Stemming the Tide – Confronting Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century

I’m having a difficulty formulating a cohesive thought process as my thinking changes on an hourly basis. As I don’t have any brilliant epiphanies, this article may offer ideas that can be deemed contradictory. Inasmuch as I’m horrified by recent events targeting the Jewish community I would rather not posit morose or doomsday scenarios depicting the demise of the American Jewish community. On the contrary, and in spite of what transpired, the State of Israel and the American Jewish community has the support of the majority of American people. I can’t recall a time in our collective history when Jews were as free to outwardly profess their religion as they are today. Relative to a perfect world, our situation is far from perfect. However, relative to an imperfect world, our situation is far better than our ancestors.

One one hand it seems like a redundant theme; every few months we decry another incident against Jews and the Jewish community. Of course we are all grief stricken by the murder of innocent victims and express our condolences and sympathy to their families and community. We pray for those injured in the latest attack in Monsey and beseech the Almighty to grant them a speedy recovery from their physical and emotional injuries. Furthermore, an uptick in violence against Jews in the New York and New Jersey area has brought the matter of anti-Jewish sentiment a little closer to home.  Understandably, people are angry and politicians will announce new measures, but what if anything can be done to reverse the trend.

To many it’s uncomfortable to feel pessimistic, yet dismissing reality and living with a false sense of security is a far less attractive alternative. King Solomon wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and indeed there are those who opine that nothing has significantly changed in the history of the Jews. This vile hatred has always existed and it’s only our proximity to the violence that has our communities more on edge. The ‘goldiner medina’ was the way refugees who suffered from Europe’s blatant anti-semitism referred to the United States. It was the one country where Jews imagined they were safe and secure. It was the one country in which religious Jews weren’t afraid to dress in traditional garb or look and act as they did in the shtetl back home. Yet now they question if that belief was fictitious? Was it only an illusion?

For years, smatterings of anti-Jewish sentiment were quickly dismissed as irrelevant and part of the loony fringe but now they have begun to think differently. They believed the KKK was an extinct part of a shameful past and our country was now bonding together to counter extremism and protect minorities, but that too is being reevaluated. The recurring excuse for resentment against the Jew for killing Jesus was replaced with ecumenical encouragement, mutual understanding, and forgiveness. The pope himself refuted such hateful allegations and reflected on the synthesis the church should have with their Jewish brethren. Collectively they sighed a breath of relief and believed that the problems of yesteryear were behind us. But now they have begun to question if it was all a mirage and nothing at all has really changed.

What happened? How is it possible that in 2020 the Jews in America are facing the same dilemma that the Jews in Europe faced a hundred years ago? And if Bernie Sanders can be a front runner as the Democratic nominee why aren’t the Jews feeling as accepted and equal as they were a few years ago? Although there is a growing pronouncement that this hatred will no longer be tolerated or accepted, it still exists. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders stand together against hate but Jews are still being murdered. People of all ethnicities and political views express solidarity and mutual love, but why has little changed. Tomorrow or the day after another catastrophic event will engender more sympathy and ecumenical hand holding but sadly the Jew is still scapegoated. It is as if we’re on a holding pattern with fuel running dangerously low and depending on fumes to land safely.

I offer no apologies for those who express these views because in one chamber of my heart I believe they are correct. Yet, I also can imagine a scenario where optimism reigns and a solution can be found. Instead of focusing on four millennium of religious intolerance I would study a country that faces this type of hostility on a daily basis. Israelis understand that anti-Israel sentiment was a foundation of their existence. It’s an existential threat that weighs heavily on every prime minister and Israeli politician. They know better than anyone else, that the greatest of allies can turn into the greatest of foes and lifelong friends can become the evil nemesis of tomorrow. Today the United States is their greatest supporter but who knows what tomorrow might bring. The reverberations of political upheavals are an ever constant fear among those who have to protect the existence of the State of Israel and the security and safety of its citizens.

However, Israelis realized long ago what the Jews in America are unwilling to accept. They understood that every day requires innovative thinking to ensure that they survive today. There is never a guarantee of what tomorrow may bring but there is an acknowledgment that tomorrow’s existence is totally dependent on existing today. Every day is a new battle and every fight has the chance of being the last. Failure is not an option. Therefore, the Israelis are never complacent and never let down their guard. They are always prepared for the next inevitable eventuality. Yet, they also embrace a philosophy of outreach to their enemies. It is an outreach that is not dependent on sympathy or compassion but is reliant on proving that it’s more beneficial to be friends than enemies. They may be unsuccessful on university campuses but they are making tremendous strides in the international arena. Israel has decided to confront reality instead of hiding from it. Their solicitation to the Arab world is directed against the Arab world’s fear of the Iranian regime and economic benefits that will benefit both sides. Their solicitation to the African continent is directed against famine and protection against insurgents and terrorist organizations. And their solicitation to the western world is directed towards a goal of eradicating terror cells and Israel’s knowledge of cyber security. And it’s leadership in areas of biotech, medicinal breakthroughs and development of the high tech industry has further allowed Israel to help stem its pariah status. Israel is changing the rules of the game. It is empowered by a newly conceived victor mentality and has ceased relying on playing the victim. What will happen tomorrow is anyone’s guess. But it won’t be from an apathy and a lack of trying.

Perhaps the Jew in America can confront Anti-Semitism by using an approach similar to Israel. For thousands of years diaspora Jews were victims of oppression and denigration by hostile regimes. We survived but never thrived. The great sage Hillel wrote two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” What he expresses to the 21st century Jew is an understanding that success and failure is dependent on us. I must be my strongest advocate; I must decide once and for all, that I am no longer a victim. My strength or weakness is not determined by others, it is I who has control of my destiny. That being said, Hillel continues “if we are only for ourselves, who are we”?

In reality, I’m more optimistic today despite the tragedies that occurred over Chanukah. Although we have not yet succeeded in eradicating anti Jewish sentiment, positive inroads have been made. Jews no longer cower in fear worrying about anti Jewish legislation and negative propaganda. On the contrary, may of enemies are coming to our defense. They are finally realizing they have more to lose than we do. Even Al Sharpton has had an about face and recently met with Rabbi Marc Schneier to apologize on behalf of the African American community. Is there more that’s needed, absolutely. There is never a justification for any hatred or animus based solely on race or religion. But small significant steps are far better than no steps at all.

Who knows if Hillel’s dictum can offer a meaningful way to hasten the forward trajectory? As few solutions have been effective over the past four millennium, it’s worth to begin thinking outside of the box. Hillel concludes his premise with the realization that human beings are reticent to change and frightened of the ramifications. So he added an addendum “And if not now, when?”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel

About the Author
Rabbi Jack and his wife, Miriam have reinvigorated Anshei Emuna, a Modern Orthodox Synagogue located in Delray Beach, Florida, in the ten plus years they have been at the Shul, through their experiences gleaned from serving in pulpits in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They are advocates of a modern Orthodoxy, being open minded, yet adhering to the integrity of halacha. They believe that being an “ohr lagoyim” refers first and foremost to the entirety of our collective Jewish family.
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