When I was seventeen, my parents sent me on a summer teen program to Poland and Israel for Jewish students from the Chicagoland area. By that point in my life, I had been to Israel multiple times, and while the peer experience offered a new dimension, the week in Poland, visiting the Nazi concentration camps, ghettos, and remains of old Jewish communities, cemeteries, and synagogues was life-changing. More than 30 years have since passed, but, in some ways, the haunting memories feel like yesterday.
The one image most indelibly burned in my mind was a massive display in an old Auschwitz barracks holding countless thousands of shoes of children murdered by the Nazis. I was never a publicly emotive person. But that day was different. I don’t believe I have ever cried publicly the way I did that day. While I had read and learned about the history of the Holocaust prior to that day, the depths of the horrors wrought by the Nazis sunk in like never before.
A year later, I packed my bags for Union College in Schenectady, NY, where I first met Professor Stephen Berk, a brilliant scholar of Holocaust and Jewish Studies. At the time, his course on the history of the Holocaust was one of the small liberal arts college’s most popular courses. Professor Berk became a mentor and an inspiration. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to teach the next generations the stories and lessons of modern history’s deadliest genocide. “Never again” became my mantra, and I was planning to dedicate my life to ensuring that such atrocities would never again befall my people.
My professional journey ultimately did move in a different direction, and after earning my degree in history, I began rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary and subsequently served a congregation in upstate New York for a decade. Through those years until this very day, the shadows of the 1.5 million children murdered during the Holocaust never stopped following me.
The unthinkable atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 of this year were traumatizing and maddening to decent people around the world. When the world started to learn what the brutal and inhuman terrorists did to babies and children, I once again became the 17-year-old version of myself standing at Auschwitz, looking at the tattered children’s shoes, overwhelmed with horror and grief.
When the war started, many of us who deliberately keep ourselves informed and educated on Israel likely anticipated that, at some point, the PR war would eventually turn against Israel. But I never expected to see anti-Semitism rear its venomous head in such shocking ways as we’ve witnessed in recent weeks. Much of the rhetoric and actions spreading across the globe, and in particular, on college campuses and cities throughout the United States are not legitimate protest or political discourse. Rather, what we are seeing is a suspension of disbelief in favor of a virulently anti-Semitic narrative that has little basis in historical or geopolitical truth. We are witnessing a resurgence of the age-old blood libel and the scapegoating of the Der Ewige Jude, The Eternal Jew as a blood-thirsty child killer.
What is particularly shocking to many of us is how casually many of our nation’s academics and supposedly most intelligent college and university students ignore historic and geopolitical fact and adopt dangerous anti-Semitic tropes, shirking their own self-proclaimed commitment to truth and to safe spaces. Let’s review just a few examples.
On October 9, just two days after the brutal Hamas massacre, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at George Washington University referred to the atrocities on its Instagram account as “mobilization,” declaring “a new era in our struggle,” and “reject(ing) the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘militant,'” in essence, affirming that Hamas and the Palestinian people are one and the same. GWSJP then pledges its “unwavering support for our people’s resistance, in all its forms,” concluding with a “call upon all our people and those in solidarity with us to join us in this struggle” to achieve the ultimate goal that “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea,” which is simply a modern-day iteration of the Nazi-era yearning for a land that is Judenrein, free of Jews, words the student group also displayed upon the George Washington University’s Gelman Library last week.
Jewish students have been forced to lock themselves in university libraries and Hillels as students sympathetic to Hamas have threatened them, pounding on doors and windows, leaving Jewish students vulnerable, afraid, and unsafe. We have all seen dozens of videos of people tearing down posters of kidnapped Jewish children and adults because the image of the Jew as victim runs contrary to their hateful narrative.
On October 23, the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder revised a previous statement and published on the University website a one-sided, historically ignorant, and deeply disturbing “Palestine Support Statement.” With overt implications that anyone who supports Israel is genocidal, the Department of Ethnic Studies “demand(s) that the university must ensure the safety of anti-genocide student and community activists on campus,” expressing no commitment to the safety and wellbeing of Jewish students.
The statement insists that Israel’s defensive actions are intended to “free up more land for the ongoing Israeli settler colonialist occupations,” ignores Israel’s forced resettlement of its own citizens from Gaza in 2005, leaving the entire Gaza Strip, including all of the Israeli infrastructure in place for the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Most disturbing, however, is that the department “reject(s) the language of ‘terrorism'” as “specious and obfuscatory language,” lending credibility to the raping of girls and women, the murder, burning, and decapitation of children, and public humiliation of seniors.
