On Sunday an innocent Californian driving a Honda Civic near the Venice beach unintentionally cuts in front of a BMW with two young men in the front seat. The BMW almost rams the Honda, the driver rolls down his window and swears in Arabic gesticulating threateningly at the Honda driver. I was right behind them. It was intimidating. Scary. A few days later my friend David Klinghoffer posts a comment on Facebook that for the first time in his life he was accosted by a hostile “foreign accented” individual in the street hurling anti-Semitic insults at him. This is not about anti-Semitism; it is about a new current of religious hooliganism that the authorities are unwilling or unable to deal with. Jews are not its only target; any “infidels” could experience it anywhere.
The title of my recent Parsha Essay, Troubled Times, was not referring to ISIS but to this more widespread, and more dangerous current, sweeping across Europe and touching the USA as well. Even Israel is not free from religious hooliganism, and not only from militant Moslems. While Jews have hardly ever practiced hooliganism against gentiles of any religion, we have – and do – practice it against each other. This is especially true since religion and politics began to passionately intersect in Israeli life.
Religious hooliganism is not new to the world. It has been the norm in many Arab countries and it is not foreign to Europe. What is new is that it is now perpetrated by a religious and ethnic minority against which the democratic authorities appear to be impotent. For the first time since 1945, Jews in the Western world do not feel safe in the streets of Europe, America and Australia.
Many young Jewish people who until now proudly wore discreet symbols of their faith in public, kippot and tzitzit, are wondering whether it is wise to continue to do so. Parents are not sure what to advise their children, wives worry about their husbands openly and proudly showing their Jewishness in public places. Jewish people are accosted in the midst of some of the most Jewish neighborhoods of New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Not to mention the blatant fear that so many Jews experience in the streets of European cities, in their businesses, schools and shuls there, and even in their homes.
My purpose here is not to spread alarm. This situation is the norm for Jews if you think about it historically. We have just had seventy years of respite. The forces of anti-Semitism have been dormant during our seven decades of mourning after the holocaust. Now, it seems we are back to business as usual.
So, if the authorities cannot or will not nip this hooliganism in the bud, what is our response? Among the many appropriate responses and strategies one thing is blatantly clear: We must never become defensive, closed and withdrawn.
The Acacia and the Avocado
There are two ways that nature responds to threat. The one way is exemplified by the acacia tree which when assaulted by animals or by humans, quite quickly grows thorns to defend itself. The second way is the way of the avocado tree. When an avocado tree is threatened or assaulted it doesn’t get thorny; it produces more avocados than ever. It becomes super productive and contributive. We need to choose the avocado way. We should become more assertive than ever in our contribution to progressive, free, productive human accomplishment. Israel, amidst its existential threat contributes more per capita to the progress of humankind than any other country. The way of the avocado is the way of the Jew.
More even than growing our contribution to technical, business and artistic accomplishment, we should also lead the way in the preservation of our values and the practice of civilized behavior and fine character. In a world endangered by unbridled tolerance we should become intolerant of hooliganism – especially in its most dangerous form: religious hooliganism.
Turn on the Light
When we are threatened we should become expansive, not contractionary. We should not grow thorns but produce fruit. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 5:4) tells a story of a previously wealthy man, Abba Yuden, who used to donate generously to support institutions of learning. One day after losing all his wealth, he saw that the emissaries from the Yeshiva, Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua and Akiva, had come to town to raise contributions. He hid in shame but his wife, noticing something was troubling him deeply gave him advice. “We have one field left,” she said, “ sell half of it and donate it to them.” He did so, and the Rabbis prayed for him and said “May Hashem fill all that you are lacking.”
After some time while ploughing his remaining half of the field, a ditch opened up and his cow fell into it and broke her leg. He climbed down to help her and there in the ditch Hashem enlightened his eyes and he found a treasure there and declared that it was for his own good that the cow had fallen. When the rabbis returned there on their next trip they he told them how their prayer had yielded dividends many times over. They told him that even though others had given more than he, they inscribed his name at the top of the list of donors. They showed him great honor and said of him “The generosity of an individual provides him with expansiveness (Proverbs 18).”
Even when threatened with poverty, Abba Yuden responded with generosity, he responded like an avocado tree, not like an acacia!
When we feel scared or threatened by the assault of religious hooliganism, we shouldn’t duck or close the hatches. We should face the cowardly bullies (and our own fears) with pride. Darkness is never eliminated by fear and defensiveness. The only way to fight the dark is to turn on the light. Stand tall and proud of your fait. Connect with your God in the ways you know how. Connect with Him in prayer, in study, in self-improvement, by showing kindness to others and by strengthening your love for your close ones and your caring for all. In these dark times of spreading religious hooliganism, turn on the light and grow more avocados.