Nearly a year ago, I made a life-changing decision to enter the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and to see what happens.
That turned out to be one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences that I brought into my life, a gift that keeps on giving to this day. At the time, although initially motivated by pragmatic short-term considerations, I asked myself what would happen if I did not just disappear once my task was accomplished, what if I stayed and built on the seeds of the relationship that were planted during the brief time I needed to spend there.
In the many months that followed, I was privileged to have had many fascinating inter and intracultural experiences and encounters that have given me an even greater appreciation of my own identity and place within the Jewish community than at the time I was initially describing my impressions and experiences of having made the first step in that direction. I have continued to co-host monthly social dinners between American Jewish and Moroccan professionals; have had a deeply perseonal encounters with Anousim (CryptoJews) in Miami, have traveled to Ukraine for the first time in 21 years to attend a conference and ceremony dedicated to the commemoration of the Babyn Yar, Morocco, Cyprus, and even have made the unexpected sojourn from Egypt to Israel, I have had the honor of hosting a wide spectrum of different people for Shabbat dinner in Connecticut, and interacting with people from every imaginable background in New York and DC. I have stood with the deeply faithful Christian groups from an assortment of states in Cleveland, experienced spiritual, or perhaps supernatural, encounters in Charleston, have gotten involved in politics, and in general, have tried to expand my horizons in whatever way I could.
At the conclusion of this fascinating cycle, I finished reading Tuvia Tenenbom”s fascinating and startling new book “The Lies They Tell”, about his experience of traveling as a journalist for a major German newspaper throughout the United States, and writing his observations and meetings with every imaginable group of people. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Tuvia’s previous oevre, “Catch the Jew!”, I very strongly recommend it. His perspective is refreshing, brutally honest, very funny, yet poignant, thoroughly entertaining, but also, in many ways quite depressing.
The one takeaway from my experiences and from his latest that I see is as follows:
Jews, despite the diversity of voices, opinions, interests, and priorities, are ultimately a family. We call ourselves a Tribe, and at the end of the day, that’s what they are. We can try to deny our commonalities, underscore our differences, argue about every issue under the sun, spend decades fighting over every trivial comment or distinction, but we are more than a nation. We have one heart, one soul, and even as we are often far part politically, religiously, ideologically, culturally, linguistically, and quite simply, geographically, we still have the same roots, the same habits, the same internal spark that drives us. But the choices we have been making, particularly the American Jewry in the past several decades, are taking us in a bad direction overall. Overall, I say, because, of course, no community is ever monolith, and the American Jews are comprised of many such communities. I have always been deeply grateful to American Jews, both on communal and organizational level, for their contribution to the liberation of the Soviet Jewry, the hard work that they have done on the part of human rights, of preserving the Jewish tradition under dire circumstances in a militantly atheist totalitarian state, and of providing for the impoverished Jewish communities in many ways and on many levels after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
I was one of the beneficiaries of this concern and care, as I attended the first post-Soviet Jewish day school in Ukraine, which would not have been possible if not for the American Jewish investment and involvement.
All that being said, I don’t think a second movement to free the Soviet Jews would have been possible today – and all that despite the fact, that the American Jewish community has only become more organized with time. So much so that Islamist organizations such as ISNA are now seeking to partner with the American Jewish organizations to gain legitimacy and to whitewash their image. The American Jewish organizations go along with such partnerships with the hopes of separating the more “moderate”/tolerant voices from the more anti-Semitic influences, and to create familiarity by working on seemingly common domestic agendas. The perception of the Jewish communal influence has not changed…. yet has it actually not diminished? The American Jewish community failed to exercise its concern to prevent the disconcerting, deeply flawed nuclear deal with Iran – not because it was too small too matter, but because the internal dissent and the many of the more liberal Jews who were ready to go along with the deal blindly undermined any effort at showcasing that the security concerns related to the deal were a top priority for the American Jewry as a whole, despite other differences. We failed to united on that issue, unlike Israel, which despite all the differences in the world on just about everything else, rallied around that one point and spoke with one voice. Our rather predictable general political leanings also made for a poor case for the previous (or frankly any administration) to make a serious effort to woo our votes, voices, and dollars. If “Jewish” issues are not a priority for most people, but rather liberal domestic issues are, and if most Jews are willing to go along with whatever the administration was promoting, why should anyone seriously take our concern into consideration? All of that did not do much to boost our credibility, yet what I have witnessed since those events followed their natural progression has disturbed me even greater.
