Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

The Badass People

(Image courtesy of author)

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the current state of antisemitism, the term “uptick” doesn’t quite reflect the facts on the ground. Last I heard, a thousand percent increase is more than an “uptick.” That’s what the ADL recorded as the daily average of violent messages mentioning Jews and Israel in white supremacist and right-wing extremist channels on the messaging platform Telegram in the days following the massacre in Israel. And the neo-Nazis have been the least of our concerns this past month. It’s the far left that has caused all the commotion.

As we explore this age-old question of why Jews are always singled out, let’s look at two quotes from famous 20th-century thinkers, one Jewish and one not.

Because it has been a minority Judaism has become a measuring test for the height to which morality has risen upon earth. What the Jewish community has experienced from the nations among which is lived, has always been the measure of the extent of right and justice among the nations. For all justice is justice for the few. When Israel can live securely among the nations, then the promised times have arrived, for then and thereby it will be proved that faith in God has become a living reality.

Leo Baeck, 1875-1956

Every race has its special virtues and vices and, consequently, it’s special road to reach its summit. The Jews have this supreme quality: to be restless; not to fit into the reality of the time; to struggle to escape; to consider every status quo and every idea he stifling prison. With the poignant quality of theirs they save mankind from his contrived efforts at contentment – that is to say, from his impasse…

Nikos Kazantzakis, Journeying: Travels in Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and Cyprus (1965)

According to Baeck, we Jews are the measuring stick by which we gage the degree of morality on earth. If people are playing nicely with the Jews, the sandbox is officially safe for children and other living things. Or to use another metaphor, we are that proverbial canary in the coal mine. If it’s safe for us, the world is safe for everyone. Thus sayeth Baeck, a Jew.

I think his approach is way too passive. We’re sitting around, waiting for them to decide whether they hate us or not. I don’t want to be the world’s barometer. I want to be that low-pressure system that ushers in the winds of change. The world isn’t going to just decide to accept us unless we change the equation. A Jewish state was supposed to do just that. It still could.

I tend to side with the approach of Kazantzakis, a gentile, who sees the Jew as the world’s nagging itch. We are their conscience, the eternal pain-in-the…neck. We’re never satisfied, with ourselves or others. If we are somehow able to clear a bar, we are compelled to keep setting it higher. We never accept things as they are. We are never a “go” for the status quo. We are the ultimate marginal people because we can never accept that cushy place in the middle of the Oreo cookie, blending in among the “vanilla masses.” We need to be outsiders. And all our nagging keeps everyone else on their toes

Until October 7, we had fooled ourselves into thinking that somehow we were outsiders no more, that we were at long last accepted. But now we find that we can’t even be insiders among the other outsiders. We are so marginal that those who consider themselves marginal have kicked us over to their margins. We’ve just been kicked out of the club of those who have been kicked out of every other club. If Groucho Marx would never belong to a club that would let him in, he can be delighted now, because he no longer has to choose – that club has now rejected him. Forget the back of the bus, we’ve been kicked to the back of the protest line. They scream, “Freedom for Gaza!” and we say, “Yeah! We agree! Freedom for Gaza – from Hamas!”

And they tear down our “kidnapped” posters because they can’t stand to have people who are more victimized than them, but we don’t want to be victims and we don’t want to be accused of not belonging in our ancestral home, because we aren’t frigging colonizers, just because some of us happen to be lucky enough to have been born Ashkenazi, from European stock where our grandparents were raped and pillaged by Cossacks rather than by Middle Easterners or American slaveowners. We just want our hostages back, some legitimate deterrence, and to live beneath our vine and fig tree in peace. Oh, and with a competent, honest Prime Minister, please.

So that’s at least partly why they hate us. At least on the far left. The radical right neo-Nazis hate us because they are immoral, hateful nihilists and we refuse to bow down to any human god, and that means their leader, the one they’ve decided to cede their own judgment to. It’s confusing and exhausting at times; but we Jews prefer to think for ourselves.

I’ve always been a Kazantzakis fan. I like it when non Jews tell us what’s so great about us.

Like this, from Mark Twain:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Ok, so if these brilliant dead people liked us so much, why are so many Jews running away from their shadows right now? Let’s be proud (if occasionally discreet with our yarmulkes). I’m so proud of our college students who are standing up for their people and for what they feel is right – even those who take stands I don’t agree with; they’re just pulling a Kazantzakis on their own family. And I’m so grateful to those public figures, media people and clergy who are standing with us at this impossible time.

So they hate us, because, among other things, we’re restless, relentless and right-thinking – because we answer to a Higher authority. Haman called us a “Certain People,” Moses, a “Stiff Necked People,” and God godself a “Treasured People.” We’re none of these.

We’re just a badass people with a conscience. That’s what we are.

Deal with it.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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