“What now after Pittsburgh?” asked a rash of media headlines last October after the Tree of Life massacre. Again, six months later in April, the same media questioning with added notes of frustration. Amidst the sadness of candlelight vigils and, of course, the debasing politicizations of the tragedies, we wrestled with our angers, confusions, and fears. While the answers included the obvious need to increase security across the Jewish institutional spectrum, unfortunately and distractedly, other responses embraced solutions that fall short by not squarely placing anti-Semitism contextually within its continuing historical proliferation and by absenting our Jewish resolve in directly owning and leading the fight.
For instance, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt asserted after Poway that the response to the shooting is a “call to action for us as a society to deal once and for all with hate” by “people in positions of authority … enforcing norms and standing for our shared values.” Per Greenblatt, these powerful people must pass a “domestic terrorism statute, which would make it easier to arrest suspects before they can carry out murderous plots.”
Besides wondering about the constitutionality of such a statute, I always have moments of regret when I feel I must challenge someone’s seemingly Isaiah influenced thoughts. Does Greenblatt really believe we, despite what we have learned from the beginning of Genesis to the present, have the ability, “once and for all,” to deal with hate in our midst? Yet more important than debating what can never be, Greenblatt’s vision is a diversion from the direct action needed to fight anti-Semitism by people already in positions of authority, by the ADL itself, and importantly by our own selves.
Many Shoah historians have commented on the “powerlessness” of Jews during the Holocaust period, from the dirt-poor shtetls of Poland, to the intelligentsia centers of Berlin and Vienna, and even to the safe environs of American Jewry. Today, American Jews are powerless in fighting anti-Semitism only if we resign our own power. Thus, how disappointing that within Congress where we have 34 Jewish members, where we have rightful access to political power, a Jewish lack of resolve and failure to lead are taking place.
Compared even to the horrors of the Pittsburgh and Poway pogroms, anti-Semitism infecting our national legislative assembly is a graver threat to Jews in America. If such a contagion is left unchecked, it seeps into the bloodstream of the body politic and infects a whole nation. We are well aware of the anti-Semitic tropes expressed in the halls of Congress. We have repeatedly listened to the rhetoric of delegitimization, now the most prevalent form of anti-Semitism, launched against Israel, the “collective Jew.” We have viewed a virulent anti-Semitic imam honored with giving the opening prayer at the House of Representatives. And we have heard a ranking member of Congress discount the pain from our Jewish Holocaust.
The responses by most Jewish members of Congress to these anti-Semitic affronts have been muted and at best circumscribed. Certainly, I hope all of our representatives, regardless of religion, feel a repugnance and wage war against this disease. But am I expecting too much that our Jewish representatives in particular react angrily, show pride in their heritage, and possess a protective instinct for their people? That they care deeply about the well-being of Israel? And when Hydra-headed anti-Semitisms rear their vicious heads, our Jewish leaders will react quickly and forcefully without regard to ideology or party affiliation? If they will not be at the forefront of the fight for their own people, who will?
Returning to the ADL, I value greatly the work it has done throughout my lifetime to oppose anti-Semitism. Recently, I was proud of my ADL when it fought against the AirBnB BDS actions and in its strong statements condemning anti-Semitic outbreaks in Congress. The ADL has deservedly earned its place as a powerful voice in the defense of Jewish Americans. Yet in its position of power, more is needed, concretely and forcefully, in challenging our Jewish political leaders to face up to the unique threat of anti-Semitism festering within their own chambers and exhorting them to take direct and undiluted action. I expect my ADL unambiguously to take to task those Jewish members of Congress who, lacking the insight or courage to protect us, do not heed this call to action.
Additional responses suggest Pittsburgh and Poway are direct outcroppings of “hideous and senseless gun violence,” that “mass killings are a public health issue,” and that anti-Semitism is one of many instances of hate that require us “to band together with other minority groups.” While each of these assessments may contain modicums of relevancy, simplifying the nature of anti-Semitism and diluting ownership of the fight blur clear understandings.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt of “Denial” fame has likened anti-Semitism to a herpes virus that lies dormant but always reemerges. Certainly, let’s do everything possible to reduce gun violence in America, but as we do so let’s not fool ourselves that the constantly mutating anti-Semitism virus originated within the last few years and its lethal force would be eliminated through solving our gun violence crisis. After all, Jews in Buenos Aries were slaughtered through a bombing; Jews in Europe today are constantly assaulted at knife point; and the destruction of over six million Jews in Israel could occur through a single nuclear missile strike. The mechanisms of assault can never define the scourge itself.
Understandably, often after absorbing an anti-Semitic outrage, we feel at a loss as what to do in the face of an incessant enemy. At these moments, it is particularly incumbent on our leadership and all Jewish Americans to understand that an effective response to any virus depends on comprehending the particularity of the disease. Assuredly we do not wish to be isolated in our fight, but banding together with other minority groups must not entail treating anti-Semitism as just another discrimination issue to which a generalized “call out for diversity in education” or for “eliminating hate speech on social media” are applied. Anti-Semitism is different from homophobia or Islam phobia. And the poison spewed by one anti-Semitic quarter varies from another.
So fighting successfully depends on rejecting superficial connections and attributions, comprehending root causes for each expression, and within our own community, setting aside secondary political quarrels and internecine differences. Critically, our efforts cannot be waylaid by the newest anti-Semitic canard of Jewish privilege which saps our strength and especially our children’s self-esteem. We cannot be made to feel ashamed and guilty of the economic, social, and political “power” we have rightfully achieved as we have striven from Colonial times to make a better life for ourselves in America while at the same time contributing enormously to the welfare of our country. We cannot apologize to our enemies for who we proudly are.
The evocative Psalm 27 read throughout our New Year period tells us that when the wicked (in this case the anti-Semites in our midst) assail us, we must have faith, be strong, and strengthen our hearts. The struggle against anti-Semitism may never be over, but we will hold our ground well if we realize each battle’s success is dependent on owning the fight and the joined resolve pulsating among all of us.