Shver tsu zayn a Yid!
Last Spring, walking in Jerusalem, I passed a man wearing a t-shirt quoting the old Yiddish maxim: “It’s hard to be a Jew.”
Even in Israel
Shver tsu zayn a Yid is how I felt that afternoon. Only a few hours earlier at the Knesset I had met Simcha Rothman, a principal architect of the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reform that jeopardizes a cornerstone of democracy – judicial independence. The reform is a means to an end. If enacted, other coalition proposals would be difficult to defeat, including bills discriminating against Arab Israelis, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and women, increasingly segregated in public settings; as well as bills to re-legislate the Law of Return to halachic standards, and to annex portions of the West Bank, effectively killing the Palestinian people’s own national aspirations – aspirations already withered by decades of Israeli occupation and a corrupt Palestinian leadership that traffics in antisemitic canards and pays terrorists to slay Israeli civilians.
For thirty-seven consecutive weeks, Israelis of every political, social and ethnic stripe have assembled to protest against this government; hundreds of thousands wrapping themselves in the blue and white of the state they cherish. Ein li eretz acheret, “I have no other country,” they sing. “I will not stay silent….” Poet Ehud Manor composed that cri de coeur during the first Lebanon War, in which many of these protestors fought. Others served in ’48 and ’67. Still others during Yom Kippur fifty years ago. But most, too young to remember those existential battles against enemies without, fight now to save Israel from the threat within.
Every Saturday night they convene from every sector of society bringing an array of concerns. Some bristle at state support of ultra-Orthodox who evade military service but depend on welfare. Others are infuriated by alleged corruption within the coalition and its apparent machinations to avoid prosecution of the Prime Minister. Many agree that some judicial reform is necessary, but are dismayed that the coalition, with its narrow majority in the Knesset and widespread unpopularity in the polls, would plow ahead without national consensus. Some worry about the future of their celebrated “Start-up Nation” as entrepreneurs and academics contemplate exodus to more open societies. Others sense a weakening solidarity within the Israel Defense Forces whose unity remains essential given the enemies surrounding them and their patron Iran. Many fear the influence of provocateurs like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir without an independent court to monitor the balance between security and human rights. All fear the leadership crisis that could follow the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Basic Law disallowing “reasonableness” as a judicial standard. And all know the aspirations of this coalition have further eroded not just American Jewish allegiance, but support in Washington where debates about withholding aid now occur regularly. That is why they call on American Jews to speak out and join the protests.
And that is why, together with a group of New York rabbis, I had gone to Jerusalem – to share with Knesset Member Rothman our grave concerns over the direction his government is charting.
When my turn came to speak, I asked him how he intended to protect the rights of those who don’t align with his politics, Israelis who are not Haredi or from the Religious Zionist camp. He responded dismissively: “If you Reformim want to secure your rights, more of you should move to Israel.” Stunningly unaware he was addressing a delegation of Conservative and Orthodox rabbis too, this Chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee made painfully clear that his view of law and justice was purely majoritarian. Minority rights be damned.
It was a shattering encounter. One that revealed this coalition cares nothing for me, my Judaism, or my Jewish community. Don’t they know my congregation’s tireless efforts to strengthen American Jewry’s commitment to Israel? Don’t they know we lovingly display Israel’s flag on our bima? And here my colleagues and I had travelled across an ocean only to get stiff-armed! Oy. Even in Israel, shver tsu zayn a Yid, sometimes it’s hard to be a Jew!
If American Jews perceive Israel’s leaders as abandoning the Diaspora, more and more American Jews will abandon Israel.
A recent American Jewish Committee survey revealed that barely half of American Jewish millennials consider Israel important to their Jewishness, with more than a quarter acknowledging reevaluating their commitment to Israel in response to the anti-Israel climate on college campuses and in other settings where some of Israel’s detractors conflate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with other liberation struggles and implicate Israel’s supporters in every societal injustice.
Beyond the quad, inside the lecture halls too, intellectual dishonesty and political motivations often color the interpretation and teaching of history. In July the American Anthropological Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, just one of numerous bodies seeking to isolate the Israeli academy from its American and European counterparts. Professor Richard Shweder, cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago and vocal opponent of the effort, writes: “The pro-boycott activists” insist “that Israel is a neo-colonial apartheid regime…its academic institutions complicit in the activities of the State…[and] they view anthropology as a platform for political engagement and postcolonial social critique.”
Students encounter this unscrupulous politicization of the classroom at the most elite educational institutions. Princeton University came under fire last February when its English Department cosponsored an address by Mohammed El-Kurd, whose writings compare Israelis to Nazis and evoke the medieval blood libel claiming Israel feeds the organs of Palestinian martyrs to IDF soldiers. This fall another controversy: the reading list of one Near Eastern Studies seminar features Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim, which vilely accuses the Israel Defense Forces of intentionally maiming Palestinians to debilitate and control them.
