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Tisha b’Av Defeats Antisemitism

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“Germany was so nice before the Nazis came.”  Apropos of nothing more than the pleasant day we were having, so said my European-ordained rabbi while I was walking with him to shul once.  At that time, in the tail end of the nineties, one could not imagine the sentiment would ever really apply here.

Without any doubt, that is the world we American Jews occupy.   And we have for some time now.  We now share the anxieties and preoccupations of our ancestors like never before.

I say this as a rabbi keen to remind the people I’ve served of that history.  Telling and cajoling and warning that if you think a swastika carved into a playground slide or “Billy loves Sally” spray-painted next to the synagogue’s dumpster are as bad as it could be, think again.

And why wouldn’t they think that was it?  Here in America, in living memory, in the nineties, eighties, sixties, thirties even, did we ever have multiple incidents of synagogue shootings, of violent attacks, of threats of bombings and burnings as we have recently?   Yet now we do.

Here on Long Island, we’ve had two shocking incidents of antisemitism unfold.  In broad daylight, someone drove around throwing hate-filled flyers from their car accusing the Jews of being behind COVID.  Just days later news of the arrest of a former Marine plotting to attack a (very) local synagogue reached us.

With the Fast of Tisha b’Av, on which we commemorate numerous catastrophic acts of death and destruction for Our People only days away, it has lessons to teach us for dealing with this world in which we find ourselves.

They might not be the lessons you’d think.  For at least regarding the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, neither the Babylonians nor the Romans were motivated by a hatred of Jews like we mean when we use antisemitism.  Both cultures had for the most part tolerated Jews and Judaism and largely continued to do so.  However, this is not my main point.  Flame away at me directly as you see fit if you disagree.

The Tisha b’Av lessons regarding antisemitism come from how the Jews acted, or failed to act, in the story.

We are told that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple because of how Jews treated each other.  A wealthy and prominent Jew hosted a party.  He invited many influential Jewish leaders including his friend, Kamsa.  However, his servants mistakenly invited Bar Kamsa, the hosts archenemy.  Arriving at the party, rather than taking the opportunity to mend fences, Bar Kamsa was rudely thrown out.  In retaliation, he reported to the Romans the Jews were planning to rebel.  To cement this claim, he brought an unfit animal from the Romans to be offered in the Temple.  While there were those Jews who felt it was for the greater good to accept the animal rather than risk Roman retribution, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkilus argues against this.  The rules of the Temple could not be broken for this purpose.  Similarly, when the Rabbis argue for dispatching Bar Kamsa to end his plotting, Rabbi Zechariah again disagrees arguing Bar Kamsa’s crimes, at least to that point, did not warrant death.  Tradition attributes to Rabbi Zechariah the destruction of the Temple.  Of course, the Romans do intervene as Bar Kamsa asked them to do, but with ruinous results.

Three lessons can be learned to help us today.  The first is the classic one.  Sinat chinam, senseless hatred between Jews, will weaken and destroy us.  Antisemites do not distinguish between types of Jews.  If there were ever a reason for all of us to act together as one, despite what might seem to us like huge differences, now is the time to put those aside.  All Jews should be welcomed at each other’s tables.

Secondly, while unwavering adherence to Jewish law and tradition must be the pillar on which the strength and continuity of the Jewish People rest, we cannot misinterpret how this should look as Rabbi Zechariah did.

Never would I have thought that an armed guard would be necessary at the synagogue door.  Never would I have expected to know so much about using the panic button we have on the bimah.  Never would I have imagined telling our Jewish ushers that they not just could but must carry their phones with them if they are on duty on Shabbat (because I’m sure nobody else in shul has one with them!).  And countless other measures we, like so many other synagogues, have taken.  Under normal circumstances, would we countenance such bending and breaking of halachah?  Certainly not, but the need to guard against real and true threats is also mandated on us and so such measures are the right course to follow.

Finally, and perhaps the hardest lesson, is that we must, in the end, rely on ourselves most of all.  America is not the Roman Empire.  And the authorities are not going to respond as they did to Bar Kamsa with violence to all the Jews.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lesson when it comes to how the secular world has its limits to helping us.

Where I live, we have the best of relations with local government and law enforcement.  Both are sensitive to and proactive when addressing the concerns of the Jewish community.  And for the handful of times when we’ve had, thankfully minor, incidents at our synagogue, the police have arrived within minutes of being called.

Minutes can matter though, as we’ve too often seen.  And for every time a patrol car hangs out in our parking lot or drives by our building, we are far from their only concern.  We’ve already been taught this lesson as well.  If we Jews want to safeguard our culture and our way of life, we must rely on ourselves to guarantee it.

Finally, there is one last observation I’d like to make.  We will be here to observe Tisha b’Av.  Despite all the hatred and violence perpetrated against Jews in the past and now, we are here.  Our loyalty to God, tradition and each other has seen it to be so.  Even as we mourn Saturday night and Sunday, and even as we dismay over the world in which we now find ourselves, let us gain hope and comfort from that fact above all.

About the Author
Aaron Benson is a Conservative rabbi on Long Island, serving at the North Shore Jewish Center. He is the current president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Suffolk County Police Department.
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