For the most part, my childhood in Australia was free of antisemitism. This led me to believe we had left that hatred behind in the Soviet Union, when we emigrated in 1987.
In Australia, my family moved house every couple of years as new migrants finding their way tend to do, and in my early teenage years we came to live in a modest, low-rise apartment block in middle-class Randwick in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Soon we realised how deluded we had been.
Directly above us lived a couple from Austria. The man was ageing but tall and vigorous, with a deep, resonant voice and a farmer’s build. When he met my father, who spoke with a strong Russian accent and whose pale blue eyes and fair complexion hardly betray his ethnicity, the neighbour was genial to a fault. Then he saw my mother, and everything changed.
Upon learning that the new occupants were Jews, our neighbour would stand on his balcony and bellow at us, night after night, alternating between a thunderous guttural roar and a sneering tone full of menace, “Hitler didn’t finish the job, I will finish it for him”. An evening serenade that continued for weeks. It was terrifying to hear. It became difficult to sleep beneath such a man, and it pained me to see the fear that returned full bore to my parents’ eyes.
Why did he hate us so? What did he think we had done? What did he think we intended to do beyond living simple, honest lives as hopeful migrants in a new land?
He surely would have had no coherent answer to these questions. He probably didn’t ponder on them a great deal. But he knew with perfect certainty that the Jew, represented in that moment by my parents and their two boys, was something so loathsome, so repugnant, so unhuman, that he was justified in threatening repeatedly to kill a young family.
My youngest daughter will some day reflect on her first brush with antisemitism. It occurred on October 13, 2022 in Sydney’s eastern suburbs when a large swastika was scrawled on the perimeter of her childcare centre. The owners are Jewish, as are most of the families there. Of course, the symbol meant nothing to my two-year-old daughter. But she may have detected things were different that day. The comings and goings. The tension of the owners. The anxiety of the parents wondering whether this was the act of another bellicose neighbour or of an idiot kid inspired by an idiot rapper. But perhaps it was a portent, the latest in an accumulation of incidents, street abuse, white supremacist flyers in mailboxes, suspicious characters lurking outside synagogues, that pointed to people in our communities who wished to do us harm. People afflicted by that ancient, consumptive hatred we know as antisemitism.
Antisemitism is an extraordinary condition, a pronounced defect in human reasoning turned outward. Unique among hatreds in very many ways, it has a tenacity and durability that sees it latch on to whatever the Jews hold dear and however they choose to identify themselves. For one antisemite, it is our original monotheistic faith that is so abhorrent. For another, it is our designation as a people, community, even a race. For others still, our nation-state is the embodiment of evil, the impediment to a better world. Every target is attacked with equal ferocity because in every case the target is the Jew. Yet it is not the flesh-and-blood Jew that is so hated. Rather the mythical Jew, the beast the antisemite conjures just to have something to slay. The scheming Jew, the conspiring Jew, the all-powerful Jew, the vengeful Jew, the bloodthirsty Jew, the superior Jew, the inferior Jew, the capitalist Jew, the communist Jew, the moneyed Jew, the filthy Jew.
Even our identity, our right to be called a “Jew”, is attacked. Kanye West calls us imposters who stole the identities of the “real” Jews, African-Americans, in a mangled libel invented by half-deranged street preachers in New York and globalised by the man who brings Stronger and No Church in the Wild to my workout playlist.
When Jews speak out against the hatred directed at us, we are accusing of “crying” antisemitism or “inventing” it. When we seek to define it so others may understand a hatred that has brought unspeakable ruin to humanity, we are accused of acting with sinister motives, scheming to muzzle criticism of Israel rather than trying to protect our families. The National Tertiary Education Union just allowed a handful of pro-Palestinian fanatics to pass a resolution to reject the scholarly definition of antisemitism endorsed by the Jewish world and, more to the point, send a collective “f..k you” to our community.
My daughter’s experiences with antisemitism have commenced a little earlier than I would have expected. As she comes of age, she will sense its lurking presence, she will learn of its savagery that caused her forebears all manner of unnatural death. But she will learn too that we are not victims, we don’t seek or need pity, we don’t plead with our oppressors, we outlive them; and we have learned through our agonies and our survival how to stand proud as a Jew and to strike back against those who do us harm.
Alex Ryvchin is the co-chief executive officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. His new book on antisemitism, The 7 Deadly Myths, is due for publication in early 2023.