Despite the evidence of growing anti-Semitism in the past several years, the major concern of the Jewish community in the U.S. seems to be less on tackling the actual causes of real anti-Semitism than on finger-pointing, frequently at the largely fictitious white supremacist groups, rightwing rhetoric, and so forth. Not to say that there aren’t any white supremacist anti-Semites. Honestly, there is likely plenty of anti-Jewish sentiment to go around just about anywhere, particularly if you read Tuvia’s thought-provoking book. But the real danger is not even from the increasing visibility of these sentiments, and from the increasingly acceptable harassment of Jews on campuses. The real danger is that we are allowing ourselves to be seen as victims, no matter how great or small the danger actually is. And as for the Jews who are facing the worst of the actual, physical manifestations of Jew-hatred, Jews in Europe, as much as the American Jewish organizations claim to prioritize this issue, it remains largely unaddressed.
For all the much-touted diplomatic prowess of our “International Jews” and experts on foreign affairs, they have failed to make much of an impact, whether on the previous US administration in helping pass an anti-Israel resolution at the UN which ultimately delegitimizes our historic claims to Jerusalem, or to put sufficient pressure on European governments and authorities to take the curbing of anti-Jewish violence and harassment as a matter to be eradicated, not just “managed”. The management approach has allowed the spike in violent incidents, causing the Jewish communities in Europe to flee the country for greener pastures in Israel, Canada, and the United States. Many European Jews are afraid to go to services, which are now heavily guarded, and are not particularly welcoming to tourists; they are transferring their children to religious schools, and cannot go outside while wearing anything that would identify them as Jewish, particularly in many places in France and Belgium. Most recently, a Middle Eastern gang abducted two Jewish brothers, who were easily identifiable as such, chopping off fingers on the hand of one of them, and beating up another so that he had to go to the hospital.
The impact of that horrific violent incident was less than the hoax phone calls across JCCs in the US, which turned out to be the handiwork of a 19-year-old Israeli-American in Israel. For all the clamor about the growth of anti-Semitism, the Jewish press was much more occupied debating whether or not the current US administration is good for the Jews than dealing with the immediate problems Jews are facing. The Jewish organizations here may very well be engaged in behind-the-scenes conversations with the European governments, but whatever they are doing is not having the impact that it should. The violence that threatens the Jewish citizens of these countries is freely allowed to continue, and the governments claim to not have any ideas on how to stop that. The Jews in those countries are perceived as helpless victims, cannot carry weapons, cannot defend themselves against violent gangs who attack people in broad daylight even in major cities. How is that not a cause for massive outrage, mass demonstrations in the streets, by Jews both in Europe, and in the United States, and a show of full support for our Jewish brothers and sisters in those places, which are frankly, becoming as unwelcoming to people of Jewish faith as some of the worst offenders in the Middle East?
As the holiday of Pesach approaches, I have been reflecting on the mitzva of retelling of our escape from Egypt towards the freedom we gained in the desert, and the development into an unique independent nation when we accepted the Torah at Mount SInai. There is a very clear reason for recalling our traumatic past as slaves. That reason is far simpler than many of the Jewish organizations will have you believe. The memory is there for us to keep from repeating the same mistakes, and giving up our unique identity to assimilation, which will weaken our community and make us easy prey for tyrants and bullies of all stripes, whether governmental or “street level”. We have to remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt so that we could value the freedom that we have now, the freedom that particularly comes with having our own State, and having learned from millenia of persecution, having the strength to stand up for own identity and not having to dependent on other people to protect our rights – which as we have clearly seen time and time again, they will not always do. You would think, given the highly disturbing phenomenon of systematic violence against Jews in Europe, that the communities here would make this issue a highly visible and central point of discussion. You would think we would have guest speakers every weak, focus groups on lending support, organized rallies, and outraged editorials and open letters to the administration, world leaders, international organizations, and to anyone who would listen. Instead we have dead silence.
