Last Sunday, July 11, a typical, sweltering summer day in Washington, D. C., I traveled into our nation’s capital to attend the “NO FEAR: Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People” against antisemitism. Why did I go?
Partly, I went for the same reason I imagine the few thousand others were there. We all recognized that while responding to anti-Semitism may be a daily and never-ending fight, the current level of anti-Semitism in our country demands for our safety, for our dignity, for our children’s futures, we come together and show our commitment to defending ourselves.
But as much as we had a shared purpose in attending, I am sure each of us had sub-strata of emotions that impelled the decisions. What drove me to go, despite the bold proclamation that the rally was informed by “NO FEAR,” was fear.
In July, 2019, I went to the Takoma Park Community Center in a suburb of Washington along with a few others to protest the municipality sanctioned showing of “The Occupation of the American Mind,” a distorted, virulent anti-Israel film that promoted well-worn anti-Semitic canards, that Israel and its Jewish supporters control our media, financial institutions, Congress, and the minds of Americans. Just a few months earlier, David Duke had praised Ilhan Omar for being “the most important member of the US Congress” for her defiance of “Z.O.G.” (Zionist Occupied Government).
Takoma Park may be described as a “Berkeley of the East.” Those supporting the film’s showing far outnumbered us. I remember watching the majority of attendees, including several Jews, being whipped into hate by anti-Semitic rhetoric, applauding the denigration of Israel and American Jews, and I was afraid.
In early January, 2020, I traveled to New York for a rally against violence being perpetrated on Jews, particularly the ultra-orthodox. In 2019, attacks on Jews had constituted 63% of religious-based hate crimes and were predicted to rise. While for a few hours I was in cocooned separation with 25,000 other Jews, I left fearful that antisemitism was rapidly proliferating. I remember thinking that if they come for the “black hats,” they will come for the rest of us.
And it has gotten worse with constant attacks, verbal and physical, on Jews throughout the country. While Sunday’s rally against antisemitism was critically important in taking a stand and sending a message to the infected miscreants, I know we will never be fully rid of their antisemitic malevolence. Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt is correct in likening antisemitism to a herpes virus that lies dormant but always reemerges. Nor will passing any legislation meaningfully ameliorate this millennia-old infection. But attending gave each of us a time and place to unpack the component elements of our fears and thus work towards a cohered voice of repudiation to keep anti-Semitism in check.
And I can accept a personal, self-protective state of always living with some degree of fearing anti-Semitism, but I would fear less if many more American Jewish reacted to the threats, and their voices joined in so that the strength of the response echoed more loudly. I think back to the struggle for Soviet Jewry, its daily fervor, constant protests at the Soviet embassy and consulates, Rabbis chained to fences and going to jail, all segments of American Jewry fighting against anti-Semitism thousands of miles away.
With fires of anti-Semitism burning in our back yard, how is it that this unity and intensity are lacking today? While the fervency of the July 11 attendees was spirit-raising, why, with the rally endorsed by a wide assortment of Jewish organizations, did only a few thousand respond to the call to fight? Every leader of a Jewish organization, from a small committee to a national organization, every clergy person whose community’s attendance did not at least constitute a minyan, and every individual who almost came, but … must resolve to do better next time. And there will be a next time.
I would fear less if Jewish Americans ceased choosing certain brands of anti-Semitism to be acceptable and others to be excoriated. As David Duke’s lauding of Ilhan Omar suggests, antisemites of all stripes find each other and form packs. We cannot be safe as a riven community. The assaultive hatred of anti-Semites does not stop at any political or ideological boundaries.
I would fear less if when we ally with other groups, we declare that regardless of any common interests, there cannot be an alliance if you exhibit any antisemitic or anti-Israel bashing drivel. If these terms are unacceptable, we will not share a tent, and we will continue working toward a better world without you.
I would fear less if our Jewish political leaders acted more resolutely when anti-Semitic canards and tropes are voiced in municipal buildings or the halls of Congress. Anti-Semitism mustn’t be relegated to a watered-down, nuisance status within an array of hate victim designees. If you won’t protect me, I cannot vote for you.
I would fear less if we more fully nourished a sense of Jewish distinction, peoplehood, and history in our young. Today, too many lack Jewish backbone and are ill-equipped to resist specious, universalist argumentation that veils antisemitism, and too often they embrace a Stockholm Syndrome of sympathy for their abusers.
I would fear less if more American Jews recognized that conditioning their support of Israel on selective Israeli policies or political party in power not only weakens Israel but also allows anti-Semites who view Israel as the all powerful “collective Jew” to use anti-Zionism as a subterfuge for their larger goals.
I would fear less if more American Jews rose up against the anti-Semitic stratagem of lading accusations of “privilege” onto Jewish Americans for the social and economic successes we have rightly achieved that benefit all Americans. Buying into this noxious notion makes us feel guilty, saps our strength, and distorts focus in fighting our enemies. I am proud of the American Jewish success story. As one speaker at the rally noted, “we cannot let antisemitism mask as social justice.”
Our fear of antisemitism must be positively employed as a constant reminder to stay vigilant and gather in opposition as we did Sunday. Let’s remember that the Jews who preceded us suffered immeasurably from antisemitism, yet as communities moved forward despite their relentless fear to overcome so that they could dispense light to the world and we could be here.