Our Israel

‘You learn who your non-Jewish true friends are, who would hide you in their basement’

If you are active on social media, Jewish-American Talia Khan is no stranger to you. The doctoral student at MIT and president of the MIT Israel Alliance club, has gained significant attention on social media for her posts regarding the events of Oct. 7. Her vocal advocacy against antisemitism in the US and on college campuses resonated all the way to Congress, as she participated in two hearings and appeared on major American media outlets such as Fox News and CNN. While she was visiting Israel, in between engagements at the Knesset – the Israeli parliament, I had the opportunity to meet with Talia in Tel Aviv, where we discussed the international implications of Oct. 7, the concerning rise of antisemitism, and the consequences of being an outspoken Jewish individual in the US in 2024.  

Q: You said you’ve been to Israel 7 years ago, was that your first time? 

A: “My first time ever was 8 years ago, I did a science program at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and then I did Birthright, and the craziest thing is I was in Jerusalem the other day and I ran into one of my Birthright soldiers randomly from 8 years ago. The following summer I was doing research at Bar Ilan University for a summer, and then after that I haven’t been back until now.” 

Q: Do you have any Israeli roots?

A: “I don’t, I’m staying with friends of a friend who had made Aliyah. I don’t have family here, but what I like to say is that the whole country is my family.” 

Talia Khan meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo credit: Maayan Toaf/GPO

Q: How does it feel to be in Israel after everything that has been going on in the US?

A: “A lot of people have been asking me, ‘Why are you so active about Israel if you have no family there, and haven’t been there in 7 years? I just don’t get it.'” I told you before that I used to live in the Brazilian Amazon – I did research there on sustainable materials and as part of that I worked with Indigenous communities, and the issues of Indigenous rights came up – them protecting their land, culture, etc. I went to a reform Jewish day school and I don’t know why, but the reform community in the US is not always pro-Israel. My school happened to be pro-Israel – I had Israeli Hebrew and art teachers, so I was surrounded by Israelis growing up, I remember when Gilad Shalit was captured. They were telling us how important our connection to Israel was and I’ve always seen myself as an Indigenous person to this land, in the same way the people who live in the Brazilian Amazon are Indigenous to that land – even though I have no family here. Every Jewish person is Indigenous to this land, that’s why I feel very strongly about it.” She sighed with a smile and said: “Finally, I can breathe. In the US, especially on campuses, we constantly feel like we don’t know who is coming around the corner with a keffiyeh, going to scream at us saying ‘F*** you, Jew!’ 

“People are spitting at you if you’re wearing a Kippah. They are wearing Covid masks and keffiyehs, but they are very open about their Jew hatred. Some are saying they are ‘anti-Zionists, not antisemites,’ but a lot of them at this point are just antisemites. It’s constant – everywhere around campus, wherever you go, you hear people saying ‘Israel is committing genocide,’ ‘You are a baby killer.’ I held the ‘We will dance again’ musical event [in memory of the victims of the Nova festival massacre on Oct. 7], we had Matisyahu, Idan Raichel [Israeli singer], a DJ from the Nova festival named Daniel Vaknin, Matisyahu’s son Levi Miller, it was a huge event to honor the victims and celebrate Jewish joy, stop wallowing in sadness and instead honor those people with light and music and positivity. I advertised it to my lab group and someone immediately said ‘Take this message down right now, it’s political.’ I said it doesn’t say ‘Israel’ anywhere on the poster, all it says is ‘Honoring the victims of the Nova massacre, We will dance again – a celebration of Jewish joy,’ In what way is this political? A memorial for people who were killed by terrorists? And he still said it’s political. I had a conversation with him and it got to the point where he said ‘Well, some people don’t believe Hamas are terrorists,’ and also ‘Jewish people shouldn’t be publicly mourning the people who died on Oct. 7 because there is a war going on.'” 

She was interrupted by a waiter working at the cafe where we met. “Great speech! Speak it! Every word!” he said, to which Talia responded that she could never talk about this at a cafe in the US in the current climate.

“Finally, I can breathe. In the US, especially on campuses, we constantly feel like we don’t know who is coming around the corner with a keffiyeh, going to scream at us saying ‘F*** you, Jew!'”

