April 9, 2024

Concerned about their safety and uncertain about their values and friends, Jewish Americans experience a seismic shift, and a wide range of reactions, as the war in Gaza rages on.

By Katja Ridderbusch

ATLANTA, Georgia — For Talia Segal, there has been no shortage of surreal moments in the past few months — moments that fundamentally changed the fabric of who she is.

It started on October 8, when the 22-year-old stood on the other side of a busy street from the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, holding Israel’s blue and white flag. Outside the diplomatic mission, a crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters held a rally, celebrating the massacre by Hamas the day before — the murder, the terror, the unhinged violence against Israeli civilians.

“I just had to do something,” says Segal, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech. “I had to stand for Israel.”

And so she did, for several hours, alone. She had called a few friends, but they were all out of town. Two people stopped and offered words of encouragement. Some protesters yelled at her to go home. Police were on the scene. She wasn’t afraid, she says.

Almost six months later, Segal — lanky, with short dark curls and solemn eyes — sits by a large window in Georgia Tech’s Student Center. It’s a crisp, sunny morning in March, and the campus is still empty.

Segal, who serves as president of the Hillel chapter at Georgia Tech, is exhausted — from defending Israel and Israeli politics, but mostly, exhausted from defending herself for being Jewish.

Wakeup call

The Hamas onslaught that killed 1,200 and saw 253 more abducted, the subsequent war in Gaza, the rising antisemitism and the ambivalent tiptoeing by political elites in Western countries have also left a mark on how Diaspora Jews look at their identity — especially in the United States, which has the largest Jewish population outside Israel.

“We are seeing an awakening, a heightened sense of consciousness among Jewish Americans,” says Steven Windmueller, professor emeritus of Jewish Communal Studies at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

It’s a shift in awareness that has lived through a series of different phases and expresses itself in different forms. First, there was a period of shock, grief and solidarity, a collective global mourning reminiscent of the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. Then, there was a period of unified activism as Jewish people around the world flocked together, such as the 300,000 who attended the March for Israel on November 16 in Washington, DC. Donations for Jewish advocacy organizations went up; rabbis saw an increase in synagogue attendance; more Jewish parents signed up their children to attend Jewish Day Schools; and Jewish cultural and educational events drew bigger crowds than usual.

Then began an ongoing period of uncertainty, doubt and questioning of the loyalty of political allies and the humanitarian consequences of the war in Gaza. By now, redefining Jewish-American identity has become “a winding and uneven path,” says Windmueller. It is now more layered, complex and conflicted than immediately after October 7, and the journey is just beginning.

The ways Jewish Americans recalibrate their identity are as diverse as Jewish life is in the US. The process plays out in Jewish communities across the country. One example is metro Atlanta.

Don’t expose weakness, don’t become a target

Lt. David Roskind is a police officer in Sandy Springs, a city about 16 miles north of Atlanta with a population of over 100,000 and one of the largest Jewish communities in the metropolitan area. He’s been in law enforcement for 36 years and is currently in charge of his agency’s training unit. He also serves as a security liaison between the police and local synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers.

Born and raised Jewish, he says he’s always felt a strong connection to his roots: “It never leaves you.” The 58-year-old policeman belongs to a Reform synagogue in the city. His wife is Christian, and he sometimes goes to church with her.

Tall, brawny, with short, light-colored hair, Roskind moves swiftly through the agency’s narrow hallways. He says since October 7, his vigilance and threat awareness — which for cops is already high — has further heightened, whether he is responding to a call, working security at a Jewish facility or going out with his family and friends.

A security protocol is always in place to ensure that “we don’t expose any weakness, we don’t become a target,” he adds. Preparedness or paranoia? He laughs, shrugging his shoulders. He’d rather not take a chance and always be ready, he says.

Whether it’s antisemitic rallies or anti-police protests, like most cops Roskind has long learned to build an emotional wall. He says it’s part of his job “to protect the rights of those who stand against everything that I am” — the rights of neo-Nazis, Hamas supporters, defund-the-police activists. But sometimes it’s a bit harder to hold that wall, he says.

These days, he also thinks a lot about his grandmother, who survived Auschwitz. He still remembers the tattoos on her forearm, the memories she shared from her life in the concentration camp barracks. He remembers when she talked about the three-story bunk beds, where the newer, healthier prisoners would sleep on top and those weakened by dysentery and other diseases at the bottom.