These are only a few of countless incidents of students and faculty being willfully blind to verifiable truth. Israel is not perfect and it never has been. The Israeli government and military have not always treated the Palestinian people fairly. Even so, it is crucial to view this reality in the proper context of history and Middle East politics. The same can and should be said of Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors. And those who truly support the plight of the Palestinian people must reserve the lion’s portion of their scorn for the Palestinian leadership. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have used their people as political pawns and have refused to build a functional Palestinian society in favor of corruption and abuse. But Hamas, whom today’s so-called progressives refuse to correctly label a terrorist organization, is both directly and indirectly responsible for the suffering, abuse, and death of countless Palestinian people, should not only be recognized for what they are, but ultimately neutralized for the sake of Israel, Jews worldwide, the Palestinian people, and the stability of the Middle East.
Just a month ago, I was hoping and praying for a swift end to the Netanyahu administration, as were countless Israelis. But this is not a war about Israel’s government. This is not a war about territorial disputes or a two-state solution. This is a war about the survival of the State of Israel and Jewish continuity across the diaspora. This war is about the ongoing commitment of Palestinian leadership to liberate the entirety of the State of Israel through armed struggle and the complete destruction of the Jewish people.
The very core of the origins of a Palestinian peoplehood was based on the destruction of the Jewish people. Article 9 of the 1968 amended Palestinian National Charter declares, “Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. This is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase. The Palestinian Arab people assert their absolute determination and firm resolution to continue their armed struggle and to work for an armed popular revolution for the liberation of their country and their return to it.”
For the Palestinian Liberation Organization and subsequently the Palestinian Authority, diplomacy was never a means to their desired end. This, no doubt, served as a precedent for the Hamas Covenant which was adopted in 1988, the year after Hamas was established. The Hamas Covenant is overloaded with vitriolic anti-Semitism, declaring that “the enemies have been scheming for a long time…and have accumulated huge and influential wealth. With their money, they took control of the world media.” The Hamas Covenant concluded that “their scheme has been laid out in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It also maintains a commitment to obliterate the Jewish people and ties this psychopathic goal with the terrorist group’s bastardized eschatological yearnings, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them.”
The anti-Semitic rhetoric that is infecting college campuses across the United States and cities around the globe are thinly veiled Hamas talking points, at best, and in many cases are blatant and unapologetic support of the ugliest acts of terrorism we could have never imagined. Supporting Hamas as freedom fighters and justifying their crimes against humanity are not characteristic of true progressive liberalism which prides itself on its embrace of the rights of the individual and equality before the law.
We are witnessing a gross perversion of American liberalism. Consequently, many American Jews, and certainly Diaspora Jews around the world, are beginning to feel homeless. My youngest child is nearly midway through 11th grade and has been busy researching colleges and universities to which she will eventually apply. Practically each day, we are learning of another institution of higher learning where Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome on account of the rapidly spreading flames of hate. As a father, I feel helpless in my effort to guide her. Can I, in good conscience, encourage, support, even allow her to apply to schools that refuse to stand up to those who deify monsters who raped girls and women so violently that bones were broken? Must I instruct her to consider hiding anything that would identify her as a Jew in her applications? Should I not assume that there is a strong possibility that people on admissions committees who will eventually read her applications are not standing in the seething crowds who cry “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free?” Will her Jewish day school eduction and her leadership in a Jewish teen philanthropy board hurt her application? These are just a few of the impossible questions I have been asking myself in recent weeks. Even the Brandeis University student senate was unable to denounce Hamas. So where will she be safe? Where will she be welcome? Where will she be at home?
On October 26, the U.S. Senate passed the Hawley Resolution condemning Hamas and anti-Semitism on college campuses. Just a month ago, I would have told you that I could never imagine agreeing with Josh Hawley, the Republican senator who raised a supportive fist towards the insurrectionists that stormed the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2021. Like many American Jews, I traditionally vote as a Democrat and identity strongly with liberal positions on social issues. And yet, today, I find myself listening to, and agreeing with politicians, journalists, and talking heads who I had previously reviled, and whose politics I still find repulsive. I now find myself agreeing with Megan Kelly, Marco Rubio, and so many others I would have, just weeks ago, quickly dismissed. With a twinge of guilt, I feel disloyal to my own principles and begin to question who I am. And I know I am not alone in this.
