Given the gravity of the cause, the turnout wasn’t particularly impressive. Only some 2,000 people showed up for the “No fear” rally decrying antisemitism held in Washington, DC last week. As 90% of American Jews are either very concerned (54%) or somewhat concerned (36%) about the phenomenon according to a survey conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute published a few days ago, one can only wonder why the demonstration didn’t bring out more people. But it’s not those who stayed away because of the heat or out of skepticism regarding the efficacy of such a gathering that interests me. Far more intriguing – and worrisome – is the fact that some didn’t show up for ideological reasons.
The issue that caused a number of progressive Jewish organizations to refrain from endorsing the event has more to do with the Jewish state than with the hatred of Jews. More specifically, it has to do with conflating responsible censure of Israel with antisemitism, an equation vigorously opposed – as it should be – by groups such as JStreet and Americans for Peace Now. Their concern was that the assembly would be used as a platform to delegitimize legitimate criticism, a position highlighting real and deep rifts within the American Jewish community, where even antisemitism has become a matter of dispute between the right and the left, the Orthodox and the liberal streams of Judaism, and those who voted for Trump and those who consider him an anathema.
From what I could gather, those organizing the assembly commendably worked strenuously to modulate voices of contention and orchestrate a tone of harmony. But their efforts would at best shroud the great divide – extant and widening – now challenging the sacred dictum that “we are one.” A few sobering statistics to illustrate the point, taken from the same Democratic Electorate Institute poll, only the latest of several testifying to the longstanding trend of a deepening schism that is cause for alarm.
Asked which concerns them more, antisemitism originating on the right or the left, 71% of Reform Jews said the right, while 69% of Orthodox said the left.
Regarding Israel, 90% of the Orthodox respondents and 81% of the Conservative said they felt very or somewhat attached to the Jewish state, while only 60% of the Reform and 48% of the non-affiliated expressed similar sentiments.
Only 44% of the Orthodox approve of how President Biden is handling relations with Israel, compared to more than three-quarters of the Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated.
Also noteworthy is that the survey confirms another phenomenon that has been well documented over the past decade. Disturbing as it is that a full 9% of the respondents did not believe Israel has a right to exist, even more worrisome is that among those under 40, that number jumps to a full 20%. Similarly, while 22% of the Jewish voters responding believed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,” that position was endorsed by a startling third of the younger demographic.
These statistics were also borne out anecdotally at the No Fear rally, with speakers representing the Biden administration verbally harassed by extremists publicly identifying with Donald Trump and Meir Kahane.
Clearly, American Jewry is sorely divided, and the matter need be of great concern not only to its leaders and members but to those of us in Israel as well. Together, we can ill-afford for either antisemitism or support for the Jewish state to become a partisan issue – not within the community and not outside of it.
But the challenge of preventing that is enormous.
Increasing support for Israel among the younger and more liberal sectors of American Jewry, and relieving them of their misconception that Israel – with all its faults – is anything but an apartheid state, will require major strides in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a process not dependent entirely on us. It would also require that we rethink Israel education, and figure out how to expose those not in our schools to an authentic and positive Zionist narrative. In the meantime, telling them that every condemnation of Israel is tantamount to an expression of Jew-hatred, is only going to alienate them further.
Opening insular Orthodoxy and those on the far-right to greater acceptance of those who differ with them is no less a difficult undertaking. It would require having them consider that maybe, just maybe President Trump was not all that great for Israel and – equally disconcerting – that God is not exclusively on our side, or always there to save us. If the plundering of Jerusalem, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust are too big to get one’s head around, we could begin with some introspection regarding the Meron stampede that crushed 35 Haredim to death only a few weeks ago.
With little chance of advancing significantly on either front in the immediate future, we need continually remind ourselves – and one another – that when antisemitism strikes it doesn’t differentiate between those who attended the rally in Washington and those who stayed away, just as it didn’t distinguish between those praying in the progressive Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh or the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California.
As we commemorate Tisha b’Av, then, it is worth noting that when our sages taught that the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, their saying so was not merely a morality tale. Josephus’s account of the episode is evidence of that: “There were three treacherous factions [of Jews] in the city [of Jeruslaem], one acting against the other. Eleazar and his party …came against Yonatan… Those that were with Yonatan plundered the populace and went out with zeal against Simon… The same thing was done by Simon, who attacked the city also. It was as if they had all acted on purpose to serve the Romans.”
With whatever we can or cannot do to entirely stop those responsible for the explosive and undeniable rise in antisemitic incidents over the past few years, we must first and foremost ensure that we don’t serve our enemies today as we did in the past. Let it not be recorded of us as it was of our ancestors that it was internal strife and mutual recrimination that prevented us from warding off the clear and present dangers we are facing.