How to Fight Anti-Semitism

If you are reading this, I probably don’t have to tell you that the news these days is not good for the Jews.

For the past two decades, American Jews watched anti-Semitism re-emerge around the world with concern, but perhaps also a bit of condescension. We were the luckiest diaspora in history. Our metal detectors were little more than a precaution.

Then came Oct. 27, 2018, an otherwise quiet Shabbat morning during which 11 of my neighbors in Pittsburgh were slaughtered by a white supremacist as they prayed.

The message from community leaders and rabbis was that the massacre at Tree of Life should not change our fundamental assessment of this country. America was still what we thought it was. Or at least that’s what we said until April 27.

For the second time in American history — and the second time in six months — Jews were shot dead in synagogue by a neo-Nazi, this time in Poway, Calif. As a child, I thought the word martyr was consigned to history. Now I know better.

Pittsburgh and Poway mark only the most violent examples of the anti-Semitism that is rising in this country. In the last week of August, there were three assaults on ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn — attacks largely uncovered by the press perhaps because, as in the majority of anti-Semitic instances in New York, the perpetrators were not white supremacists. In our city, which has the largest Jewish population of any in the world, there were four times as many hate crimes against Jews than against blacks in 2018. These physical horrors — beaten with a brick; whipped with a belt — are the tips of anti-Semitic icebergs found on both the left and the right that have moved definitively and rapidly into mainstream waters.

What if we’d been wrong? What if the story of the Jews in America wasn’t a straight line, but a pendulum, which had swung one way and was now swinging back into the darkness of the Old World we were sure we’d left behind?

I’ve spent the months since Pittsburgh shooting thinking about these questions and this uncertain moment as I traveled to communities across the country.

What I found was a divide — the same divide that has run through our people since the Exodus from Egypt. In the Charlton Heston version of the story, all the Jews follow Moses out of bondage. But in the Jewish tradition, facing the terrifying unknown of life as a free people, the majority of the Israelite slaves chose to remain in Egypt.

The stakes are different, but the same fundamental choice in the face of precariousness remains the same: Does safety come from contorting ourselves to look more like everyone else? Or does it come from drilling down into the wellspring of what made us special to begin with?

The first line of argument insists that safety for Jews comes by accommodating ourselves to the demands of our surrounding society. If we can just show we are perfect Greeks, patriotic Germans, and so on, then they’d love us. (Or at least not kill us.) I think here of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party, who did Lenin’s bidding with particular zeal to prove they were loyal Communists. Until, of course, the regime rounded them up, too.

To the opposing side, this political and cultural strategy was only a recipe for delayed humiliation and pain. Lasting security for Jews, this counterargument goes, was always saved by leaders and movements, from the Maccabees to the Zionists, that urged us to be our fullest, freest selves — even if doing so made us deeply unpopular or despised.

This divide has run through Jewish history, and through Jewish individuals. Both impulses were embodied in perhaps the unlikeliest Jew of all: Theodor Herzl.

Anyone today familiar with that name associates it with the creation of the state of Israel. But Zionism — the marriage of the ancient Jewish yearning to return to the Holy Land told with the dream of modern self-determination — was not Herzl’s initial solution to Europe’s endless anti-Semitic riddle.

In 1893, just three years before he proposed the idea of the Jewish state in Der Judenstaadt, his groundbreaking pamphlet laying out the precepts of Zionism, he argued that the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire should instead become Christians. Herzl imagined “a procession in broad daylight to St. Stephen’s Cathedral,” writes Simon Schama in “The Story of the Jews,” where the Jews would undergo a “mass baptism” to Catholicism. Only such an unequivocal act would finally render them acceptable to their neighbors.

How and why did he change his mind? Scholars debate the mystery of his radical change of heart. But change he did. Conversion out of Judaism could never be the answer to anti-Semitism. That was merely self-mutilation born out of fear and despair. The only answer was for the Jews to choose life: whole lives, not partial ones.

The same is true today.

There has not been a single moment in Jewish history in which there weren’t anti-­Semites determined to eradicate Judaism and the Jews. When the Pittsburgh killer shouted “all Jews must die,” he was merely echoing a command uttered in a different tongue by Amalek, the villain who stalked the weakest of the ancient Israelites in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.

But the Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites. Our tradition was always renewed by people who made the choice in the face of tragedy that theirs would not be the end of the Jewish story, but the catalyst for writing a new chapter.

The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us. This is not an exhortation to embrace religion in all its strictures. It is a reminder that Judaism contains multitudes, and that anyone who points the finger at other Jews as a way to keep the target off their own backs — insisting that real problem are those with their kippot or their Zionism — at once distorts our history and the fact of our peoplehood.

In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul — and in the souls of everyone who throws in their lot with ours.

But the Jewish community — 2 percent of America’s population — cannot go at this problem alone. We have to insist that the societies of which we are a part take a stand against anti-­Semitism, because any society in which it flourishes is one that is dead or dying.

In this, Pittsburgh gives me tremendous hope.

At first glance, what happened that terrible day was yet another pogrom. But unlike the countless pogroms in which the surrounding community stood by or abetted the attack, in my hometown, there was solidarity. As Wasi Mohamed, then the head of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, pointed out: “Negative rhetoric against the Jewish community is poison. You know, it’s poison for our democracy, it’s poison for our country, and it’s negative to everybody, not just that community.”

Their support, in other words, ­wasn’t a favor bestowed on us. Our neighbors understood that an attack on the Jewish community was an attack on them, too. That the entire community recited the mourner’s kaddish — and that The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran the words in Hebrew on the front page — was further evidence that what was being protected by our fellow Americans, wasn’t simply our right to exist. It was our right to lead unashamed, full Jewish lives. Which meant that they could do the same.

“This essay is adapted from the forthcoming “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”

Girl AAT

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