeats itself.” They never stop living it.

And fearing it.

So when Jews read about corpses stacked in piles by Hamas — just like the Nazis used to do — they get scared.

When Jews see American students waving signs that read “From the river to the sea!” — code words for wiping out the existence of Israel — they get scared.

When Jews see U.S. Congress members screaming that our president is “wrong” to send support to Israel, they get scared.

When they see a poll taken earlier this year that showed Democrats, a party Jews have long supported, sympathizing more with Palestinians (49%) than Israelis (39%), they get scared.

When they see an Ivy league professor say he and others were “exhilarated” by the Hamas massacres, they get scared.

When they see even LGBTQ+ groups, who would be harassed, arrested or killed in Gaza, still supporting Palestinians over Israel, they get scared.

They get scared because they remember. And they remember because reminders are never far off. When that elderly Israeli grandmother in a wheelchair, a Holocaust survivor, was taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7, don’t you think a terrified voice inside her head said, “Again?”

I grew up with people in my neighborhood who wore long sleeves even in summer, ashamed of the blue numbers tattooed by Nazis onto their arms. My sister married a man whose parents both survived the camps, a man who had no relatives left on his father’s side because they were all murdered by people who hated Jews.

The Jewish community in Thessaloniki thought it was safe because there were so many of them. They weren’t. Those concertgoers in Israel thought they were safe because they were in their own country. They weren’t.

To be a Jew is to be scared, somewhere in your soul, that the ugly past will become an even uglier present.

I cannot speak for Palestinians. I cannot speak for Muslims. I cannot speak for others who have different takes on the situation, all of whom deserve to have their voices heard, same as mine. But, frankly, many seem to be speaking on their behalf, quite loudly.

Not so loud are voices standing up for the Jewish people, perhaps because it’s dangerous, perhaps because people who have done so before have paid a terrible price. That’s sad. But it must be done. The world cannot be like those onloookers that summer day in Thessaloniki, watching, nodding, even laughing.

Jews and non-Jews alike must call out the antisemitism that is riddled through this current crisis. Because the price of silence is even greater. The price of silence could one day be the end of the Jewish people altogether.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Follow him @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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