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Steve Freedman

If I Am Not For Myself: In Defense of Ourselves

One of the most famous quotes of Beit Hillel is, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It perfectly encapsulates the balance between self-advocacy and helping others. In view of world events it seems clear that our Jewish community needs to reflect on our role in the advocacy of the many worthy causes facing our world, especially as it concerns the defense of Jewish rights and the State of Israel amidst the deafening noise of anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric.

We Jews have historically been really good at the “if I am only for myself” part of Hillel’s quote, serving as a beacon of resilience and empathy as Jewish individuals and communities rally for the marginalized, from championing civil rights in the United States and standing with the oppressed Rohingya in Myanmar. We Jews have been a strong voice in supporting the LGBTQ community and causes such as climate change and other environmental issues. While we have passionately supported others, it increasingly feels that it has been at the expense of our own interests. Have our Jewish communities been as fervently supportive and defensive of Israel and its right to exist in peace? Are we loud enough in our fight against the significant rise of antisemitism globally, and right here in the United States?

Incidents such as attacks on synagogues, discriminatory rhetoric, and hateful propaganda are becoming more frequent and our neighbors seem to shrug. And while there is some sympathy for Israel in the early days of this war, we already know how this will play out. As the war continues the mood will shift and Israel will once again face disproportionate criticism on the global stage. While every nation should be open to criticism, and I am one to say that some of Israel’s policies may be criticized, the excessive and often baseless vilification of Israel confirms the underlying biases against Israel.

It is time for the many Jews who try, with great contortion, to separate antisemitism from Anti-Israel sentiment to give it up. It is simply false to argue one can be anti-Israel and not be antisemitic. It is time for all of us to open our eyes and ears. The events of the last few days proves the point once again. After Hamas attacked Israel, antisemitic, not anti Israel rhetoric, jumped 400% on social media. World-wide, people are chanting “death to Jews” not “death to Israelis.” In our country the threat to Jews and Jewish institutions have gone up since the war began. Israel just serves as another excuse for antisemitism – which is the real, historically relentless hatred we have faced for centuries.

Our right to self-determination in our historic homeland is a cornerstone of Zionism. Denying this right, especially when it’s granted to other nations, is just another fuse to ignite antisemitism. The frequent conflation of legitimate policy disagreements with challenges to Israel’s very right to exist is the consistent drumbeat of our detractors.

For the  Jewish community, these challenges need to bring Hillel’s words into sharp focus. Embracing our rich Jewish heritage and identity while defending Israel’s right to exist doesn’t imply uncritical support for every Israeli policy. However, recognizing and challenging biases against Israel and Jews worldwide is imperative. Just as it’s possible to love one’s country while striving for its improvement, Jews can be staunchly Zionist while advocating for change.

It is time to wake up and recognize that Jew hating is here to stay, no matter where we live, no matter the rights we win. America is really no different and it is time to stop fooling ourselves even with all of our privileges.

So what do we do? We reclaim our identities as Jews and reclaim our pride as Jews first by living our values outwardly, embracing our traditions – whether we are observant or not – and strengthening our Jewish communities by being there for each other in celebrations and in times of need. We must insist on participation in and supporting the Jewish community not out of fear but out of love and commitment to our way of life. We must deeply commit to educating our children so they grow to be knowledgeable, engaged Jews.

At our school we stand proud and committed to our mission that our students will “embrace Jewish values and practices and strive with confidence and compassion to better the world.” We are unapologetic that we want our children to first live Jewish lives, to see their world through Jewish lenses. We are Jews not because of hatred against us – we are Jews because we are proud of our people, proud of our story, proud of our history and proud of our values that place life at the highest, sacred level.

We can do all of this without isolating ourselves. There is a rightful place to live and  participate in the larger American community while also strengthening our own community. Hillel’s wisdom serves as a timely reminder for us. While we’ve admirably championed the rights of others, it’s crucial we assertively stand up against the biases and blatant hatred targeting us. Whether it’s confronting global antisemitism or defending Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, our advocacy must be balanced, and informed by the dual commitment to self and the broader world. “If not now, when?”
About the Author
Steve is Head of School at a Jewish day school and has served as a Head of School for over 21 years. He also served as a Congregational Education Director. Steve has taught and mentored new educational leaders, has led sessions on leadership and change at Jewish Educational Conferences, and at Independent School Conferences.
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