A sea of signs demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza at the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JCRC Bay Area)
A sea of signs demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza at the March for Israel in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JCRC Bay Area)

After Oct. 7, I finally understand what my mom was trying to tell me

In the weeks since Oct. 7, the world as I have known it for 46 years has morphed into something unrecognizable to me. Something I couldn’t have understood before now appears with perfect clarity.

Every day that goes by sharpens the lens, exposing my former world view as a distortion, where Jews were valued and accepted into society. The glass has been shattered. My eyes have been opened. I now see the biblical stories of attempts to destroy us not as ancient stories of triumph over evil but as a modern story and a prescient one of what is to come.

Fleeing pogroms, discrimination and eventually the Holocaust, the generations before us taught their children and grandchildren the value of hard work and the promise of America. We came here with nothing and made something. As America gradually accepted us, eliminating barriers to Jewish entry into higher education, top law and financial firms, and certain country clubs and neighborhoods, Jews assimilated into the culture. We became part of the fabric of society.

This is the America that I grew up in. We may have lost a bit of our outward Jewishness, but we traded it for Americanness, and we got to have both.

My mom, recognizing how fragile our newfound American freedom was, saw the risks of that tradeoff and fought hard to impart a sense of Jewishness to me. She insisted that I go to a Jewish day school, participate in Jewish youth groups and camp, and be part of a community that upheld Jewish culture and values. Naturally, I fought it. I didn’t understand this “sticking together” mentality.

She worried about the future of the Jewish people as an existential crisis.

“We are a tiny drop in the bucket of all the people on this Earth, and if you don’t continue our traditions that’s one less of us,” my mom would say. “You must learn what it means to be a Jew so you can pass that on to your children. Do you want to be responsible for the dying out of our people?”

It took my entire 46 years, until Hamas infiltrated Israel with its reign of terror, to see her point. I keep replaying my mother’s urgent words in my head. My rosy idealism, the natural outgrowth of a privileged, secure childhood, has been shattered.

When Israel was attacked in the most barbaric, unimaginable way, my community was paralyzed with shock, fear and grief. Even for those who hadn’t been to Israel in many years, or who didn’t have a strong connection to Israel, it felt like an attack on us, our nation, our people.

First, we sat with the shock. Then we sat with the grief. The grief for those murdered and raped and burned and taken captive, whose stories I can’t recount without tears.

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But before we were able to process the depravity and all its reverberations within Israel, we were forced to grieve again: for the humanity we had thought existed all over the world. Seeing thousands marching in places like London, Sydney, New York and L.A. in support of the terrorists, in support of our gruesome murder, and blaming Israel for the attack against itself, was a second awakening. The world was against us.

Now, for the first time in my life, I am scared.

The antisemitism that I thought was dead, rooted in simple hatred of the other, took little time to surface and to flourish marvelously. It’s hard for my generation of secular American Jews to understand, but historically, we have always been the other. We refused to pray to multiple gods when the world was pagan or to accept Jesus when Christianity swept the world. We refused to conform to the religious beliefs of our conquerors and their empires.

Our different beliefs have often made us the enemy. The enemy of fascism and Islamic fundamentalism, every angry mob that has a grievance and every simple mind that can be controlled by a demagogue’s propaganda. We are just 0.2% of the world’s population, the teeny-tiny other swallowed by the world’s eagerness to believe the tall tales of our evil and greed.

And we have seen just how eager the world is to accept as truth the charges that our enemies make against us. How easy it is to turn reason on its head. The attacked are decried as the attackers, the victims of genocide called a genocidal nation, the lone liberal democracy in a sea of authoritarian countries called an apartheid state, the Jews who have been living in Judea since the time of Abraham called the colonizers. Not only do the street mobs proclaim these slanderous absurdities, but so do the mobs who’ve come down from their Ivy League towers who are supposed to be our brightest minds and future leaders.

These realities are unimaginable for any country other than the Jewish state. And this new upside-down world where black is white and white is black is where I now reside. I reside in this darker reality where my fellow Jews and I feel alone in this world. For Jews on the left like me, this rejection has been particularly stinging.

The good-hearted people we stood with to support women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, DEI — where are they? We thought we were comrades in a fight to make the world a better place, but even they have turned their backs on us. Didn’t they see the images and videos that Hamas proudly broadcast to the world? The crowds that cheered as Hamas paraded around women who had been brutally raped, mutilated, murdered or a combination of all three? The videos of parents murdered by Hamas while lying on top of their children to try to save them? How do our allies lack the moral clarity and the humanity to stand up for us?

Hamas’ attack was a huge win for antisemites, conspiracy theorists and apparently a large wing of the progressive left, but it also gave the Jewish community an unintended gift. Hamas ignited within us a deep solidarity formed out of tragedy. We have come to support one another and fight for our future in a way that only people with a shared history and a future at risk can do. For the first time, I feel connected to my ancestors.

Where do we go from here? How do we continue to live in our communities where we look around and see the faces of people who have turned their backs? How do we support the social justice causes that are so deeply held for us alongside those who don’t care if we live or die?

Everything that was certain is now a question. Once again, we are without a home, wandering in the desert, as it appears we have always been.

Melissa Freed Cohen

Melissa Freed Cohen is a non-practicing attorney residing in Mill Valley with her husband and three daughters. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, as well as a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law.