This week our emotions ran high after the heroic and inspiring rescue of Noa Argaman, Shlomi Ziv, Almog Meir-Jan, and Andrei Kozlov, and the tragic loss of Arnon Zmora. This week we watched MK Benny Gantz leave Netanyahu’s war cabinet. This week Jews around the world learned Torah and ate cheesecake. And this week New Yorkers were privy to a different moment highlighting their Jewish/Zionist identity. This week many of us were put on edge after verbal attacks and vandalism peppered the streets and subways of New York City.  On one particular ride, masked, keffiyeh-wearing protesters boarded the NY subway train and began chanting, “Raise your hand if you’re a Zionist… this is your chance to get out…

These protestors spilled into the subway after protesting an exhibit that recreated the layout of the Nova Dance festival and documented the murder, rape, and abduction of hundreds of Israelis.

The anti-Israel and antisemitic protesters gathered Monday evening, steps away from the New York Stock Exchange building in Lower Manhattan, lit flares and repeated shouts including “Long live the intifada” and “Israel, go to hell,” according to videos posted to social media.

It’s one thing for those who disagree with U.S. support for Israel to be critical of Israel’s conduct in the war and to criticize the Biden administration. However, it’s quite another to shout chants outside a memorial for those brutally murdered, barbarically raped, and hauled off as hostages in Gaza.  Could we imagine a massive protest outside the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., or White Supremacists protesting outside the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Mongomery, Alabama?

I recently visited the Nova exhibit in Lower Manhattan. The exhibit makes no mention of any political message or recommendation for what Israel’s response should or shouldn’t be after the massacre of October 7. It simply, and heart-wrenchingly, documents what the music and dance festival was, its hopes for spreading peace and love, and how horrible what Hamas did.

Some protestors have no redlines, leave nothing alone that is sacred without desecrating it, and feel the need to spout hatred, shouting over our need to mourn for and memorialize the victims of a murderous antisemitic and anti-Israel terrorist organization.

Across town, the vandalism and harassment continued with the defacement of the private home of the Brooklyn Museum’s director Anne Pasternak, as well as several other [relatively] minor incidents across Manhattan.

Whether we characterize what these people did as antisemitic (which I believe it is) we need to see this as an important pivot point in North American Jewish life. We should not have to tolerate this kind of behavior from anyone anywhere.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) issued a responsible and significant statement against antisemitism on a webinar with Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Uncharacteristically, she called upon her constituency and the progressive public at large to recognize when “… criticism crosses the line into real harm against the Jewish community.” One does not have to be an AOC Hasid to laud her comments – which have largely been unheard from recognizable Progressive American politicians and leaders. Her remarks were noticeable because as a leading young progressive politician herself, she said them loudly and clearly, to her credit. They are also a potential indicator of the dire nature of this situation that even AOC chose to weigh in.

AOC explicitly condemned the protests outside of the Nova exhibit in a tweet:

“The callousness, dehumanization, and targeting of Jews on display at last night’s protest outside the Nova Festival exhibit was atrocious antisemitism – plain and simple … Antisemitism has no place in our city nor in any broader movement that centers human dignity and liberation.”

When antisemitism is normalized in progressive spaces we need to be concerned just as we must be concerned when it is normalized in conservative and right-wing extremist spaces. We will say time and time again that raising one’s voice in support of Palestinian rights is legitimate. Celebration and endorsement for Hamas, however, is never legitimate just as the massacre on October 7th  the eliminationist rhetoric against the Jewish people’s right to a nation state of our own,

This brings us to Zionism.

Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews. However, when folks call out “Zionists,” as these protesters did, it is not about support for Israeli policies or the Israeli coalition government.  Rather, they are using “Zionists” interchangeably with “Jews.” An angry mob running through a subway car yelling for “Zionists” to identify themselves hits too close to home for us, as it carries hints of Nazism and Holocaust memories. No one would tolerate a mob yelling for Gays, Black people, Asians, or any other national identity to separate themselves from the majority. Watching this arguably antisemitism unfold, how can we Zionists lift our heads and stand proudly as Zionists and know precisely what we mean by it? If we have to tuck our Magen David necklaces into our shirts, cover up our kippot, and think twice about wearing Hebrew on our shirts, then we have let this vile hatred best us. This mob action taken by these antisemites in the New York subways undermines true freedom of expression that is foundational in the values of the United States and Canada.

This week’s parasha Naso asks us to lift up our heads and be counted – “נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ…”

This millennia-old verse calls upon us to proudly be counted as Jews and as Zionists when we feel safe certainly, but also when we feel threatened.

I don’t know what I would have done had I been in that subway car leaving the Nova exhibit. But, I wonder what would have happened if I had raised my hand. Would I have subjected myself to mob violence and assault? Would I have looked around for allies and supporters to come to my aid and not found any?  The news reports don’t shed light on whether anyone spoke up against these antisemitic protestors.  According to the report, the subway train came to a stop, the car’s doors were opened, and the leader of the chant concluded, “OK, no Zionists – we’re good.”

I was reminded of the famous quote from Pastor Martin Neimoller:

First, they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Sadly, this threatening type of protest and gross mob behavior can result in some Jews closeting their Zionism and Jewish identity. It may also result in the mainstream public coming to regard Zionism as taboo and a legitimate target for hate speech and violence.

We need to listen closely to this week’s parasha and be proud of our Zionism as we lift up our heads to be counted….