There are antisemitic wolves in my house

Monica Osborne (Jewish Journal via JNS)

By this point the sentiment has become pervasive among Jews everywhere: There is not one but two wars being fought at this moment.

The first is being fought literally in Gaza and, as we saw recently with the Hamas stabbing attack in Jerusalem—not to mention the endless rockets fired at Israel from Gaza—often bleeds over into Israel. The second, which some believe is the war we are less likely to win, is the war of disinformation and Jew-hatred taking place in cities and on university campuses all over the world and especially in the United States.

Jewish stores, restaurants, schools and places of worship have been attacked. People who are visibly Jewish have been subjected to both verbal and physical threats. The hysterical and frenzied screams of “Globalize the Intifada” and worse are the tell-tale characteristics of so-called pro-Palestinian rallies. This second war is nebulous and far-reaching, a speeding car without breaks—that much is true.

But there is yet another war taking place. It is the war in our own lives, with families, friends and communities. Our inner circles are no longer safe spaces, but even worse, we wonder if they ever were. Why? Because there are wolves in our houses: people we considered close friends and allies, many we have known intimately for years, who have materialized into antisemites seemingly overnight.

In the wake of Oct. 7, these people have shown their teeth, razor sharp and poised to bite, fangs glistening in the light of each new accusation against Israel, a country trying to bring its hostages home and end, once and for all, the threat of Hamas. Those of us who were paying attention saw that, even before Israel began to strike back and to hunt down Hamas terrorists, the fangs were sharpened and ready.

On Oct. 11 I published one of the first pieces to call attention to the systematic rape and mutilation of Israeli women on Oct. 7. “Where are the feminists?” I asked. The countless messages I received on social media ranged from insults like “Zionist propagandist b—h” to threats including “I see you have a son.” But the creators of these insults are not the wolves. They are the rot that always bubbles and festers under the surface of any society in which there are Jews—the ones that search relentlessly for an opening, an opportunity to release their filth into the mainstream. I’m not so worried about those.

What concerns me are my friends. In the summer of 2007, I attended the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory (SCT). I felt, for the first time in my life, that I had found my people. The friendships I developed were deep and special and continued even though we were spread across the world. I look back on that summer as one of the best in my life. In the years since, there have been times when our conversations about Israel and the Palestinians have been tense, but they were always grounded in mutual respect for the other perspective, or so I thought. But on Oct. 8, the tenor of the discourse had already changed.

I watched as a few of my SCT friends began to post anti-Israel rhetoric. Not one of them mentioned the massacre of Israelis or the hostages taken into Gaza, and not one of them reached out to me to ask if I had family or friends in Israel. In those days and weeks after Oct. 7, I thought I would die of heartbreak. I watched endless videos of horrific footage because, as a Holocaust scholar, I understand the importance of bearing witness. I, like many others, will never be the same after watching these atrocities. But how can we look away?

As I watched the hate and misinformation spread on the social media accounts of some of my most intelligent friends, I took a deep breath and said to myself: “I need to be a calm voice of reason and truth. The point is not to win an argument; it’s to help educate.” In this spirit I reached out to friends who had posted anti-Israel and pro-Hamas content in an attempt to have a dialogue. We had always been able to do this, right? Why should it be any different now?

But who knew I would be trying to reason with wolves?

The responses I received from every academic friend I approached brought me to my knees. There would be no dialogue. Their support not just for Palestinians but also for Hamas—resistance, they called it; liberation and decolonization are justifiably violent, they said—had become their honor when it should have been their shame. Their hatred for Israel and its supporters—which meant me, though they wouldn’t say it directly—was now brandished proudly. I suppose this hatred must have always been there, kept at bay only by the thinnest veneer of civility and under the guise of tolerance. All along, I had been feeding the wolves with my friendship, not realizing I was trying to tame the untamable hate that is antisemitism.

There were wolves in my house.

Here in Italy we have a wonderful community of friends—both Italians and expats from around the world. But wolves lurk even here. I’m fortunate in that so far they have been few and far between, but even one is enough to shake my sense of safety and stability, to cause me to look for the glint of fangs in every social encounter. 

In mid-October I was scrolling through Twitter and my heart stopped when I saw that a good friend, an international law professor at a European university, had posted an anti-Israel article grounded in the work of Franz Fanon, a twentieth-century political philosopher. Fanon’s views on colonialization are fundamental to the postcolonial theory studies that have, themselves, colonized many humanities departments and often ignore the violence transpiring in many countries in order to focus on Israel. Any piece about Israel that starts with Fanon will end in only one place: Israel is the evil colonizer and violence is a justifiable response.

Posting the article with favorable comments does not make my friend a wolf. But the ensuing discussion between us revealed what I had never seen coming: He has an antisemitism problem. I’m not sure if he knows it. He reminds me, after all, that he has some Jewish friends. But he found my posts about the massacre of Israelis and the ensuing antisemitism to be “aggressive.” He accused me of “lashing out” on Twitter through these aggressive posts about Oct. 7. Be a good Jew, is what he was really saying. Be one of the Jews who sees the massacre as a justifiable response to the narrative of “apartheid.” Be a Jew who supports the Palestinian “liberation” movement. There are plenty of these Jews roaming the halls of universities. But I am not one of them. We see each other for who we both are now. He was a wolf in my house, and I will not be a “good Jew.”