Once the reading list was published, the response was swift. Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli wrote Princeton condemning the book’s inclusion, demanding its removal. And World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called on Princeton to fire the instructor. But those steps would surely backfire with accusations of suppressing the freedoms of speech and academic inquiry.
The best way to combat bad thinking is with better thinking, or as Bret Stephens characterizes it, “critical thinking.” “The rise of antisemitism in twenty-first-century America has many causes,” he writes, “not the least of them is that too many Americans are emerging from high schools and colleges without having learned to weigh the credibility of evidence…and to spot nonsense when they see it.”
Ironically, Princeton’s own English Department articulated the solution. After the 2020 police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black Americans, the department published a “Statement on Anti-Racism” promising: “We strive for active anti-racism in our classrooms and our scholarship…and…to investigate racist beliefs and practices with rigor….”
As Americans and as Jews we insist on that; we are committed to fighting racism. And as Americans and as Jews we also insist the same scrutiny be applied to antisemitic beliefs, including the anti-Zionism that is a flimsy cover for antisemitism.
With all its flaws and imperfections, Israel remains the cradle of our faith; home to more Jews than any other nation on earth; and the last safe refuge against the world’s most enduring hate. If we don’t defend Israel against rhetorical attack, who will?
Shver tsu zayn a Yid. Sometimes it is hard to be a Jew.
Not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, of course, or even anti-Zionist. I hope my own makes that clear.
But when censure involves demonization, like these accusations of a twenty-first century blood libel; when it delegitimizes the nation’s right to exist as the state of the Jewish people branding it a purely colonial enterprise and not an historic homeland; when it applies double standards overlooking the same faults in other nations it underscores in Israel and turns a blind eye to countries notorious for their human rights abuses, then anti-Zionism crosses into antisemitism. The American Anthropological Association has no academic boycott against Russia.
One of the immediate concerns voiced at Princeton was for the well-being of Jewish and Israeli students on campus. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Director of the University’s Center for Jewish Life, noted: “We all have an ethical obligation when we present information…to do it in a way that…consider[s] the potential hurt, pain, and even harm” it might cause. We have seen how a hateful obsession with Israel too often descends into hatred of Jews: antisemitic violence spikes when the Palestinian-Israeli conflict flares, and Israel is portrayed as the aggressor.
From the anti-Zionist left, and certainly from the nativist right, the last decade witnessed a sharp rise in antisemitic attacks in America. The Anti-Defamation League – itself the target of outrageous libel on X, formerly Twitter – reports that antisemitic incidents in 2022 increased thirty-six percent year over year. Our Orthodox brethren, identifiable by their attire, are regular victims of physical assault. In recent weeks alone, several New York City synagogues were vandalized. And this past summer Jewish institutions across the country were “swatted” with prank calls threatening imminent violence, the perpetrators watching gleefully on livestream as police SWAT teams arrived, disrupted worship services, and congregations evacuated in terror.
Recently I stood with Manhattan’s borough president, city council members and other rabbis outside another congregation where days earlier a vandal had scrawled graffiti on a display screen. We gathered not only in solidarity with our sister synagogue, but also to advocate for tightening the legal statute the borough president’s office explains excludes graffiti and false reporting like “swatting” from prosecution as hate crimes.
We have to work to keep ourselves safe. And we have to spend.
Circumstances have compelled every temple with the means to direct more resources to security than any of us would have contemplated just a few years ago. We pay a Jewish tax on a national crisis. Thankfully the Federal Emergency Management Agency does assist through Nonprofit Security Grants. And the White House further acknowledged America’s responsibility last May with a new National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism that seeks to increase FEMA funding…which the Senate Appropriations Committee instead proposes to cut!
Last spring teens from a local high school called me wanting to know how my synagogue has responded to the heightened risk. So I invited them over to see for themselves the granite blocks that surround our building and the magnetometers in our lobbies, protocols in place since the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue five years ago. I wanted them to understand: this is part of American Jewish life today, and sometimes it is hard to be a Jew.
No Monopoly on Tsuris
Shver Tsu Zayn a Yid was the title Sholem Aleichem chose for a play premiering on Second Avenue in 1920, performed by the Yiddish Art Theatre. The poignant comedy tells of two young men in Czarist Russia: one Jewish, one not. After the Jew complains about the hardships of being Jewish, the two decide to exchange identities for a year. The non-Jew’s eyes are quickly opened to the realities of Jewish life: difficulties acquiring a residency permit, quotas at the university, pogroms, accusations of blood libel. In the end he understands: it is hard to be a Jew.
