Growing up my grandfather used to regale me with stories of the Jewish tough guys of New York City. He would speak with particular affection about Bugsy Siegal and Meyer Lansky. He told me about the building of Las Vegas and about murder incorporated. He got me so interested that I ended up writing my university thesis about them. Later these men would be immortalised in films such as Bugsy and books such as Rich Cohen’s Tough Jews. These stories buck the traditional narrative about Jews, the men themselves did too. They weren’t scared, they didn’t hide behind others and they weren’t afraid to fight.
Growing up in the Jewish community in London you didn’t have to look very far to find a famous Jewish doctor or lawyer but I never actually knew a Jewish tough guy. That changed when I learned about Israel. At the end of the day the Jewish gangsters my grandfather told me about were just criminals but here in Israel were Jews who put their lives on the line for their beliefs. Bucking the narrative, not for a profit but for the safety and dignity of their people. I knew very quickly that I wanted to be one of them, an Israeli wearing the red beret of the paratroopers. But the narrative of the scared, weak Jews still pervades.
Now Jews in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere find themselves being protected by soldiers and armed police. The internet has been flooded with pictures of Jewish kids going to school while soldiers guard them and to synagogue while police patrol outside. The narrative message is clear, the Jews are weak, the Jews are targets, the Jews can’t defend themselves.
The truth does not conform to this narrative.
The story of the Paris attacks very quickly focussed on Lassana Bathily, the Muslim man who hid several Jews during the hostage crisis in the Kosher supermarket in Paris. But the media only briefly hovered over the actions of Yoav Hattab. This unarmed man, single handedly attacked a terrorist armed to the teeth in order to attempt to prevent the inevitable bloodbath. His actions weren’t simply heroic they ran very much counter to a narrative that says that Jews aren’t tough and that Jews can’t fight. He fought and his sacrifice was quickly glossed over. It shouldn’t be on the contrary it should be held up as the example of what happens when terrorists decide to take on Jews. Now the narrative has returned to Jews needing to be protected, Jews being helpless in their own communities.
During the Summer, while Israeli soldiers were fighting in Gaza it was Jewish Parisians fighting outside a synagogue who prevented a mob from attacking their fellow Jews while at prayer. They were outnumbered by more than ten to one but they stood their ground and they fought for their people. It’s one thing to do that while wearing a uniform and armed with an assault rifle, it’s altogether something else when armed with nothing more than your fists.
In the United Kingdom it has been Jewish volunteers who have stood at the doors of their own communal buildings for years. The fact that terrorism hasn’t touched the UK Jewish community for some time is no doubt testament to the fact that there are no easy targets there. None of us know how many times hostile reconnaissance of a Jewish target showed it to be too tough a nut to crack because of the Jewish volunteers standing guard courtesy of the supremely effective Community Security Trust. Tough Jews making sure that their community is protected.
We Jews are more than merely lambs awaiting the slaughter. Thanks to Jews like Hattab, the soldiers of the IDF and all of the Jews who put themselves on the line to protect their communities, it is abundantly clear that this is not a generation of Jews prepared to simply fade away into the night and die.
So while the images coming out of Europe are of Jews juxtaposed against the soldiers guarding them and the narrative portrayed is of Jews crying out to others for protection it’s worth everyone bearing in mind, especially our enemies, that this generation of Jews is the generation that fights, not the generation that dies.