“My mom is Jewish, my dad is Afgan-Muslim, I have a half-brother who’s half Muslim and half Christian, a half-sister who’s half Muslim and half Hindu, and then me and my brother who are Jewish – all of them are Zionists in the way they believe Israel has a right to exist, they’re grateful it’s a democracy that gives women rights etc, but they think differently about Israel’s response in the world. I was talking with them about why we had to respond on Oct. 7 in New York at a cafe, there weren’t that many people even – and this woman came up to me and screamed at my face ‘F*** you! Free Palestine!’ How can you listen to me talking about people being butchered and say ‘Free Palestine?’ Free Palestine from Hamas. If your neighbor comes in and kills your kids, you’re not just going to sit there and let them keep killing them.” 

“Honestly,” she continues, “If you believe the Jews are the only ones who should be hiding our memorials – you’re an antisemite and a racist. You would never say that to the other group of people. There are people being killed and kidnapped by Islamists in African countries every day, and if an African group on our campus had a memorial event even though there is conflict going on, you would not have stopped this event. You’re just racist against Jews and Israelis. In this respect, even though I have not made Aliyah and I am not an Israeli citizen, I consider myself part of the people of Israel. When you’re racist against Israelis – you’re racist against me too. He got really mad, well, of course, you’ll get mad when you realize you are racist.

“This happens every day. For example, I was studying for my doctoral exams with two Arab girls. Immediately after Oct. 7, they started posting Palestinian flags, Israel hadn’t done anything at the time, it was hours after the news started. We didn’t even know what was going on. I talked to them about it, and told them all we know so far is that a bunch of Israelis were killed by terrorists, why are you posting Palestinian flags? The conversion got to a point where they said they believed this was Palestinian liberation, and they even said that the people at the Nova massacre deserved to die because they were partying on ‘stolen land.’ How am I supposed to keep studying with people who believe that it was okay for these innocent people in Nova to die? I told them ‘That could have been me,'” she recounts with disbelief. “That could have been any MIT student, even a non-Jewish student visiting Israel for a summer program.”

Q: Not to mention many Arabs died that day too. 

A: “Of course, people from about 40 different countries were in Nova. Now, both girls have blocked me, doxing me. It’s everywhere you go, in every aspect of your life. I’ll give you another example, I have a friend who’s from the trans community and she lives with a bunch of LGBTQ people, very progressive, very woke, and she said that even before Oct. 7 she was anti-Israel. When Oct. 7 happened, she finally realized these people were terrorists, and that we need to protect the state of Israel because they’re protecting the values of Western democracy liberalism. Immediately, her romantic partner started saying that Israel is evil and genocidal,  that all those people deserved to die, her living community started saying the same thing and eventually, she had to live. Remember when ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ went to Congress with ‘ceasefire now’? She told me her non-Jewish housemates were there, masquerading as Jews,” she said smiling incredulously.  

“There are students at MIT who had to be moved to safe housing, paid for by MIT because MIT acknowledged they were being threatened and harassed to such an extent that their physical safety was in danger. We had a non-Jewish student e-mail us saying someone in my dorm is one of the leaders of the anti-Israel club. It’s crazy. He said that every Zionist deserves to die, even women and children, anywhere in the world. This is a student on campus, who is still going to classes, I still see him every day, and the MIT administration does nothing. Every aspect of your life. You go in an Uber and there’s “Free Palestine.” In the restaurants around campus, you see “Free Palestine,” you have places saying “No Zionists allowed in this establishment.” You have people boycotting – there was a big Ishay Ribo [Israeli singer] concert and there was a huge boycott, none of the people in the venue were working. We only feel safe when we’re in our own Jewish circles or Zionist circles, which also thankfully include non-Jews as well, we have great allies in the Christian community.”

Talia Khan with Israeli singer Idan Raichel at the “We Will Dance Again” event, honoring the victims of the Nova massacre. Photo credit: Yisroel Teitelbaum

Q: That is an important piece of information, giving us hope, because we often assume that support for Israel m  ainly comes from those with a Jewish background or Israeli roots.

A:Non-Jews support Israel but they are much less active because they don’t have to fight. We have to fight, every single day. We have no choice. We don’t want to be doing this every day, but we know that we can’t stop. We can’t let these people take over our campuses.”