The Democratic party blocked an earlier reading of Hawley’s resolution. And just a day before Hawley’s resolution passed, nine House Democrats voted against a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas. Nine may seem like a relatively small number of House Representatives who would not support Israel’s right to defend itself against a death cult intent on wiping out the Jews, but I fear that, should the wave of Jew-hatred continue to rip the soul out from American liberalism, this growing element within our society could eventually become the new base to which Democrats pander for votes and financial support. Will this prove to be the Democratic Party’s January 6 moment? And if nine House Democrats become 10, then 15, then 50, will the Democratic Party become a cannibalistic sideshow the way the Republican Party has proven to be recently with the Speaker of the House circus?
Should this happen, what is left for Jews like me, whom, I believe constitute a political majority aMing American Jews? I cannot not imagine voting for Republican candidates who support abortion bans, reject equal rights for LGBTQ people, and will not support sensible gun control legislation. Neither can I vote for Democrats who refuse to support Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against a next door neighbor intent on murdering them. I cannot vote for a candidate who draws any semblance or moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, let alone rationalize and justify the October 7 massacre as mere resistance.
My theory may be far-fetched. But the recent, yet unsurprising statements of overt support for Hamas from Black Lives Matter fuels my anxiety. Black Lives Matter has a short-term memory and fails to appreciate the significant role Jews have long played in the Civil Rights movement and the fight for the equality of black Americans. Most Jews I know were quick to join the marches and protests following the murder of George Floyd, wearing the letters BLM with conviction. I have former colleagues, rabbis, who were arrested multiple times for civil disobedience when supporting, participating, and even leading unauthorized BLM protests. BLM forgets that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a close relationship with the Jewish community, supported the State of Israel, and once declared, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking antisemitism!”
There has been a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism among prominent black Americans very publicly expressing dangerous rhetoric. Kanye West’s 2022 Jew-hating rant was disturbing until it became bizarre when he declared that he again liked Jews because of Jonah Hill’s roll in 21 Jump Street. But the slow reaction time of Adidas, a major endorsement for West, and the continued support of the artist by many in the black American community, including John Legend, who, during the summer of 2023 while playing at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago, spoke glowingly and at length about his respect for West, tells me that the festering plague of anti-Semitism is either not perceived as discriminatory or simply does not bother an awful lot of people. Conservative commentator, Candace Owens openly insisted that Kanye’s unhinged Tweet about “going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” was not anti-Semitic.
The #BLM spirit is a central tenet of American progressivism. And so, many in the Jewish community are trying to rationalize their continued support of the organization’s unapologetic anti-Semitism by distinguishing between the popular #BLM movement and the Black Lives Matter entity which takes formal and public positions. The fear is, by publicly taking virulent anti-Semitic stances, Black Lives Matter stands to ingrain these sentiments even deeper into the minds of young, impressionable, and in many cases uninformed progressives, influencing the younger generation of voters with its hateful rhetoric and risking a future shift in Democratic policy towards Israel if future candidates and elected politicians feel increased pressure to appease the growing tide of extreme progressivism.
Liberal Jews feel increasingly betrayed by these attitudes. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century, marched from Selma to Montgomery. A close friend of King, Heschel wrote after the march, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Countless liberal American Jews have followed in Heschel’s footsteps, committing in both word and action to social justice and racial equity. So the rise of anti-Semitism among black Americans is a painful slap in the face to Jews who have been loyal and leading voices to the core message that black lives really do matter. But Black Lives Matter’s statements in support of Hamas have shown American Jews that the reciprocal does not ring true and for BLM and an increasing number of prominent black Americans and their allies and supports, Jewish lives do not matter. Jews must now increasingly fear that the devaluing of Jewish lives will infect the Democratic party. And yet, many liberal Jews remain steadfast in their commitment to fight for racial equity in spite of this profound betrayal.
In January 2008, during my years working as a congregational rabbi, while leading a congregation in Rochester, New York, Arun Gandhi, now late grandson of Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, famously know for his commitment to non-violent resistance, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post’s blog, “On Faith.” At the time, Arun Gandhi was President of the Board of the M.K. Gandhi Nonviolence Institute which was located on the campus of the Univesity of Rochester. In the Washington Post piece, Gandhi wrote, “We have created a Culture of Violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that culture of violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.” Gandhi further expressed that Jews were obsessed with and unable to move beyond the Holocaust experience, concluding, “It is a very good example of (how) a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends.”
