Last week, this newspaper published an article on anti-Semitic incidents in and around Eugene, Oregon. The substance of the article was disturbing, but the comments afterward were disheartening. They included the usual accusations about who is more responsible for the increasing incidents, the Radical Left or the Radical Right, as well as the smug putdowns from those harboring each political position. I’ve written about the Far Left/Far Right issue myself, and I’m aware that the comments section of any newspaper often is the province of the fringes. When the subject deals with real anti-Semitic incidents facing one of our communities, however, the Jewish center needs to hold.
We are all Eugene. Every one of us. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not.
There is an existential bond that connects us all. It’s the feeling you get from someone you’ve never met or seen before, from a certain type of humor or expression, from visiting a Jewish historical site or perhaps from seeing a Jewish artifact. It’s hard to describe to others, but inside it’s there and you can feel it.
That existential bond has a dark side, which we’ve seen manifest itself continually over 2,000 years. That dark side is the mindless hatred, threats and murderous violence inflicted upon us throughout the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. While we all share the metaphysical connection, we also share the fear. Regardless of whether we live in Eugene or Jerusalem, just below the surface of our existence there’s a fear that starts in our guts and corkscrews all the way up our spines. How we sense it and react to it, however, can be very different in large Jewish communities and small.
I’m fortunate to have experienced both. I started High School in a very Jewish section of New Jersey and ended it as one of four Jews in a class of 750 in a small town in Upstate New York. There is a richness to Jewish life in a small community that most American Jews cannot appreciate. There are times, however, when one feels very exposed. This impacts how you look at things and react to them. The “in your face” response that might work in Brooklyn may be counter-productive in a place like Eugene. Obviously, the residents there have a far better handle on local culture and attitudes than we do.
Judging only by my own experiences, I would assume that what the people of Eugene need most right now is our support and the knowledge that we care and are there for them. Beyond that, we should follow their lead. They know their community, we don’t. The Pacific Northwest long has been known as a place that harbors a disproportionate share of anti-Semitic crazies, but we must be careful not to blow anything out of proportion. The Times of Israel article itself referred to an “occasionally tense year in Eugene.” It didn’t suggest that the local community feels itself besieged or surrounded by anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic views.
Two months ago, I excoriated American Jewish Academia for its silence in the face of growing anti-Semitism on campus. Eugene is a college town. As with any other major American university, I’m sure the University of Oregon has its share of Jewish professors. This, however, is not a university matter and should not necessarily be handled the same way. It does not reflect a national push to isolate Jews and Israeli supporters, as does the BDS movement and the campaigns on campus against pro-Israeli and Jewish voices among professors and students. This situation is local and affects the entire Eugene Jewish community.
We don’t know whether or to what extent that community feels unsettled. We all need, however, to let the members of that community know that we support whatever response, if any, they choose to make.
The power of just knowing that we’re there is immense. Read the words of Natan Sharansky as he remembers his time as a “Refusenik” in the Soviet Union. Sharansky tells how much “the power of Jewish solidarity” meant to him. It sustained him during his long years in the Soviet Gulag. In an American context, listen to the stories of the terrified GI’s on D-Day as they traveled in overcrowded vessels called “Higgins Boats”, carrying 50 pound packs on their backs, puking their guts out in the rough seas, shaking uncontrollably as they knew they’d face German machine guns on the beaches at Normandy. What sustained them was the fact that they knew that back home they had the entire country watching them, counting on them and supporting them.
So too must each Jewish community everywhere in the world know that they are part of a larger whole. When the Hun comes – and it always comes – we’ll need everybody. The haters don’t make exceptions based on a Jew’s moral stance on the political spectrum or his/her commitment to Torah and the 613. They lump us all together. That being the case, we need to stand together. It doesn’t matter whether the battle is in Charlottesville, Eugene or Paris, the local community needs to know that this is “our” battle, not just “theirs”. That community must never be alone.
In the end we have each other. Hopefully, we always will remember that.