“You know it is not always wise to tell people that you are Jewish,” my son’s Hebrew school teacher told me. We belonged to a synagogue in Bonn, Germany. “Sometimes it can be dangerous and it is better to keep quiet.”
I cringed when I heard him say this, something he repeated numerous times, but I slowly adopted his advice. There was an incongruity living as a Jew in Germany. On the one hand there was a trace of fear, but by and large we lived in a bubble and denied the lurking anti-Semitism. We missed the more glaring signs of trouble.
I taught many academics English for their jobs at a scientific organization that also funded projects in Israel. It was here that my sensitivity to anti-Semitism was raised. Every now and then, one of my students would make a comment that left me feeling horrible. It was often about Israelis greediness for money and their demands for more of it. The warning bells started to go off in my head. Jews and money is a very old trope and it was said in such a way that left me feeling dirty.
Then came the summer of 2014 and the Gaza war. I was forced out of my complacency. The main German newspapers started a journalistic war against Israel. Every day I read with trepidation all the hideous crimes that Israelis were committing and the terrible death toll of Palestinians.
I was in a class with my students and the news in Israel had been particularly bad that day. In desperation I looked at them and said, “Do you think Israel has a right to exist?” They looked straight at me, still not knowing I was Jewish, and sighed in unison. They just stared at me and didn’t say a word. But their thundering silence spoke volumes. One student finally broke the silence and said that what the Jews have done to Arabs in Israel is what the Americans did to the Native Americans. I gasped inside as I realized that we had reached a new level of hatred. It was as if a veil had fallen and I started seeing what was really happening.