Roskind has been to Israel twice as part of a law enforcement exchange program. His most recent trip was last September, a month before the Hamas attacks, when he visited a police station in Sderot near Gaza. Several of the Israeli officers he met there were later murdered by Hamas terrorists.

He will go back as soon as he can, he says. But he also wants to travel to Poland and visit Auschwitz, maybe with a group of local Jewish students.

Roskind believes that October 7 was an eye-opener for many Jewish Americans — especially in terms of safety and security. In the immediate aftermath of the onslaught, pro-Palestinian demonstrators flooded into the streets to celebrate the bloodbath. But as the Israeli campaign to free its hostages and remove Hamas from power dragged on, causing what is estimated to be tens of thousands of casualties, some on the Palestinian side have gone further, targeting any institution they believe is supporting Israel — and that includes recognizably Jewish businesses, schools, and places of worship.

A recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) foundthat 78 percent of Jews in the US feel less safe after Hamas attacked Israel. As a result, gun sales have surged among Jewish Americans after October 7, and firearm instructors have been flooded with new clientele.

Roskind says police can help educate Jewish Americans about gun ownership, gun laws and firearms training “so that people feel safe in their homes, in their cars, or out in the public,” even when police officers and security guards are not around.

But obviously owning a gun isn’t a cure for uncertainty, anxiety and anger. While those in the ultra-conservative and far-left political (and sometimes religious) camps may find a place in a post-October 7 Jewish-American world, “the ones in the middle, mostly moderate liberal Jews, are struggling to find their voice and a place of belonging,” says Windmueller.

Over the past several decades, according to data from the Pew Research Center, an average of 70% of Jewish Americans consistently voted for the Democratic Party. Yet in recent years, they experienced how elite university campuses — including renowned research institutions like Harvard, Columbia and Berkeley, many of which are heavily funded by Jewish donors — have been breeding and spreading a climate of antisemitic hate.

Many liberal Jewish Americans feel betrayed by some of their alleged allies, those whose causes they had supported throughout the years, from the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter activists.

“There’s a profound sense of homelessness among liberal Jews in America,” says Windmueller.

‘Who are we supposed to trust?’

Homelessness is a good word to describe what she’s been feeling for a while, says Roz Engelhardt Harris. The 57-year-old is a grant writer for a government agency in metro Atlanta, and she also teaches group fitness classes at a large Jewish community center.

This is where she feels safe and most comfortable these days, sitting in an airy hallway between an indoor pool, gymnasiums, theatres, and a preschool. This is where, during quiet lunch hours, she shares some of what she’s been contemplating since October 7.

“I’ve always felt very Jewish,” says Harris, a petite and wiry woman with barely tamed grey curls and a broad yet cautious smile. “That hasn’t changed.”

She comes from a traditional background. Her grandparents, who were able to flee Central Europe before the Holocaust, and her parents sometimes spoke Yiddish at home. Her husband is Jewish, and their three adult daughters were raised Jewish. The family celebrates Shabbat and the High Holidays and sometimes goes to synagogue.

October 7 and its aftermath forced her to “think about my Jewishness and put into words what, maybe, I didn’t want to believe but was there all along,” she says. For example, how deep antisemitism runs in her country and how widely accepted it has become.

“This is not just about people who are ignorant or people who want to push others down. This is uglier. This is systemic,” says Harris.

The realization also brought back memories of her childhood. Born in New York, Harris briefly lived in Connecticut and Canada. When she was five, the family moved to Savannah, Georgia. Harris went to a Jewish day school and later a Baptist high school.

She remembers some of her peers making jokes in front of her about being “Jewed-down” and other stereotypes from the ancient antisemitic playbook. And she remembers kids throwing coins at her sister in a high school lunchroom — just for fun. “Well, it wasn’t too much fun when it hit an actual Jewish face,” she says.

Since October 7, Harris has been increasingly unsure about her place and values. Social justice had always been at the core of her political beliefs. But now she’s realized — during personal conversations and in statements by political leaders she used to support — that many alleged allies and like-minded spirits have marginalized the atrocities committed by Hamas and questioned Israel’s right to defend itself.

