As Jews around the world were observing the Sabbath, the Jewish community in America was reeling form the news of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania that left eleven dead. The period of mourning had barely begun before social media was filled with the various takes on the heinous act, including declarations of sympathy from both friends and foes, and an unfortunately high number of politicized accusations. The ability of the Jewish community in particular to be divisive even under such tragic circumstances should surprise no one, but how is it that we seem to have selective amnesia in failing to acknowledge that anti-semitism is as old as the Jewish people, and it is not going anywhere?
Last week I was supervising my local chapter of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, listening to high school students share their personal stories dealing with anti-semitism. Whether it was anti-semitic jokes or having jars of pennies dumped on their heads, it was clear that our youth are no strangers to the hate of the Jewish people, and that these experiences were leaving them scarred. Each handled these insults to the best of their ability, but their preferred method was to ignore the taunts and hope that answering with a meek smile and silence would lessen the likelihood and severity of these attacks. Regardless of their inner turmoil, their outward responses displayed a shame that is hard for them to overcome. With only a cursory understanding of our history, they often lack the pride associated with being a Jew and what our people have endured.
Last week I also watched the newest class of the Legion Self-Defense program location at Traditional Krav Maga in Great Neck, New York train with a passion that is hard to match. Those who train in self-defense do so not only for themselves, but to be able to better protect their families, their friends, and their communities. There is an understanding, whether spoken or unspoken, that the world is not getting any safer, and the only person you can rely on is yourself. At Legion, we acknowledge the history of the Jewish people and incorporate it into teaching members why it is important to be prepared for any situation.
It is necessary to believe in the good of mankind, but it is important to make sure that this belief does not replace our understanding of reality – anti-semitism is not going anywhere. As Golda Meir once said, “You can have all the dreams you like, but when you’re dreaming you’re not awake. And when you wake up you realize your dream has very little in common with reality.”
Anti-semitism has existed for 3,000 years and taken many forms, yet for some reason, the communities in the Diaspora have very little to show for all of this experience. For the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, countless pogroms crafted their mindset, culminating with the atrocities in Kishinev and Babi Yar. For many Jews including Theodor Herzl, the Dreyfus Affair was the needed wakeup call. Even in Israel, many Jews were not sufficiently moved by the cries of anti-semitism until the riots of 1920. For some, the Pittsburgh massacre may be that needed wakeup call. The victims of 3,000 years of anti-semitism are screaming for us to take note and create the proper deterrence.
It is important to understand that America and its leadership (and any other country’s leadership for that matter) are not to blame for the existence of Jew hatred. Anti-semitism will follow the Jew for as long as he exists and our response to this hate needs to be made in full understanding of this reality. Ultimately, governments can only have minimal effect in curbing the emotions that exist in a given society. In the words of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “Governments May prevent or punish hooliganism: they cannot change the ‘climate’ of the social structure.” He described anti-semitism as “something like a bad chronic cold in the head, not a serious disease in itself but a constant invitation to all other kinds of disease.” In his view of the “anti-semitism of things”, anti-semitism could lay dormant in man for years or generations, but the natural, inescapable competition of humans would always ensure that this Jew-hatred would resurface. In blaming countries or politics for the existence of anti-semitism, people take the easy way out rather than acknowledging that the true issue is “infinitely deeper than policies or ideologies or propagandas”.
This idea that anti-semitism cannot be eradicated and can only at best be slightly minimized forms the foundation of the Zionist movement. yet this is somehow frequently forgotten. Zionism, the movement that inspired the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, preached that as long as anti-semitism existed, Israel would be a safe haven for all Jews. As a majority, Jews would no longer be dependent upon the good-will of the world. Safety through strength was the only way to ensure Jewish existence.
On the other hand, in America, the Jews are reliant on the government and the social climate of the masses. It is often asserted that safety is guaranteed through good-will. This idea is naive, but essential to life in the Diaspora. It is why we fight so hard to support the country and the fight for democracy. Yet we can’t be blind to the “anti-semitism of things”. A single look at the Jewish communities around America would show the negative effects of anti-semitism on our youth and how they translate into a weaker Diaspora, ashamed of a history that they ironically know so little about.
As long as we choose to live outside of our homeland, we must take the proper steps to keep our communities as safe as possible. Don’t stand by and wait for your neighbor to protect you, either physically or verbally. The Righteous Among the Nations are recognized specifically because they went against the norm. Do not rely on others for protection. We are each responsible for building ourselves into people who can articulate our case, point out lies where they are shouted at us, and physically defend ourselves if need be. We must understand the difference between the violence of love – violence in defense of our loved ones – and the violence of hate – violence aimed at harming others. The Jewish community must be comfortable with self-defense or find itself at the mercy of individuals.
Vigils are beneficial in that they help us to cope emotionally, but they are not practical steps for moving forward and preventing future tragedy. You cannot control the opinions and actions of the world, but you can work to improve yourself and your own capabilities. Too often we are quick to defend others, but we are silent in articulating our own case. As Hillel began his famous saying, “if I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” With 3,000 years of Jewish history to draw from, it would be detrimental for us to continue with this selective amnesia.