Q: That is the way it feels like? That they took over your campuses? 

A: “Absolutely. If we were to do nothing, we know our administration wouldn’t stop them and they would indoctrinate more people. And so, we have to be an opposing voice. We have to fight, we don’t have any choice. So many people I know had to drop classes, postpone exams, master’s defense, or doctoral defense, because we just have to work so hard constantly – write letters, file reports, get a bunch of hostage posters together, and put up a demonstration, we feel like our own little army. We have to defend our community and we feel we are huddled together I think, surrounded by people like this,” she gestures to the size of their small community compared to the anti-Israel one. “Back to your question ‘How do you feel in Israel?’ I finally feel like I walk around and instead of seeing graffiti that says ‘Free Palestine,’ you see graffiti that says ‘Free the hostages,’ and I’m just…” she sighs deeply, “I have cried even, so many times, being here because I’m so grateful. I don’t have to worry about who I’m going to run into in the street and what they’ll do to me. I don’t feel safe walking around the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts – I walk around with a knife and pepper spray everywhere I go. I know some people who got gun licenses to carry guns because they’re so scared. There is no aspect of our life that it isn’t touching. So, I am very, very happy to be here, I don’t want to go home,” she laughs. “A lot of people are saying, ‘so stay’, ‘make Aliya.’ I would love to, but I can’t. We can’t leave. If we leave, who is going to protect the other Jewish students? The other thing is there are a lot of fighters, but there are also people who are afraid. I don’t judge them at all. You know, I lost so many friends. I was president of MIT’s Chabad, and I’m very active in the Jewish community, people knew I was Jewish but ever since I’ve been loud about it I lost so many friends, so I know why people are afraid. Even in schools with a big Jewish population like Tulan for example – I think there are about 4000 Jews at Tulane – and Yasmeen, the girl in charge of the Israel club on campus said maybe 150 people are actively participating and actually come to events, whereas the rest are too scared. They don’t want to lose their friend groups. And if we leave – the people who are the 150 – and come to Israel, no one is going to be there to defend the other 3800.”

 “The reason the Americans are getting brainwashed into this too is because in recent years they have been brainwashed into hating America and Western values, saying America’s evil and has no right to exist and that it is a settler’s colony… Then, when you are saying Israel does the same thing, they are on board.”

Q: It’s an existential war, in a sense. 

A: “It feels like that. It feels like we have to be there, or else there will be no more Jews in these places. At MIT, the students passed a vote to get rid of any connections to the Israel Defense Forces, which they call the IOF – the Israeli offense forces – from MIT’s campus. And that doesn’t just mean contracts with Israel, it means anybody who served in the IDF, which is essentially calling to ethnically cleanse MIT’s campus of Israelis. So, when you’re leaving these people unchecked without fighting back, they want to get rid of all the Jews, they want ot get rid of all of the Israelis, and that’s happening across the country, they just had a big conference in Michigan of 3000 of SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) students to organize for the fall. A lot of people have been telling me in the past few weeks that someone’s going to die in the fall. We really believe it. We are genuinely scared for our lives.”

Q: So those are not just mere threats? 

A: “No, I don’t believe it. They are saying they want to kill Jews, they were saying they want to kill Zionists, which doesn’t only mean Jews – I have Christian friends who are Zionists. They want to kill everybody. I think it goes to the root of… being anti-Western. Like all the terrorist groups say, they don’t just want ‘Death to Israel,’ they want ‘Death to America.’ 

“It’s all about the destruction of Western values, democracy, and liberal values. These people, it’s so funny, you see it on Instagram, LGBTQ-Palestine things, and all of the Arabs are saying ‘Get these discussing LGBTQ flags out of here, it’s a sin.’ You’re seeing it in Europe already, you see these Islamic extremists. That’s what they want for America. And these people are so f***ing stupid, they don’t understand that. I would say that a good chunk of the people in the anti-Israel club, on MIT’s campus at least, are queer. What’s wrong with you you stupid people?” she asked with palpable anguish. 

Talia insists on calling the protester’s stance anti-Israel or pro-Terrorism rather than pro-Palestinian, since at MIT they state that they support Hamas and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).

Q: Explicitly? 

A: “Explicitly. They say ‘We support the Muslim Brotherhood and we want to martyr ourselves for these heroes.'”

