Anti-semitism is a frequent theme in the study of Jewish history, and for good reason. As long as Jews have existed and continue to exist, anti-semitism will continue to exist as well. It does not matter how “liberal” or “open-minded” of a society we chose to live in, if history has taught us anything it is the undeniable fact of anti-semitism. I’m certainly not the first person to say this, and I am sure that I will not be the last.
I first fell in love with the academic study of Jewish History in Mrs. Cynthia Peterman’s 9th grade Jewish History class at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Having recently switched over to CES/JDS from an Orthodox all-girls school, Jewish studies and especially Jewish history classes at my new more academically focused institution fiercely drew me into their seduction. I was transfixed, inspired, and suddenly more deeply connected and committed to my heritage than I had ever been before. This love affair continued on through several more years of High school Jewish history and onto subsequent undergraduate and graduate degrees in Jewish studies.
Rather than point to the over-analyzed and over-used example of the situation of the bourgeois upper class Jewish intellectuals in 1930’s Berlin, I would like you to travel with me to the world of central and Eastern Europe at the close of the 19th century. The concept of emancipation had already swept through Europe, and Jews were at the forefront of the intellectual, political, and societal elite. At this point, many Jews of the backwater shtetl villages had chosen to move into the cities: Kiev, Budapest, Vienna, Paris, attempting to take advantage of new espoused freedoms in search of a better life. If we examine this period closely however, the truth of Jewish life in Europe during this time was far from equal and far from free. In Joseph Dorman’s 2011 documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” a deeply detailed exploration of Jewish life during the lifetime of famed Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem is unveiled (1859-1916). As a perpetual student of Jewish history and now a university professor of religious studies, I personally feel that this extremely well –executed documentary truly captures the complex polarity of the lives of the intellectual European Jewish elite during this liminal and definitive period in Jewish history. There is no doubt that the late 1800’s were a period of great intellectual and academic development, including the deeply influential Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), secular Yiddish literature, and of course, Zionism, but it was also a period of extreme anti-semitism. During this time period, pogroms, both government and locally sponsored, were frequent, as well as general violence towards Jews for no reason other than pure and unadulterated anti-semitism. My own great-great Grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Schechter z”l, died from blood poisoning, after being slashed multiple times with a saber by a Viennese “police officer” whom he had offended by commenting after the police officer’s horse splashed him with mud on the street. This was normal Jewish life in Vienna at the turn of the century. Jews were taught to keep their heads down and be quiet, for fear of violence. So much for emancipation and freedom for all.
Like many of my Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, the news of the horrific shooting at the Kansas City Jewish Community Center and Jewish assisted living center reached me via startling news flashes from various Jewish/Israeli news sites on my smart phone, whilst knee deep in Passover cleaning and cooking. I was home alone, my husband tasked with occupying the children (or really, keeping them out of my hair!) during the arduous Passover preparation process. As the details of this act of violence and clear anti-semitism became more transparent, my thoughts immediately went to 1890s Europe and a quote from the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl and his seminal work Der Judenstaat
“The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilised countries—see, for instance, France—so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.” (1895)
Despite the fact that two of the victims of the shooting were indeed not-Jewish and simply at the “wrong place at the wrong time” there is not a single doubt that the suspect chose to target the Kansas City JCC because it is a Jewish institution. Video documentation of the suspect being taken into custody shows the suspect shouting “Heil Hitler” and research into his past reveals a long history of anti-semitic activities.
I’ll never forget a conversation that took place outside of Yad Vashem, The museum and memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem. I was staffing a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for 40 American college students and 8 young Israeli soldiers had joined the group as well for this portion of the trip. Before beginning our Yad Vashem experience we sat in small groups in circles, and went around and asked the young people to share any experiences that they had had of anti-semitism. While every American student could come up with at least one, if not several incidents of anti-semitism that they had experienced in their young lives. The young Israeli soldiers had none.
I’m no longer that 14 year old sitting in Mrs. Peterman’s 9th grade Jewish history class. Over 20 years have passed and the reality of the perpetuity of anti-semitism continues on. One thing that I have learned, however, is that we gain nothing from silence and inaction. The “Jewish Question” that Herzl spoke of will continue to be asked, and we need to be ready with an answer. The only place that the Jewish people can live in true freedom from anti-semitism is the State of Israel and this fact will be proven again and again to us over time. How many incidents of violence targeting Jews will it take for American and world Jewry to understand this? As much as Israel needs the support, both financially and politically, of the American Jewish community, we also need to realize how much American Jews and world Jewry for that matter, need Israel as well.
Wishing you all a happy, kosher, and healthy Passover holiday. Next year in Jerusalem!