TIME foreign affairs

My Jewish Family’s Incredible Shrinking World

Rabbi Shmuel Segal of the Jewish educati
Rabbi Shmuel Segal of the Jewish education centre looks up at the Chanukkah lights in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, December 20, 2011. Odd Andersen —AFP/Getty Images

Synagogues from the UK to France have been defaced, and there's no sense of outrage to be found

My first flight was international, 2,500 miles from my birthplace in Kyubishev, Russia, to Rome, Italy in 1978. Italy was a common stopover for Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. We stayed three months in a small apartment in Ladispoli, a suburb of Rome. I ate a lot of chocolate and oranges while my parents learned Italian and waited to hear that America would let us in.

When we got to Brooklyn, they got busy working. In Russia, my father had been a doctor, my mother a teacher. Here, he drove a cab and she knitted yarmulkes for the local Judaica store.

My parents had spent their lives looking at maps of the world and planning where they would go when they were free. We were poor, but they saved all of their money for the traveling we would do. The world was suddenly so big, after a lifetime of insurmountable Soviet borders, and we were going to go everywhere. My first trip was to Venezuela in 1983.

The first few days we stayed at the Caracas Hilton. It was magical. I had never seen a pool that big. I may have never seen a pool at all. No one spoke English but, well, neither did we, so a lot of the conversations were an interpretive dance. We’d act out eating to find the restaurant and spoke in pidgin Italian and hoped it was close enough. Somehow it always was.

Two days later we flew to Canaima National Park, our real destination. We slept in a hut, swam in red water and saw piranhas. We’d hear animals outside of our door at night. I saw little children on monkey bars at a nearby school and marveled at how similar they were to me.

No one goes to Venezuela anymore. It became, for all intents and purposes, off-limits years ago. The State Department warns American travelers about kidnappings and suggests not visiting.

We traveled a lot through my childhood and adolescence. My parents were partial to weird places: Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana in South America, and the Amazon River, where I saw bugs the size of my head and met people who didn’t use currency so they traded their handmade goods for Disney World t-shirts. We saw beautiful, safe places, along with the strange and dangerous. Istanbul, Punta del Este, Buenos Aires and a tiny island called Îles des Saintes all stick out in my mind. But what I remember most from our family trips is the smell of sewage, impoverished children selling gum to tourists and an element of danger everywhere we went as my parents forced my brother and me to really see our wide, strange world.

When I traveled alone for the first time, I wanted something more…familiar. I didn’t want to worry about drinking the water; I didn’t want to do that interpretive dance. My first trip alone, at 17, was to England, Scotland and Wales. They spoke our language, sort of, but everything was different enough to mark it foreign. I got off the bus in beautiful Edinburgh and ended up falling deeply in love with Scotland, visiting again the next summer, then living there two separate times during college. When I tell my 4-year-old daughter about that time, I add that I’ll take her there someday.

Will I, though?

My children both had passports before they turned one. Unfortunately, the big world, the one my family couldn’t wait to see, is getting smaller. I keep track of places off-limits to me because I am Jewish, and that list grows all the time. I check Wikipedia for countries that don’t “recognize” Israel. Those are the ones where I know definitively I am unwelcome. North Africa is tough. I’m only partially surprised Sudan doesn’t recognize Israel, even though U.S. Jews showed an overwhelming support for Darfur. Truth be told, I’m in no rush to get to Mali or Somalia. I guess I’ll miss out on Morocco.

The Middle East is even more fraught, of course. “You can go to United Arab Emirates, certainly to Dubai,” people say. Can I? “Don’t be too open about being Jewish but they don’t care there. They’re very modern.” My husband was born in Israel and it says so on his American passport. They don’t allow Israelis into the United Arab Emirates, at least that’s the official policy of this “modern” country. Even if he wasn’t marked for exclusion, I’m not keeping my Jewishness a secret. If Saudi Arabia opened its doors to me tomorrow, I still wouldn’t go. I’m not covering my head. I’m a woman of the free world, I have spent my life being grateful for this, knowing that a twist of fate gave me freedom I could have so easily not have had.

I wore a Star of David around my neck the entire time I lived in Scotland. I think I’d be uncomfortable doing the same now. The rage emanating from Europe toward Jews is white hot. A synagogue in Surrey was defaced. Another synagogue was vandalized in Miami of all places. But what’s lacking when it happens in Europe is any sense of outrage from the Europeans. In Miami the atmosphere was “how could this happen here?” In Europe there is no such question. Of course it happens there. In France, when synagogues get firebombed, as they do with alarming frequency, there isn’t a national movement to say they won’t stand for it. They very much stand for it. French Jews are the scapegoats for the real problems in France, between the French and those the French call “the Arabs,” even though “the Arabs” have lived there for decades and should just be French by now. Forget Turkey, a country I once enjoyed visiting. They went off the rails years ago. It’s an election year in Turkey now, so obviously Israel is the top issue in a country with 9% unemployment.

Israeli performers get disinvited from a festival in Edinburgh as if disinviting artists from countries whose politics you don’t like is a normal thing to do. Where is the outrage? They pretend it’s because of Israel, not because they’re Jews. Then the Jewish Film Festival gets canceled in London. An embarrassment. Britain should hang its head in shame. It doesn’t. A crowd in Germany (in Germany!) shouts “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Where is Germany’s soul-searching that this goes on within its borders? Forget Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem signing an anti-Israel letter in a Spanish newspaper. No big deal when the second-biggest newspaper in Spain prints a piece arguing Jews “are not made to co-exist,” with references to how good they are with money, how they deserved expulsion, wondering how they still exist (“persist”) at all.

So no, I won’t be taking my daughter to Scotland anytime soon, or any place where Jews are made to feel unwelcome. I still want to see the whole world and show it to my children, but much of the world right now does not want to see us. I’d take my children to places off the beaten path. I don’t want it to be all Hiltons for them. Sometimes it has to be the hut. But I won’t take my children to places where they are hated for who they are.

I’ve heard that I shouldn’t let a few anti-Semites keep me from traveling. But it’s not the anti-Semites who are the problem. It’s the people in these countries sitting idly by and not saying that these people canceling Jewish film festivals or writing despicable op-eds don’t speak for them. The silence is what is so troubling. The optimist in me hopes things change and that the world opens up to us again. A lot would need to change for that to happen. I wonder if my kids will see Edinburgh or Caracas first.

Karol Markowicz is a writer in New York City.

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