Erica Brown

Alone Again

‘The Jews are alone in the world.” I never believed this statement growing up. It was paranoia, the mark of Jews who saw anti-Semitism in every rejection, denial or disagreement — personal or national. But I have learned otherwise this summer of our discontent, bent over American newspapers in the morning and listening to news broadcasts throughout the day. Remember Cynthia Ozick’s article in Commentary, “All the World Wants the Jews Dead?” I bristled then. I am confused now.

The words of Bilaam in Numbers ring in my ears: “…they are a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be counted among other nations” (23:9). From his high perch, Bilaam looked down upon the Jews and saw their isolation from others. The apartness or otherness of the Jews can and has been a source of distinctiveness. It can also be a mark of anguished solitude.

“The Jews are alone in the world,” said the philosopher Eric Hoffer, not in 2014 but in 1968, a year after Israel’s dazzling victory in the ’67 war. Hoffer was a moral and social philosopher who wrote many influential books and won a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 just months before he died. He wrote extensively on the human condition. When my friend, Rev. Reeder Herrick, passed on Hoffer’s remarks about Israel, I felt myself in the presence of a prophet.

“The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews,” said Hoffer, the prophet-philosopher. There is painful injustice in the double standard. In our grander moments, we tell ourselves that we are judged harshly by the world because “we answer to a Higher Authority.” This is too kind. If we are alone, we are not held up to a higher standard among nations, just an impossible one.

How else should we view the appointment of anti-Israel William Schabas to head the UN commission investigating alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza, the biased reporting of papers we trusted, the damning placards of British protestors calling Israelis child murderers when Hamas uses children as human shields and executes people without due process. Israel makes moral errors. But Israel’s Supreme Court punishes its own citizens as part of the fiber of a democratic society. Vigilante justice does not go unchallenged. But roiling, irrational hatred of Israel and our people does go unchallenged. Still.

“If Israel survives it will be solely because of Jewish efforts. And Jewish resources.” Israel as a state was only 20 years old when Hoffer wrote this. He could not assume that Israel would endure forever because it had just finished its teenage years. Now heading deeper into retirement age, Israel is hardly more secure in its place in the world. I assume Israel will always exist because I do not know a world without it, nor will I entertain any other reality, despite the noise of anti-Semitism. We have our own country: Israel. Israel has its own army. Israel has powerful allies. Jews worldwide are committed to Israel’s enduring existence.

And yet, we have not tackled Hoffer’s proposition sufficiently. He contends that we will only exist because of Jewish efforts and resources at a time when many Jews feel uncomfortable talking about Israel, when Shabbat table conversations blow up because of political differences, when many rabbis fear to take a stand on Israel from the pulpit.

“We can rely more on Israel than Israel can rely on us.” How did Hoffer know that this would be true almost 50 years after he said it? Despite all of its external pressures, Israel is still serving as our global refuge, gathering diaspora Jews under its sheltering protection, allowing us to walk with our heads high. Ask Jews who arrived there this summer from Ukraine, or the 400 French Jews who arrived one day in July to rocket fire. Natan Sharansky put it best: “More and more people are asking whether Jews have a future in France, but no one doubts that French Jews have a future in Israel.”

“I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us,” Hoffer intoned. When we become a society that tolerates hatred for the sake of an uncritical liberalism, then terrorism has found a breeding ground, both inviting and shallow.

I recently attended a wedding where the rabbi paused and invited the happy group to mourn the losses in Israel; the nation called “struggle with God” — after the biblical Jacob — was struggling again. The elderly woman next to me turned to her neighbor with a loud whisper, “Maybe the country should just change its name already?”

Israel is not changing its name nor is it cowering in the face of existential threats or name-calling. We who share the name Israel as a nation there and in the diaspora will stay above the fray. If we must be alone — at least for a while — then we shall. It will be the world’s loss.

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at


About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).