There was an immediate outcry against Gandhi’s assertions that Jews were the most violence people in the world and would ultimately be responsible for the destruction of humanity. Along with other members of the Rochester Board of Rabbis, I met twice with then President of University of Rochester, Joel Seligman who explained to us the complication of taking disciplinary action against Gandhi on account of a university’s commitment to academic freedom, a theory that allows university administrations to formally divorce themselves of words and opinions expressed by faculty in favor of a culture that accommodates academics’ exploration, study, and expression of whatever they please. Seligman articulated this clearly when he stated, “Universities exist and best serve us if they foster open teaching and viewpoints that are diametrically opposed to each other. A university’s role in society is not to impose intellectual orthodoxy, but to provide the opportunity to develop and articulate opinions of beliefs that may be unpopular or little believed.”
Seligman, a Jew himself, was admitted in a difficult position. Taking disciplinary action would violate his commitment to academic freedom, but also risked the appearance of personal retribution. Nevertheless, Seligman quietly asked for Gandhi’s resignation, which he did ultimately submit before the end of that January.
What this incident highlighted for me, and what the current situation on college campuses only further emphasizes is American society’s idolatry of the freedom of speech. We, the people, are so committed to making space for “free speech” that we, as a nation, have facilitated the normalization of hate speech. Our blind unconditional of what we declare as the very basis of American Democracy has made it almost impossible to act against hate speech that incites violence. And now we have presidents and boards of universities and colleges throughout the country who refuse to take meaningful action against those who support and further encourage violence against Jews. While some administrations have expressed veiled support of Hamas either outwardly or by their silence, many have issued weak and weightless statements about inclusive communities and safe spaces.
Colleges and universities that do not terminate faculty and staff and expel students who incite violence against Jews demonstrate a complete lack of moral clarity. Colleges and universities that refuse to take decisive action against students and faculty applauding Hamas atrocities and calling for Jewish genocide show cowardice, not leadership, and have signaled to current and prospective Jewish students that they are not safe and thus not welcome on campus. The dissemination of anti-Semitism and the inciting of violence against Jews should not be protected by the First Amendment or a commitment to academic freedom.
When Jews feel lost in the mire of the American political landscape, left to make choices demanding significant compromise of our core values, Jews will begin to feel increasingly homeless and will remember that we have always been strangers in this strange land.
When social justice movements ignore the contributions of Jews and ignore historical and geopolitical truth, Jews will feel homeless.
When students and faculty redefine terrorism to justify unthinkable acts of brutality, and when administrations of the world’s most prominent and well-respected institutions of higher learning either give them a tacit nod or fail to act, Jews begin to understand that there may be no place for them.
When our non-Jewish friends, teammates, classmates, colleagues, and neighbors say nothing in response the most pernicious acts modern history may have ever witnessed by livestream, when people remain silent in the face of a clear and objective evil, Diaspora Jews remember what we have tried, for decades to forget. We feel vulnerable and alone.
Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” When non-Jewish members of our communities who we once thought we knew remain silent, Jew’s become homeless.
What Hamas failed to take into account, what anti-Semites across the world simply do not understand is that, like forged steel which is made stronger when exposed to destructive force of fire, the Jewish people, under the heat of adversity, are made stronger. Since January, week after week saw massive protests across Israel in response to the Netanyahu administration’s efforts to overhaul Israel’s judiciary in order to consolidate power and, effectively threaten Israel’s very democracy. Political commentators and some career Israeli politicians began to warn that Israeli society was in jeopardy of an irreconcilable fracture and potential civil war.
When Hamas leadership sought to capitalize on an Israel made vulnerable by division, they underestimated the spirit of Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel which, despite millennia of oppression, persecution, and genocide, the Jewish people have stubbornly persisted through history’s every attempt to eradicate us. The Jewish people embody the Talmud’s directive, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” all of Israel is responsible for one another. We feel an instinctive sense of duty to one another. On October 7, 2023, the Jewish people immediately put aside everything that risked dividing us and once again became k’ish echad b’lev echad, like one man with one hard.
Am Yisrael chai, the people of Israel live.
Am Yisrael chai v’vayam, the nation of Israel lives and will endure.