A sense of security and safety. That is one of the most basic human needs.
However, it is a luxury that has rarely been attainable in the long history of the Jewish People. Jews, no matter where and when they lived, have always had a sixth sense of impending danger, and for them it became a necessary way of life.
There have been exceptions. The most striking was in Germany. When antisemitism started to rear its ugly head in the 1930s, German Jews could not believe that it might happen in their cultured enlightened society. After all, Germany was not like Russia with its pogroms. Most German Jews did not try to flee until it was too late.
The lesson was not lost on world Jewry. Never again could we as Jews simply stand back while this kind of danger imperiled our people anywhere in the world. Israel’s law granting the right of return to any Jew is the most obvious manifestation of that awareness.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa after the Second World War, that sixth sense of impending danger was always with us.
Despite being raised without any religious training, I was always very aware of the fact that I was Jewish. My father had rebelled against the beliefs of his very religious family, and my mother grew up on a farm far from any centers of Judaism. Nevertheless, my father had signed up to “fight Hitler”, and my family found its identity in a very segregated society as Jews. In my early teens I joined a Zionist youth movement, and finally found a place where I belonged. I became an ardent Zionist.
As Jews, we were very aware of the pain inflicted by a society that measured your worth by the color of your skin. As a young woman I could not see a future for myself in South Africa. I felt that I had two choices, to fight the system and risk spending the rest of my life in jail, or to get an education that would enable me to support myself and leave as soon as possible. My parents and sister emigrated to Australia in 1965. My husband and I left for Israel with great relief in 1966. By that time my Afrikaner botany professor had died under house arrest, and my husband’s English teacher and my physics professor were serving long sentences for trying to improve the lot of those suffering the most discrimination in South Africa. For us Israel was the answer — a society we could be proud of.
However, fate sometimes plays interesting tricks. A few years later, after getting a PhD in Physics at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, my husband was told that if he wanted tenure, he needed experience from abroad. Through a series of remarkable coincidences, he ended up with a wonderful position at the General Electric Research and Development Center in Schenectady, New York in February 1970.
As an ardent Zionist, one of the first things I did after coming to America was to join a women’s Zionist organization – Hadassah. I happily took a position on the Schenectady Chapter Board as Zionist Affairs Chair and proceeded to try to educate those around me about Israel. Even though my children were still babies, I even started a Young Judaea Chapter to educate the children in the community about Israel.
When in the 1970s the Jews of the Soviet Union sought the freedom to leave, I could relate intimately with their plight. I organized a Hadassah demonstration to “Let My People Go” in downtown Schenectady. To my surprise, there were a number of older women in the chapter who would not sign a petition for Soviet Jewry. They had lived through the McCarthy period, and were too afraid to add their names to any document. For them, the sixth sense was still very much alive.
Because Holocaust denial was an issue that triggered my sixth sense of danger, I became involved early on with both Hadassah and my local Jewish Federation, lobbying in Albany to ensure that Holocaust Education would become a part of the school curriculum in New York State. I am very proud that very recently this issue became a national one with the passage of the Never Again Education Act sponsored by Hadassah during National Jewish American Heritage Month.
My family never returned to Israel to live. I have lived in America for 50 years, 45 of these as a proud American citizen. I feel privileged to be able to give back to the society that has given me so much, while doing as much as I can to support the Jewish homeland. However, I have never lost that sixth sense.
Over the years I have watched several generations of American Jews emerge who are so safe in their identity that they have lost that sixth sense of impending danger. I am aware that my frame of reference is often very different from those of my contemporaries who have never lived outside the protective cocoon that is American society.
I was not shocked when “Zionism is Racism” reared its ugly head at the United Nations and received such widespread international support. As a Jewish woman, I was proud to work against it through Hadassah.
I was saddened but not shocked when the BDS movement started to infect our college campuses with its insidious antisemitism. I believe that Hadassah has a role to play in combatting antisemitism on campus.
Now my biggest concern is how to educate generations that have become complacent and believe that any antisemitism in America is simply an aberration. We have to reach out to younger Jews in particular and teach them what history has always taught us as Jews. We have to relearn that sixth sense survival mechanism so that we can successfully counter the danger of antisemitism and phobia of “the other” that lives within the enveloping welcoming arms of the United States of America.