On being a ‘garbage human being’: Phoebe Maltz Bovy checks in on the state of antisemitism discourse in February 2024

Revolution comes to Roncesvalles Ave. in Toronto on Feb. 18, 2024.

Two articles crossed my path last week, and I’ve been thinking of them in conjunction with each other. Not because they are the same sort of article (most certainly not), nor because I agree with them in equal measure (again, nope), but because they illustrated something about worldviews.

The first was Dara Horn’s longread in The Atlantic about Harvard and also not-Harvard antisemitism. This is a serious article, one of big ideas. Horn, “a Harvard alumna who wrote a book about antisemitism called People Love Dead Jews,” synthesizes months’ worth of physical attacks and vandalism. She reminds of the medieval backstory, of the long history of evil getting attributed to Jews. And she also makes a claim that might seem counter-intuitive:

“It is remarkable how little any of this has to do with anything going on in the Middle East. This harassment isn’t coming from an antiwar plea, or a consciousness-raising effort about Israeli policies, or a campaign for Palestinian independence, though those pretenses now serve as flimsy excuses. The only purpose of the chalking and swatting and taunting and assaulting and silencing is to dehumanize and demonize Jews.”

A quasi-latent antisemitism has flared up, in other words. As it will.

The second was an ever-so-subtle Substack post, which came to my attention because it was I guess doing good numbers on the newsletter platform. It’s by Caitlin Johnstone (with a note at the end clarifying that all of Johnstone’s work is “co-authored with my husband Tim Foley;” fine, you do you).

This newsletter posting informed me that despite my own hesitancy where the specifics of Israel’s military choices are concerned, my opposition to wiping Israel off the map makes me a bit of “garbage” in the eyes of someone named Caitlin and/or her husband Tim.

This, for its part, is a very silly article, written by someone(s) who couldn’t be less interested in persuading anyone who didn’t already agree with them of anything at all. “I am so fucking done,” writes Johnstone, “with people handwringing about Oct. 7 while Israel has been Oct. 7ing the Gazans every day since.”

It seems pointless to pick that apart, to go into the ethics of war, the specifics of what’s going on, or the yes casual antisemitism of asking Jews, specifically, to look at Oct. 7 and say, yeah, whatever, not such a big deal. I am but a sentient piece of trash, as far as this author is concerned. But the piece, for all its unhinged ranting, does point to something unavoidable and true, namely that a lot of Palestinians too young to even have politics have been killed. There is an audience for hearing about this, which is why someone speaking forcefully if stupidly about it has such a high-traffic post.

No one who is reading Johnstone is reading Horn, or vice versa. I mean, I am reading both, but this is my job.

For my part, I just keep going through the same stupid loop in my head: Israel had every right to respond in a military way to Oct. 7, an unthinkably horrific set of attacks involving mass killing, kidnapping, and sexual assault. As for whether it was—is—correct in responding with the level of destruction it is, there I am not convinced.

I think of the sheer volume of death, particularly of kids, and find it incomprehensibly bleak. I also still see photos of the kidnapped (or more-than-that at this point) redheaded baby who looks of course exactly as my own redheaded kid did as a baby and want to go and personally have let us say a very stern talking-to with anyone who saw anything remotely praiseworthy about Oct. 7. I also see my children in all kids, not just the Jewish ones with striking physical resemblance to my own.

I think about how war is always terrible and this is not the only war and how a good amount of why Palestinian dead are more on my radar than the victims of countless other conflicts is about the famed no-Jews-no-news formula. I then think that the takeaway isn’t to care less about deaths with an Israel angle but rather more about all the world’s horrors, and then remember that I am not someone with the military expertise or temperament to do anything productive with that sort of approach. If I knew how to fix the world’s problems on that level, I’d be out in the world doing that, not gesturing ineffectually from a couch in Canada. I’d still like for there to be two states and for the killing to stop/to have not started in the first place.

Here is where I can, however, speak with confidence:

  • Antisemitism is not a fluffy feelings-type concern. It is not vibes. Oct. 7 was not an act of vandalism, nor was the Holocaust the publication of a cartoon in which someone with a big nose was depicted as controlling the banks. If many Jews have a sense that people want us dead, it is indeed because many people really do want this.
  • It doesn’t quite work to have an abstract conversation about antisemitism or blood libel at a moment when Israel is actually at war, and in the sort of war where a lot of children are being killed. Someone without any particular feelings about Jews is going to see children killed in war and be upset about this, and unless their claim is that the children killed are being killed out of actual blood-thirst, libel doesn’t really enter into it, does it. I find it upsetting and I am a Jewish Zionist, the very sort of person some graffiti-artist activist wants “fucked” all the way out of west Toronto. To where, one wonders? Which brings us to…
  • If your aim is to restructure the world such that Israel can get away with less, militarily, than it does, if you want to see a “free Palestine” in the sense of a peaceful Palestinian state, and indeed if you want your local Diaspora Jews not to become uniformly furious right-wing Zionists, a thing you might want to avoid doing is making Jews terrified. If I walk by the local movie theatre with my kid and see some charmer with a placard requesting Israel be gotten rid of, chanting with his comrades, do you think this makes me less inclined to feel (with no follow-through, fine, but to feel) like saying screw this let’s move to Tel Aviv? (It is very cold in Toronto in February, and current events aside, I make this pronouncement annually.)

My neighbourhood has been covered with flyers since October and they have been virtually all pro-Palestinian. There’s a giant red spray-painted “Fuck Zionists” on an overpass near where I live, which I passed by with my little kids yesterday, en route to a Family Day farmer’s market. I saw this and couldn’t help but take it personally, as quite possibly the only Zionist (depending what’s meant by “Zionists”) to even walk in that location. The logistics of the outing didn’t allow me to get a photo but you can probably still go see it over on Dundas West near Sterling.

I just keep thinking about Dara Horn’s insight about people loving dead Jews and thinking no, dead or alive, we do not appear to be the greatest hit with humanity. I don’t think we’re a PR campaign or billboard initiative or outreach strategy away from changing things. I am also going to walk to the market with my little kids, fortunate not to be in a war zone, because what else can you do?

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.