Tisha B’Av approaches and I am forced to reflect on millennia of travesties within the Jewish community. It goes beyond the destruction of the Temples, the numerous expulsions, the pogroms, or the Shoah. Not all of our greatest catastrophes occurred on one singular day, but they have happened throughout our 5,000 year history. In some places, a Jew experiences hardship almost daily. College campuses are now notoriously hostile to Jewish students, especially in the United States. Some of our greatest heroes have said that there is no hope for Jewish communities in parts in Europe. Everywhere we turn, there is something that the Jewish people is lamenting about.
While I am a huge proponent of remembering our history and remembering how far we have come, I do not believe that it should be the first thing that brings us together. Yes, we left Mitzrayim as a free nation and we commemorate the great things G-d did to make that so every Pesach, but does it really help us to live like those tribulations never ceased? Yes, we emerged out of the ashes of the Nazi concentration camps, but does it help to invoke the Shoah when trying to justify why people should not tolerate anti-Semitism anywhere? While I am not saying that the plurality of Jews do such things or minimize our darkest hours, I cannot help but recognize that some people make such assumptions.
This begs the following question: If it is not our darkest moments that define the Jewish community, then what does?
I firmly believe that what defines the Jewish people is our values. For millennia, our ancestors have taken an abundance of time and effort to pass down our traditions and our ideals from generation to generation. To name a few, these include the importance of Shabbos, the belief that HaShem is One, to value life, and the Ten Commandments. Our beliefs never stemmed from a particular political ideology, but rather a conglomeration of views that transcends modern political discourse. We have a strong affinity for the family, for honoring HaShem in His holiest of days, and for looking out for our neighbors when they are in need. These are only a fraction of the values that make me proud to be Jewish and why I have spent so many years being active in the community, from Alpha Epsilon Pi to the Boston Jewish community.
Those qualities of our identity should bring us together. It does not matter if you are Reform or Orthodox, liberal or conservative.
But I believe that a great percentage of American Jews fails to cherish the significance of our values. According to a Gallup Poll study from 2013, 73% of American Jews believed that remembering the Holocaust was an essential part of being Jewish, while only 28% believe that being a part of the Jewish community was such. Not even a majority (43%) of the American Jews polled believes that caring about Israel is an important part of Jewish identity. This goes back to the aforementioned point that people often see Jews bonding over tragedy more so than on what makes us Jewish in the first place. What message does that send the world if we have a hard time agreeing about who we are as a people?
From what I have seen, such divisions give people an incentive to define who is the “good Jew” and who is the “bad Jew.” Such a tactic has been used by our enemies and those from within our community. Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, loves to use the anti-Zionist Jews from groups like JVP to cloak their agenda and claim that their double-standards against Israel isn’t anti-Semitic. David Horowitz would dub anti-Trump Republicans like Bill Kristol as “Renegade Jews” and allude that any Jewish conservative who does not fall in line with the GOP nominee will commit “a political miscalculation so great and a betrayal so profound as to not be easily forgiven.” The extremes from both sides turn the Jews against each other and it makes us vulnerable.
We cannot afford such challenges if we intend to take our enemies to task for their unforgivable hatred of every Jew.
As many Jewish philanthropists and organizations unite to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, I believe that the Jewish people has a much bigger battle ahead. We need to solidify our own sense of Jewish identity and determine which lines cannot and will not be crossed by those who wish to destroy us. Fighting BDS would only be a bandage for a wound that is far deeper and more fundamental within the collective Jewish soul. We have to be sure that our values are aligned. While disagreements and debates should continue to exist, as it is part of our great tradition, I believe that we need to draw lines in the sand where the vast majority of Jews can come together.
If every Jew recites L‘shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim following our biggest holidays and we all come together on Tisha B’Av to commemorate the destruction of our holiest Temples, then we have no excuse to remain divided. It is time to unite under a basic set of values and stick to them unapologetically and proudly.