Q: Are these people mainly of a Muslim background? 

A: “No. White. They work a lot with the ‘Peoples Socialist Party’ of the Boston area. I’m sure you’ve heard it’s not just students, those are outsiders that come and the campuses are just a hub. They have done fundraisers for the PFLP on MIT’s campus. They did a book club and sold the book of the PLFP terrorists.” 

Q: Was that authorized? 

A: “Yeah,” she said in a high-pitched voice, opening her eyes with bewilderment. “We told the MIT administration this is not only super ridiculous and crazy, but also potentially illegal to financially support terrorists. They didn’t do anything about it. It’s very explicit terrorist support.”

Q: How is it being Jewish in the United States right now?

A: “Before Oct. 7, I was never afraid. I wore my Magen David (Star of David), and I was never afraid of going to Chabad or Jewish events, or telling people that I was Jewish. I absolutely am now, I stopped wearing my Magen David, just for my own personal safety, I am a very proud Jew but I am not a stupid Jew. People can be brave and do their thing, but I don’t want to draw attention. I’m genuinely fearful,” she sighs. “We have to hire security all the time, for everything we do. I know everyone in the MIT police department now, I never had to know them before. I have the chief of police on speed dial. Even with the ‘We Will Dance Again’ event, we spent a lot of money on security, we had metal detectors, everything – and still people were afraid to come. People got mad at us, saying we ‘put Jews at risk’ by putting everyone together in one space. Thank god, nothing happened, but everybody is genuinely fearful of our physical safety and that definitely wasn’t something that we felt as strongly before.”

“Hamas says they want to kill Jews, they’re very obvious about it. In the US, they hide behind the rhetoric, it’s a little more sinister, and some of them will talk to you even  – they will say they don’t hate Jews, they just want to kill Zionists.”

Q: You say that in Israel you can finally breathe, but for many people in Israel, going abroad could allow us to finally breathe, as the situation is not as complex as it is here – but you’re saying it is not like that anymore. 

A: “At least in Israel we know what we’re dealing with. I know there is a threat to my physical safety here, but seeing everyone with guns all around – I feel safe,” she laughs, referring to the soldiers and reservists. “Hamas says they want to kill Jews, they’re very obvious about it. In the US, they hide behind the rhetoric, it’s a little more sinister, and some of them will talk to you even  – they will say they don’t hate Jews, they just want to kill Zionists. You just don’t know who you are dealing with. You feel you are on guard all the time, but you don’t have the big gun, you don’t have everybody around you on the same page as you.”

Q: Speaking of chants, do you agree that “from the river to the sea” is in fact a call for genocide? 

A: “Absolutely. Even Congress designated it as an antisemitic chant. They’re even going past ‘From the river to the sea,’ they’re going ‘From water to water, Palestine will be all Arab,’ so they’re saying even the Christians, the Druze, the non-religious – everybody but Arabs, gone. My friend at Columbia University sang ‘One Day’ by Matisyahu with an Israeli flag, and a girl went in front of him and put up a sign saying ‘Al-Qassam’s next target.’ They want to kill Jews, and a lot of them are very open about it. The rhetoric is going to get worse. They’re very catchy chants, too,” she jokes. 

Q: Do you understand where anti-Israelis are coming from, as someone with a Muslim background?

A: “I can speak for the Arab girls that I was studying with, one of them is from Bahrain, the other one is from Qatar, and I know that they grew up hearing how horrible the Jews are, de-humanizing the Israelis, the “dirty Yahud” [Jewish in Arabic] – you can pretend to be friends to their face but never trust them, they’re against Allah. They’ve weaponized generations of young people by brainwashing them since childhood to be hateful. Jews don’t do that, they don’t get taught to hate anybody from childhood. I think the reason the Americans are getting brainwashed into this too is because in recent years we’ve seen they have been brainwashed too into hating America and Western values, saying America’s evil and has no right to exist and that it is a settler’s colony. When you are teaching young kids this, they grow up believing it. Then, when you are saying Israel does the same thing, they are on board. Their morals have been corrupted. I think that is the problem and why we see so many non-Arabs or non-Muslims joining on this train.”

The second part of this interview will be published at a later date. 

This post was originally published on this site

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