Like former US president Barack Obama, who — while condemning the Hamas attack — said “the occupation, and what is happening to Palestinians, is unbearable.” He also warned Israel that a military strategy that “ignores the human costs could ultimately backfire.”

Harris says the war in Gaza is a humanitarian tragedy. “But this is NOT an ‘on both sides’ scenario, on any level.”

She pauses as she rolls a water bottle in her slim hands. Realizing the true stance of some people with whom she felt close “is a hurt, a deep hurt,” she continues. “Because if we can’t trust our friends, who are we supposed to trust?”

‘As a Zionist, I’m not welcome’

Rethinking their identity — and their relationship with Israel — is a particularly difficult and painful process for younger Jewish Americans. Those under 35 grew up in a cultural cosmos “shaped by the camps of the Reform and Conservative movements, where the concept of ‘tikkun olam’ — repairing the world — is at the center,” says Windmueller. It’s a concept that comes with universal humanitarian values — and great compassion for the oppressed.

With the war in Gaza and widespread reports about Palestinian suffering, many young Jewish Americans feel torn, says the researcher. Their traditions — and often, their families — expect them to be loyal and supportive of Israel. At the same time, the values they grew up with make them question Israel’s policies and practices.

Georgia Tech student Segal’s dilemma is different. She’s never had any doubt about her stance on Israel. Born in South Florida, she describes herself as a progressive Zionist. Israel is her second home. Her father’s family emigrated from South Africa. Segal’s dad moved to the United States; her grandmother, aunt, uncle and three cousins live in Modi’in, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Segal has visited the country many times, last in December, two months after the massacre. She spoke in front of the Knesset about her experience as a Jewish student on an American college campus. With an IDF group, she visited Kibbutz Kfar Aza near Gaza, where some of the most gruesome atrocities happened.

Modi’in, in contrast, was like a bubble, she says. The sirens went off a few times. Otherwise, life was normal. A friend got married, and a cousin started medical school after his military service. There were many surreal moments, but she felt safe and true to herself, “Because in Israel, us Jews don’t have to constantly worry about how others perceive us.”

That’s a freedom Segal says she’s lost in the US and on campus. During the interview, she repeatedly looks over her shoulder, startled ever so slightly when a young man throws a glass bottle into a metal container. But it’s not the physical safety she most struggles with. “It’s the lack of emotional safety, really,” she says.

The feeling has been creeping up for a while, she says. Two years ago, her best friend in college — a Lebanese American from Kentucky — turned away from her due to Segal’s involvement with Hillel. After October 7, she’s experienced being shunned, excluded and pushed out of progressive spaces, she says. It can be small things. Segal, who identifies as queer, found that many dating profiles feature slogans like “Free Palestine.”

“As a Zionist, I guess I’m not really welcome there,” she says, echoing others’ feelings of homelessness.

But Segal doesn’t feel discouraged.

“Living through this moment in history and experiencing that we are strong, we are resilient, and we stand together as a community has made me proud to be Jewish,” she says.

Undying support

American Jewry’s dwindling sense of security could impact the upcoming presidential elections in November, says political scientist Windmueller. It could mean that a significant number of Jewish American voters break with the Democratic Party — a move that could benefit the Republicans or a third-party candidate, who may still emerge. It could also mean that many Jewish voters simply sit out the elections.

But one thing is clear, says Windmueller: “Israel will jump up in the list of political priorities for Jewish Americans.”

Despite the uncertainty, confusion, concern, sense of alienation and homelessness, the three Jewish Americans The Times of Israel spoke with in Atlanta — Roz Harris, David Roskind and Talia Segal — do not doubt that the State of Israel will survive, for now.

She may be delusional or naïve or oblivious, says Harris, shaking her head. “I fear for the people who live in Israel” — among them, some of her friends and family — “but I don’t fear that the state is going away.”

If Israel had to fight for its existence, many in the US and around the world would go and offer their support, says Roskind — as fighters or farmers, bookkeepers or bricklayers. “I would go, and many of my friends would, too.”

Segal plans to graduate in May. She may decide to immigrate to Israel sometime later and find a job at one of the country’s innovative biomedical device companies. She’s still undecided, but the current situation in Israel doesn’t deter her.

“Not at all,” she says, finally laughing.

© Katja Ridderbusch / Times of Israel