Many of us have more examples of this than we can count, and we are discovering new ones each day. Sometimes these wolves are family members. I discovered one of my own when I saw a younger (non-Jewish) cousin who hadn’t posted on Facebook in many months post a hysterical statement about the “genocide of the Palestinian people…carried out by Israel and funded by the U.S.” She screamed for a “ceasefire now” and posted victorious photos of “healthcare workers for the people of Palestine” rallies she had presumably helped organize. 

Not once did she mention the massacre in Israel or the mass rapes or the burning of families alive or the children and elderly taken hostage by Hamas. “What should happen to all those Jews you think don’t belong in Israel, their indigenous homeland?” I asked her. “Or is what Hamas did—the cutting off of children’s limbs, the raping so hard that pelvises are broken, the torture of children and parents in front of each other, the gouging of eyes, the cutting off of women’s breasts and playing ball with them, the decapitations, the parading of mutilated bodies through the streets, the kidnapping of children and babies, the massacre of young people dancing at a peace concert—is that what decolonization looks like?”

In so many words, her answer was yes, yes indeed. My own cousin: a wolf in my house. She doesn’t think she’s a wolf because she cares about Palestinians. But really, she doesn’t care about them at all. She simply hates Jews and Israel, and the Palestinians give her an opportunity to express that. Her anti-Zionist fantasies involve getting rid of Jews in Israel; these are people who are my friends and family. Never was there so sinister a wolf. Because she is family, I attempted one final plea: “You can criticize Israel all you want. But when you talk about Jews you are talking about me. You are talking about my son. And when you shout slogans you don’t understand, when you hurl false accusations of genocide against Israel, you are fueling the rage of people across the world calling for the destruction of Israel and the Jews. You hurt me and my family when you do this.” I received no response, and her angry posts continued. I couldn’t sleep that night.

There is something insidious about a wolf in one’s house. It’s a call that comes from within the house, a horror that was there all along, but which you somehow failed to see.

I recently ran across a piece by Paul Auster, written in 2020 during one of the pandemic lockdowns. Auster recounts a trip he took in 2017 to the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, formerly known as Stanislav—at various points controlled by the Polish, the Germans, the Austro-Hungarian empire and then the Soviets before becoming part of Ukraine again. A grandfather he never knew had come from that city, and Auster was searching for a connection to him.

The city’s history is that of many European cities during the 1930s and 1940s. By the end of World War II, the city had been cleansed of its Jews—rounded up and shot, marched into ghettos that were later liquidated and Jews sent to camps. “And then, one by one and five by five and twenty by twenty throughout 1942 and early 1943, the Germans had marched the surviving Jews of Stanislav into the woods surrounding the city and had shot them and shot them and shot them until there were no Jews left—tens of thousands of people murdered by a bullet to the back of the head and then buried in the common pits that had been dug by the murdered ones before they were killed.” There are no more than 200 or so Jews living there today. 

According to a man, a poet and self-made historian, with whom Auster spoke, when the Soviets rolled in to capture the city in 1944, with the Jews dead the Germans had cleared out and the city was empty of human life. It was, instead, inhabited by wolves, hundreds if not thousands of wolves. “Horrible, I thought,” writes Auster, “so horrible that it contained the horror of the most horrible dream, and suddenly, as if rising up from a dream of my own,” a poem by Georg Trakl “came rushing back to me…the World War I poem from 1914 written about Gródek, a Galician city not far from Stanislav.” The final stanza of the poem reads:

A thorn-studded wilderness girds the city

From bloody stairs the moon

Chases terrified women.

Wild wolves have stormed through the gates.

It’s a chilling reference for Auster: this moment from World War I materializing in a story about World War II, connected only by the wolves that have taken over. Auster looks out from a café on a main square in the city and imagines it overtaken with the wolves that, according to the story, were later exterminated by the Soviets over a number of weeks: no easy feat.

The wolves, he writes, “are the endpoint of the nightmare, the farthest outcome of the stupidity that leads to the devastations of war, in this case the three million Jews murdered in those eastern bloodlands along with countless other civilians and soldiers from other religions and no religion, and once the slaughter has ended, wild wolves come crashing through the gates of the city.”

His reflection is chilling as he concludes: “The wolves are not just symbols of war. They are the spawn of war and what war brings to the earth.”

There are many fables, stories and parables about wolves. Little Red Riding Hood finds that a wolf has eaten her grandmother and now pretends to be her so that he can consume her as well. The little boy who cries wolf—we all know what happens to him. There are the three little pigs and the notorious wolf in sheep’s clothing. They’re all meant to be sinister tales, but we’ve grown used to them and we’ve forgotten their lessons. We’ve forgotten just how dangerous it is to have wolves among us.

But Auster’s commentary on this particular story of wolves was prescient and incisive. They are the “farthest outcome of the stupidity that leads to the devastations of war…and once the slaughter has ended, wild wolves come crashing” into our most intimate and important spaces.

Over the past few weeks I’ve rid every one of my personal spaces of the wolves that come only to crush my soul. I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I said that these excisions have not come at an emotional cost, that I have not shed many tears or silently asked myself if this all might be too much. But we are resilient, and we must be resilient. In order to be so, we must cut off the limbs that offend. We must get rid of the wolves in our house.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.