I was born in 1953, eight years after the end of the war, and many of the young mothers in our neighborhood had numbers tattooed on their forearms. At least one was raising a family for the second time: she had seen her children in Europe herded to the ovens by the Nazis. There was anti-Semitism in my childhood but it was not respectable and decent people believed the world had learned once and for all where a such hatreds lead. They were wrong.
On my 65th birthday, an anti-Semite massacred the congregation at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Happy birthday. Every morning when I read the news, another Jewish memorial or cemetery in France has been defaced by swastikas. Or that Muslim congresswoman from Minnesota is spewing more Jew-baiting incitement. Or this morning, a Belgian carnival featured a float with hook-nosed Jews in streimelach seated upon bags of money. Of course decent people— children or grandchildren of the ones who said it was over and could never happen again— condemn all this, sort of. Let’s disapprove of anti-Semitism, but distinguish carefully between that and legitimate criticism (i.e., demonization) of Israel. Let’s censure Rep. Omar, but not get all Islamophobic about it.
In 1970 a member of the Israel delegation to the UN came to speak at my high school, where his son was a student, and when asked what he thought of the Jewish Defense League and R. Meir Kahane, replied “We already have a Jewish defense league. It’s called the Israel Defense Forces.” A witty reply, with the implication that of classical Zionist ideology: if you live in the Diaspora, leave! He was right. The Holocaust proved, just in case the Inquisition, Russian pogroms, the Dreyfus trial in Paris, etc., etc., had not, that Galut, the Exile, is not viable.
But what are Jews to do who for one reason or another have not been able to make Aliyah? The advice, and the only answer at this point, is what a Zionist leader told a bunch of kids at a Yeshiva in Vilna on the eve of the war: “Children, I want you to learn.” (The rabbis in attendance nodded approval, figuring that by lernen he meant studying the Gemara.) “I want you to learn to shoot.” (The rabbis were scandalized.) Those of us who learned to shoot at least died with honor, and a few survived— one, Abba Kovner helped to organize the special forces of the IDF.
I do not intend to give the impression that Orthodox Jews were necessarily passive. Simply by refusing to blend in, in customs or dress, Torah Jews tell the world, we will be ourselves, not you, and we don’t care whether you like that or not. That’s courage. And if you’re into lernen, then you know Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud counsels that if somebody is coming to kill you, you are preemptively to kill him first. One Rebbe in Poland on the basis of this decision decreed to his congregation that every Nazi must be killed on sight. His community refused the German order to burn their synagogue, saved some Torah scrolls, and took a few Germans with them before they died.
A Japanese general during World War II counseled against a land invasion of the USA. Behind every blade of grass is an American with a gun, he said. Imagine if every Jew is Europe had owned a shotgun. Imagine a Jewish shop owner blowing away a brownshirt thug painting the Star of David on his window. Imagine a hail of Molotov cocktails at a Nuremberg rally. Imagine a Warsaw Ghetto uprising before the deportations to Treblinka, when Polish Jewry was still alive. Imagine no Warsaw Ghetto at all. Imagine Hitler lying dead in a bullet-riddled Mercedes. Imagine.
Back in Washington Heights, back in illo tempore, our rabbi, may his memory be for a blessing, referred in a sermon to the latest horrific Arab terrorist attack on Israeli civilians, and suddenly shouted, “Death to the enemies of Israel!” He stressed that word to make sure everyone heard it clearly.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gives every American the right to bear arms. Exercise that right, and do it now. Every Jewish home, synagogue, and school in this country should take weapons training, and learn safe storage, handling and use of firearms. The acquisition of duly registered, legal firearms and ammunition for self-defense is imperative. The right to life is your human right number one. Without it, there are no others.
The IDF could not be there for the people in the Pittsburgh shul, and it cannot do anything for Jews defamed by Corbyn in England, or attacked in France, or stereotyped in a Nazi float near Brussels. But we, the Jews in the Diaspora, are there, I mean, here. We can defend ourselves and stop this black tide. If we don’t act, not only will more than half the Jews in the world face another Holocaust, but Israel will be left standing friendless and alone, in a Nazified world. Another Masada is no option. Life is. “If I’m not for myself who is for me?” And, “If not now, when?”