Having just bought a chanukiah, I stop into a local watering hole for a glass of wine. I finish my glass and am getting ready to leave when a large man I (barely) know as “Ray” yells across the room: “Free Palestine.”
I walk out muttering a lame joke but, outside, I stop. I realise I’m not wearing any pro Israel propaganda. My hat declaring Am Yisrael Chai is on my desk at home. This Ray doesn’t know me terribly well, doesn’t even know my name. But he had seen my new menorah and clearly thought he’d remind me and everyone else where he stands. But no. I’m not going to take that anymore. I go back inside to confront someone — who I would later learn is a special forces veteran.
I don’t expect antisemitism on my doorstep. The neighbourhood hosts two synagogues (admittedly both struggle for a minyan each week), mosques, Catholic churches, a Greek Orthodox and a Romanian Orthodox and a Dutch Reformed church. We’re very comfortable with each other. But apparently we aren’t immune from antisemitism.
I get in Ray’s face; Ray, the special forces veteran, Ray the security technician who is sometimes armed. I stand in his face, larger nose to smaller nose: “Why did you say that to me?”
“Oh, I say that to everyone.” No, Ray does not say that to everyone. He said it to me, and he’d never said it before to me, and I’d seen him and spoken to him in the past.
“You saw me with a piece of Judaica and you thought you’d tell me ‘Free Palestine’.” He looks at his shoes. He knows. “You told me that because I’m a Jew. And you expect me to be ashamed. I’m not ashamed. And you are a Jew hater.”
I am happy to report that I suffered no ill effects from this exchange.
Ironically, when I wear overtly pro-Israel merchandise, my T-shirt with the Israeli flag as a Superman logo, and my Am Yisroel Chai cap, no one bothers me. Sometimes people give me a thumbs up. Two have said “Happy Chanukah”. I got a free falafel sandwich from a nice Pakistani man who works for an Israeli restaurant who nodded at my shirt.
To be a Zionist is to refuse victimhood, to stand up for oneself and one’s Jewishness and Judaism. There’s an old saying: antisemites don’t accuse Jews of theft because they think they stole. They enjoy watching the Jew turn out his pockets to protest his innocence. When you hold your head up high and say Heneini, here I am, they know you are no Jew with trembling knees. If they think you’re “just a Jew” they start coming for you.
I’m not finished with Ray. I send a long email to the bar owner demanding an apology, and tell the owners I won’t set foot in their bar if he is ever allowed in again.
After sending the email I think, “What’s got into me?” Ray, the Jew hater, is a special forces veteran. I am a coward, a drip of the very first water. I am a playwright precisely because real life scares the living hell out of me. I hate conflict. I hate marches and protests. I hate arguing with people. I want everyone to get along.
But something happened to me a few days ago that stiffened my sinews: I saw a man dance. A bunch of nominally pro-Palestinian protestors tried to invade the New York Museum of Natural History and succeeded in shutting it down.
We all know these “Pro Palestinian” protestors didn’t do this because the New York Museum of Natural History invaded sacred Palestinian territory, but because the museum is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and a lot of Jews live there. But one of those Jews didn’t care that there were a few hundred of them with masks. He stood up and danced. He just stood there with a t-shirt that read, “I stand with Israel” and he danced with a wide grin on his face. He just stood there and danced, while the agitators yelled at him, calling him complicit with genocide.
I’m not sitting still anymore. I want to be the man who dances. Even if it kills me.
I’ve read reports of people calling themselves October 7 Jews — Jews who woke up and saw the world around them silent to their pain, wondering who among their friends would hide them when, not if, Jew hatred came for them once more.
The owner of the bar emailed me back and apologised in a long email, and later implied that Ray would not be welcome until he apologised to both me and the bar owner. I don’t plan on holding my breath for any apologies, but I’m going to keep dancing.