Eyal Bitton
Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Origins: A Judean Identity

Judean Desert (photo courtesy of Michael Holz, Pixabay)
Judean Desert (courtesy Michael Holz)

I believe that what we are seeing today, the wave of antisemitism around the world and in the United States represents the most serious crisis in the Jewish community in my lifetime. 

I believe that what we are seeing today is a challenge to Jewish identity, one that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. When people lash out at Jews in North America for their hatred toward Israel, you understand that, to these people, there is no difference between Israeli and Jew. 

The ground is shifting beneath us. Jews are being targeted by a surge of antisemitic hate crimes: vandalism, harassment, threats, assaults, and even beatings. Often, we don’t feel that enough is being done to condemn these acts. 

The ground is shifting. Jews do not feel supported. I hear stories about Jews – adults and children – being discriminated against and targeted in one way or another by friends, strangers, in the workplace, at school. I’m talking about London. I’m talking about Montreal. I’m talking about Toronto. I’m talking about New York City. I’m talking about Chicago, Tucson, Boca Raton, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland. 

The ground is shifting. The hashtag “HitlerWasRight” trended on Twitter – and didn’t seem to violate their “community standards”. 

People are losing friends. Our children, online and in person, are being marginalized, bullied, blamed and they’re being dismissed when they voice concern – sometimes by their peers and sometimes by school administrators. And on and on.

The Torah always names people by their lineage: Shammua son of Zakur from the tribe of Reuben; Calev son of Yefunneh from the tribe of Judah. Their origin is noted. Their origin matters. Where they came from, who they came from, is part of their identity. 

I want to tell you about my identity. I want to tell you about my origins. When I say that I am a Jew, this is what I mean:

I am part of a people. My people were enslaved and our homeland was taken from us. My story is in the history books. My story, which lay buried under the earth for centuries and for millennia, has been uncovered. The Roman encampments at Masada are still visible to the naked eye. 

My people are the people of Judah. My people were conquered by the Romans and became known as Judeans. My people were persecuted and became an oppressed and dispersed nation in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere for 2000 years. 

Facing marginalization, massacres, pogroms, and even the Spanish Inquisition, our 2000-year history of life in Europe ended in genocide and in massive ethnic cleansing from the entire Arab world – all within the last 80 years. 

My people, in the greatest story of decolonization ever seen, overcame a colonial power, the British Empire, to re-establish a state in its ancestral home. That is my people’s story. That is who I am. 

So when I hear calls for the complete destruction of the Jewish homeland, I say, “No.” That is my ancestral homeland.

When I see vile thugs approach diners in a restaurant in New York, looking for Jews, that’s me they’re looking for.

When those thugs call them names and spit on them, that’s me they’re spitting on. 

When a mother holding her child is told to her face that Hitler should have finished the job, I know that that mother is me.

When hate mongers drive down the streets of London shouting, “F#$$ the Jews, rape their daughters,” that’s me and my family they’re threatening to violate.

When Jewish people everywhere around the world and in Israel are attacked, I’m attacked.

To my people, I say SHMA YISRAEL: Listen. We are not alone. We have each other. We have friends. It may not always feel like it but we have leaders outside the Jewish community, in governments, who stand firmly against antisemitism. We have Israel. We have a Jewish homeland. We have friends and allies around the world and even in the Arab world who stand with Israel. Israel is not going anywhere. 

We also have a voice. 

We have a voice to speak our narrative. We have a voice to speak out against antisemitism. We have a voice to say that Jews have a right to a homeland. We have a voice to say that calling for the rights of another people to have a homeland side by side with Israel does not make it acceptable to call for Israel’s destruction. 

We have a voice. As Jews are feeling threatened the world over, we must not silence our voice. We must voice our outrage when we are being victimized by Jew-hatred. We must voice our appreciation to those who stand shoulder to shoulder with us. We must voice to the members of our community and to our children that we are proud to be not just a faith but a people. In doing so, we empower them and ourselves. 

It is time to claim our origin. We are the people of Judea, the people of Israel.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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