American Jewish organizations are far more interested in aligning with Islamist organizations with a long history of anti-Semitism, and defending the Syrian refugees than in sending a clear message of just how close we can come together when our own brethren, our family members are in need. We will have 10 speakers defending the nuclear deal, 100 Syrian refugees or people demanding the increased immigration of these refugees, before we will have even one French Jew telling the story of the two brothers who were recently tortured. The French community has produced some very powerful films about contemporary anti-Semitism, not the least of which were the two films about Ilan Halimi, a horrifying story of torture and butchery that were screened recently at the past Sephardic Film Festival by the American Sephardi Federation. That awful story was just a harbinger of equally terrible incidents to come. There was a brief spark of outrage when Obama had made his infamous statements about a random bunch of folks in a deli, after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris, during the course of which Jews have been targeted. One righteous Muslim received an award for saving lives, but the topic was largely closed, though the situation has not gotten any better.
It’s not being revisited. Though Jewish refugees from Europe, and I am using that word exactly the way it should be used, are abound, in Miami and in New York, they melt away in the general milieu. We do not see them, we don’t speak about them. We do not welcome them, we do not express horror and sympathy with their experiences. We close our eyes, preferring to focus on imaginary problems and fabricated outrages, rather than face the terrible pain and horror of contemporary reality that the Jews face in Europe, and which once before the American Jews preferred to turned away from until it became too late. Thank God, at least, now the European Jews are free to leave, but that they have to do it at all is in itself a tragedy.
I am flabbergasted and appalled by the lack of caring I see from the Jewish community in New York with regards to this issue. With the nuclear deal, at least, uncertainty and ambiguity, was a possible defense. Now, there is nothing uncertain or ambiguous about the fate of the Jews in Europe. It’s following a painfully familiar pattern. As we are approaching Pesach, I will bet you, that more of New York Jews will be concerned with Trump’s immigration EO and how it will affect several Muslim-majority countries, than what ways they can help European Jews facing traumatic life circumstances. Well, I would like to remind everyone, particularly those who are indeed looking to help but don”t know how, that we have a mitzvah of opening up our homes for sederim for Jews who have no means or place to celebrate the holiday. It’s always a good thing to welcome families with small children who cannot cook, or the elderly, or the poor, or Jews who have recently relocated, but this year I would like to particularly encourage everyone who knows of Jews who have recently moved due to the threat to their lives, to welcome them and to give them an opportunity to tell their stories – at the tables at Seder, at community celebrations, and in meetings with our community partners. Our friends from the non-Jewish world need to know the problems we are facing abroad. We should not be the only ones doing the outreach and solving all the problems. When these foreign government see that we are not the only ones fighting our lonely battle, that other people know of the persistent anti-SEmitism and are just as outrages, they will be more likely to give a damn. And if all we are doing is a one-sided “relationship” of perpetually standing up for everyone else with not a hand available for when we need our help, then such relationships our waste of our resources, which would be better invested in helping our own.
In conclusion, I would like to lead by example. If you know of anyone, particularly in the circumstances I have just described, who has no place to be for Shabbat, or for Sederim,please contact me. My contact is information is in the profile, and you can also find me on Facebook and LinkedIn. I want to meet you, I want to learn about your situations, I want to do whatever I can to help. We are a family, and families stand up for each other. Once again, Jews are facing mass persecution, and I am lucky to be safe, secure, and be in a mind to do whatever it takes to combat that scourge and to help the people in need.