Iliza Shlesinger: “Jews Have Been Left Off the Agenda”

Innocent Palestinians are enduring a pain and tragedy that I cannot fathom. They have been born into a deeply complex region and society, and it is not right to treat their lives as expendable, or as a solution to a problem. I can’t say it’s right to treat them the way we, the Jews, have been treated over and over. I have to, as a Jewish person, empathize with that. I hope that others can extend the same empathy to us.

I was onstage about a year ago and I mentioned Israel, apropos of nothing political, and I heard people gasp. It was more a knee-jerk reaction to hearing something scandalous, something we aren’t supposed to mention. Like Voldemort.

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I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not conflate Hamas with Palestinian civilians. There are the people and the ruling policy. It seems like a straightforward idea to separate citizens from the people who are governing them. And yet, I find many do not extend this same pragmatic explanation about a separation of people and a ruling body when it comes to Israel and its citizens, and in many cases, Israel and any Jews.

Antisemitism is very real and very tolerated. As a Jew, it can be nuanced and difficult to outwardly express yourself without having to compare, equivocate and acknowledge how hard every other group has it, and in doing so, it invalidates our anger, in the moment, by distracting an audience from our initial, rightful outrage. In order to simplify a complex issue, people often make it about color, about white vs. brown, which makes it easier to rally against Jews since, ignorantly, Jews are seen as “white” or a monolith, or a race, despite only 30 percent of Israeli Jews being Ashkenazi (white European Jews).

People who don’t even know a Jewish person (or think they don’t) will have audacious opinions on Israel or Jews in general, often using their support of Palestine to substantiate their baked-in, latent at times, dislike of Jewish people. And their actions show it, especially in America. Why are people cheering for Jewish death? Why are they, specifically, singing, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”? They will swear it isn’t about a dislike of Jews — just Palestinian people’s rights. But let’s be honest, I don’t see the average member of the liberal left getting as indignant, when it’s, say, Hindus murdering Muslims in India or Russia invading Ukraine. Where are those violent American college campus protests?

I mean, sure, say enough anti-Jewish rhetoric and you might get canceled for a few years and then make a comeback when you direct Hacksaw Ridge. You may even get a few rants in before you eventually lose your deal with Adidas. But it takes a lot. The ever-present hum of antisemitism and ignorance is just something we are used to. The dislike of us is pervasive.

It seems as if every group, especially in the last few years, has had their 15 minutes to say, “We see your bigotry and we are finally, vehemently standing up for ourselves.” But somehow, Jews have been left off the agenda. Despite being only 0.2 percent of the world’s population, we are a consistent target for ever-rising hate crimes. And we live with that, going about life with the echo of “never again” always just rattling around somewhere in our hearts and minds.

It’s a global, historical and national pastime to hate Jews as a way to temper your own economic failures. There has never not been a period of history where Jews weren’t being threatened. Our history is not about fighting to spread our religion: It is about fighting to stay alive.

Our history aches. It’s an ancient pain and a recent pain. It hurts to know the genocide that killed 6 million of us is used as a punchline, discounted, refuted or barely remembered by so many.

And then there’s Israel, a piece of land that Jews already inhabited, despite the popular notion that Jews just appeared there and then “colonized” it. However, despite a decades-long conflict, Jews and Arabs have shared and continue to share that land. Israel isn’t perfect, but it is progressive. Israel’s governing body, the Knesset, includes Jewish, Muslim and Christian members. As hard as I try, I know that it is very hard to distill facts uncolored by partiality when it comes to Israel or Palestine. How Israel is attacked and has retaliated over the history of its time as a state, this subject is better reserved for conversation over drinks with friends you’re OK with never seeing again.

And now we have what happened in Israel on Oct. 7.

The barbaric Hamas terrorist attacks sparked outrage and support for Jews that I’ve never witnessed before. For the first time, Jewish people were finally allowed to scream in the streets and at the internet. It was validating to finally exercise some righteous indignation, not on behalf of another group I was standing up for, but for myself, and for other Jews who couldn’t. And, shockingly, people were supporting me and those being vocal like me.

Now the news spin cycle has washed away the animalistic slaughter of Israelis and replaced it with outrage over the retaliation by the IDF. That anger is now being taken out on Jews across the world as evident in the disgusting rhetoric on rally signs, as seen in the images of Jews globally being attacked and footage of Palestine supporters ripping down missing persons posters for Jewish hostages. I can’t fathom taking out my anger toward Hamas on a random Middle Eastern person.

Because the goal for so many, Hamas included (and, sadly, for many of the protesters against Israel we see demonstrating their freedom of speech) has never been to merely hurt Jews or limit their rights, it has been full, outright extermination. The truth being revealed here is that, for many, the agenda has never been to live peacefully with Israel or Jewish people. The goal is “we want all of it” (I’m taking this from an NYU sign and rally call posted recently), which is code for something far worse. They want to keep pushing and pushing until all Jews are gone. Dead.

So, Israel fights. The fact is, Israel didn’t become a military powerhouse unprompted: It’s a response to perennially being a target. And what is marketed to the public is that Israel attacked, what gets less clicks is what they were retaliating against in the first place.

Hamas attacked Jewish people because they hate Jewish people. And now the civilians of that land are caught in the crossfires. And the world’s response is hate crimes on innocent Jews the world over. Israel retaliated to the largest killing of Jews in one day since the Holocaust and now a lot of innocent lives are being lost in every direction. So what’s to be done? I know the answer can’t be the exhausted, half-invested, pacifist, keyboard warrior, soft serve solution for “both sides to set their guns down.” That would be great except for one fact, and that is history. I know that if Israel put down their guns, no one else would, and there would be no more Israel.

Iliza Shlesinger is an award-winning comedian with six Netflix specials to her name.  She’s authored two books and has appeared in various films and TV shows. She’s currently on her Hard Feelings world tour.

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