By Anat Ghelber
“If you see a suspicious package or activity on the platform or train, do not keep it to yourself. Tell a police officer or an MTA employee. Remain alert and have a safe day.” New Yorkers hear that announcement every single day as they ride the subways. Those words probably just fly by for someone who is not Israeli, or for someone who isn’t Jewish. But for someone with my background, they mean something else. I grew up in Israel until I was 13. I’m 27 now and still vividly remember how, in the evenings, my family would gather around the television to hear the local news of people getting bombed in malls or buses. It’s like we already knew, before even watching the news, that a tragedy was going to happen. There was always this fear in the back of our minds whenever we were off doing simple things like going to the mall, or riding a bus, that something terrible might happen at any time. Unfortunately, that fear carried over with me to the U.S.
For example, one time, I hopped onto the Q train at around 8:00 pm to my apartment on Avenue U and there he was, this Arab-looking man was sitting next to me with a huge piece of luggage. I noticed my heart started racing. I couldn’t keep myself calm. I had thoughts going through my head saying, ”Run away. Go to the next train!” Meanwhile, the other Anat inside of my head tried to calm me down by saying, through my headphones, “You can’t generalize. This is just a regular man with a suitcase. You can’t exaggerate like this every time you see someone who might be Arab carrying a big bag. Please don’t be ridiculous.” I kept telling myself this until I calmed down. Then, that announcement came again about looking out for “suspicious packages.” Wouldn’t you know it? My heart started racing again….
“What if it’s a sign?” I started wondering. I even began having thoughts about texting my best friend good bye. Okay…so I decided to tell this man, “Hi” just so I could prove to myself that he was safe. I began by asking him what time it was. He replied normally enough, “It’s 8:15.” I started to feel calm again, telling myself, “You see, Anat, this is just some normal guy.” Then I noticed he was texting in Arabic. My heart started doing that racing thing again. I actually found myself investigating the man. “Where are you from?” I asked with a fearful smile I was trying to cover up. “Yemen,” he replied. Oh ok. *Whew* “Yemen’s a safe place,” I told myself. “They don’t hate Israelis.”
After a long, uncomfortable, 10 second pause he asked me where I was from.
“Europe,” I lied.
“Really,” he said. “I thought you were Israeli.”
After another long silence, I replied that I was.
“How did you know?” I asked.
He responded, “I know what you people look like. Why did you lie?”
And, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare wrote. Why did I lie about being Israeli?
I didn’t respond to him at the time, I just smiled, embarrassed. Why did I lie? I guess it’s the Israeli trauma in my blood. You see, my heart is still Israeli and even after 14 years I’m still afraid for being killed for who I am. It doesn’t help that I used to go to a public school in Texas and experienced horrid anti-Semitism on a daily basis. Bullies called me “stinking Jew.” Even people I considered friends told me that they still loved me, “even though I was a Jew.” It’s like being a Jew was a crime. I was considered this “dirty race.” It felt like this huge tragedy to be born Jewish, not something to be proud of. I think that because I experienced such anti-Semitism I’m now more sensitive to small comments that other Jews might totally take as a joke. This one time, I remember going out laughing and having a good time with non-Jewish friends when all of a sudden they started making jokes about Jews. While I couldn’t hear all the jokes that clearly, I felt all of a sudden there had to be this armor of protection around my heart. While everyone was just laughing and even having a good time with Holocaust jokes, I just faked a smile. Having a family background that’s been touched by the events of the Holocaust, it’s not easy to hear it being made light of.
As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I almost feel like I am a Holocaust survivor myself. That what happened to Jews in the Holocaust is running through my veins. The anti-Semitism didn’t stop with my grandparents, either. It continued on to my parents, who experienced it in Romania and Ukraine. Afraid of experiencing anti-Semitism in the “Land of freedom,” I find myself trying to hide my Jewish/Israeli identity when I am around non-Jewish people. My Grandmother would always tell me, “Not everyone needs to know you are Jewish.” I guess I actually listened. Don’t get me wrong, I love being Jewish. I am proud of my Jewish identity. I love Israel and being Israeli. I just don’t want to be hated for who I am, and…well, let’s face it, the rest of the world doesn’t like us at all and never will. This is why I will not only be the Jewish girl who is afraid when she sees a person with a piece of luggage, I will also be the girl who, like many others, is afraid to be Jewish.