But we Jews have no monopoly on tsuris nor should we pretend to. In America today, it’s hard to be Black or Brown or Asian; it’s hard to be gay or trans; it’s hard to be old; it’s hard to be a woman; it’s hard to be disabled. For many, these identities intersect.
And while antisemitism must be recognized as a distinct phenomenon just as other hatreds must, certainly many hatreds do intersect with hatred of Jews. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s online posts targeted refugees, too. The Poway synagogue shooter’s manifesto demonized Muslims. Last month a gun decorated with a swastika murdered three Black residents of Jacksonville. When it comes to white supremacists, all minorities lie in their crosshairs.
How do we counter such hate?
Writer Bari Weiss tells us: “The long arc of Jewish history makes…clear that the only way…is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values.” Despite all our own myriad concerns, we cannot allow the synagogue to become a fortress in which to hide as we tend to them alone. The prophet Isaiah admonishes us: “It is too small a task for you to be My servant merely to preserve the tribes of Jacob….I will make you a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
So how do we answer hate? We answer by heeding Isaiah’s call. By aiding the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Morocco, and the flooding in Libya. By defending women’s reproductive freedom and the humanity of asylum seekers. By feeding the hungry and visiting the lonely. By speaking out against threats to the environment and to democracy, yes in Israel but also in America…at this moment especially.
The most potent response to those who would do us harm, here or there, will always be a full-hearted embrace of Jewish activism, Jewish worship, Jewish learning, Jewish celebration, Jewish culture and Jewish pride.
“I am a Jew”
Edmond Fleg, contemporary and translator of Sholem Aleichem, was a French Jewish playwright, essayist and poet who had drifted away from Judaism until the Dreyfus Affair demonstrated that assimilation offered no protection against antisemitism. Moved by the Zionist cause, Fleg embraced Jewish life once again. Perhaps his most stirring essay was a letter to his unborn grandson illuminating his decision:
I am a Jew because, born of Israel and having lost her, I have felt her live again in me, more living than myself.
I am a Jew because, born of Israel and having regained her, I wish her to live after me, more living than in myself.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; [we] are completing it.
I am a Jew.
Shver tsu zayn a Yid. It’s hard to be a Jew.
And I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.
 “Judicial Independence: A Cornerstone of Democracy which Must be Defended,” American College of Trial Lawyers, September 2006.
 Noa Shpigel, “Judicial Coup or Not, Netanyahu’s Team Pushes Bills to Batter Palestinians and Arab Israelis,” Haaretz, August 2, 2023.
 Ron Kampeas, “Could the New Government Endanger Israel’s Status as an LGBTQ Haven?” The Times of Israel, January 18, 2023.
 Susie Linfield, “Israel’s Democracy Movement Has Something Important to Teach Us,” The Atlantic, August 14, 2023.
 Ariella Mardsen, “Israeli Women Discriminated Against on Buses Three Times in One Day,” The Jerusalem Post, August 14, 2023.
 Katya Kupchik, “Israeli Law of Return Revision is Another Step to Halachic State,” The Jerusalem Post, February 8, 2023.
 Noa Shpigel, “Judicial Coup or Not, Netanyahu’s Team Pushes Bills to Batter Palestinians and Arab Israelis,” Haaretz, August 2, 2023.
 Doron Krakow, President and CEO, JCC’s of North America, July 16, 2021.
 Yonette Joseph and Patrick Kingsley, “Netanyahu Will Return with Corruption Charges Unresolved. Here’s Where the Case Stands,” The New York Times, June 26, 2023.
 Keren Setton, “Despite Turbulence, Israeli Government Likely to Remain Intact,” The Jerusalem Post, August 28, 2023.
 Yossi Klein Halevi, “The Wounded Jewish Psyche and the Divided Israeli Soul,” The Times of Israel, July 28, 2023.
 Richard A. Shweder, “Targeting the Israeli Academy: Will Anthropologists Have the Courage to Just Say ‘No’?” Huffington Post, March 25, 2017.
 “Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Combatting Antisemitism.”
 Bret Stephens, “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wound,” The New York Times, July 25, 2023.
 Julie Bonette, “Book Assigned for Princeton Course Criticized as Antisemitic,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, August 18, 2023.
 Bradley Martin, “Proposed Slashes to US Security-Grant Program Cause Concern Across Aisle,” Jewish Link, August 3, 2023.
 Bari Weiss, “To Fight Anti-Semitism, Be a Proud Jew,” The New York Times, September 6, 2019.
 Isaiah 49:6.
 Edmond Fleg, “Why I Am a Jew,” 1927.