The past month has been one of the most alienating of my life. I have dedicated myself to building bridges – between Jews and non-Jews and people to people. Now it feels like the bridges are down. Since October 7th I have heard from almost none of my non-Jewish colleagues in social work organizations or my interfaith dialogue partners (except for my Catholic ones.) Based on my conversations with several people, I have created a composite figure to whom the letter below is addressed.
Ayeka?! Where are you?
For a month after the massacre of October 7 I waited in vain for your call, SMS or Facebook post. I hoped after I shared how the tragedy devastated me you would reach out – if for no other reason than your compassion for people in pain. To say that I am in pain now would be an understatement. Hamas executed fourteen-hundred members of my extended Jewish family. How can my life ever be the same? When I heard nothing from you, I imagined it might help to share how I am experiencing an eruption of antisemitism while already mourning the biggest Jewish loss of life since the Shoah. I wrote of how for the first time I feel insecure when I venture out, kippah on head; feel unsettled when I see rifle-toting police guarding my little shul; feel frightened when friends’ children flee their colleges after being outed as Zionists and harassed; feel outraged when Israeli products at my local supermarket are marked with stickers saying “boycott apartheid.” Until October 7, I felt secure living in the USA, the great pluralistic democracy I emigrated to a decade ago. Now I join generations of Diaspora Jews, the world over, in asking the perennial Jewish question: should I stay, or should I go?
I did not expect you to brandish an Israeli flag in your window. What I was anticipating was your empathy. We get empathy. It is a cornerstone of our work. We understand that empathy means to feel for (in contrast to sympathy which means feeling with.) Empathy, in other words, does not require us to share the same feelings but calls on each of us to imagine how the other may feel, listen, attune, and respond compassionately. There are few experiences more meaningful than empathy. It telegraphs “I am with you. You are not alone.”
We have shared empathy and sympathy in the past. The fellow feeling that was palpable when we witnessed to the evil of racism, after the murder of George Floyd in 2021 or following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is missing following the pogrom of 2023. Remember the meme that circulated in 2020: “Whenever, wherever we are we want to be more. But when we are together, we are enough” My experience of allyship used to be enough to give me the reassurance I needed to go on repairing this broken world, bit by bit. With it gone, I feel isolated, invalidated, unseen. I understand what the great medieval commentator Rashi meant when he observed “When the Jewish people rejoices no other nation rejoices with them.” (Num 23:9) If Rashi were alive today, he might add “and when the Jewish people cries no other nation cries with them – not even nations with whom Jews have cried.”
I believed we had built bridges – over the divides of our different ethnicities and faiths. I cherished the moments where we connected, heart to heart, and shared our struggles, religious experiences and hopes. Now I wonder: did those bridges exist? Or were they projections of my need to feel accepted?
Your silence hurts me more than the deafening hostility of pro-Hamas protesters. I expect immature college students and credulous academics to support radical groups, just as intellectuals of other generations were Maoists or Stalinists. I did not expect political moderates, like yourself, much less someone in a helping profession, to join the silent majority of Americans who are complicit in the demonization of Israel and the eruption of antisemitism. Your silence reminds me of what Elie Wiesel taught: “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” And who is the tormented? Today it is me. Tomorrow it could be you. Every society that has allowed antisemitism to fester has gone on to suffer a breakdown of its civic life. Antisemitism is not just my problem. It is our problem – except for you, it isn’t.
When I eventually called, you asked me to justify my nervousness about the 350% increase in domestic antisemitism since October 7 and why it is necessary for social workers to educate themselves about it. I pointed out how Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings about racism, sexism, and homophobia have, appropriately, become standard fare for social workers so why not antisemitism? And how is it, I wonder, that education about systemic racism is “not a political issue but a moral imperative” (as you observed in 2021) but antisemitism is “too politically hot to handle, now”(as you opined recently)?
You pleaded that you must avoid addressing antisemitism, now, because taking a stand could lead to you, or your organization, being “cancelled.” Folks are outraged about Gazan deaths in the IDF counteroffensive, you continued, and lack the bandwidth to sympathize with American Jews’ plight. I join with you in mourning the tragic loss of life in Gaza – even as I wholeheartedly support Israel’s aim of destroying Hamas. Yes, the death toll is painful. But really? Would you swallow your moral courage and standdown if any other American minority were under threat?
Please understand that I have changed. As a rabbi and therapist, I have a cognitive bias toward hakarat hatov – the Jewish value of recognizing the good in individuals, communities, and societies. I still believe this is what G-d wants. There is good in the world. I will continue to be doresh tov – to seek the good – but now without expecting anything in return. I will do it because I believe that the holiness of I-thou encounters, where G-d’s presence is experienced, makes them intrinsically meaningful. These encounters, I now realize, are ephemeral. It is up to each participant to unpack them and develop greater empathy – or not. I have unpacked our encounters and grown. That may have to be enough for me.
Like never before, I understand that Jews are “a people who dwells alone, who are not reckoned among the nations.” (Num 23:9) In his essay Explaining Ourselves to the World, the late Israeli diplomat and rabbi, Yaacov Herzog wrote that this strange concept, put forth 4,000 years ago by the pagan prophet Baalam, “cannot be explained in terms of any mythology of the ancient world. And today… when you analyze it objectively and scientifically – not from the point of view of faith and feeling – there cannot be any doubt that this is how most of the world sees (the Jews): a people that dwells alone. The problem is whether this concept denotes privilege – not an escape from society as a whole but a unique role within it – or whether it is an anomaly which must be denied and discarded. This is the question of Jewish history.” This question haunts me. A part of me views Jewish aloneness as a privileged position that allows Jews to stand back from prevailing social currents, interpret them, critique them and when needed offer an alternate moral vision. What would modern western civilization, its culture, science, democracy, ethics, theology, or philosophy be without this Jewish insider-outsider perspective?
Another part of me recognizes how much of the western world embraces universalism and would prefer for Jews to discard their unique identity and assimilate. This is nothing new. Jews are a tricky people to understand; the only religious group that is also a nationality; the only one to obstinately cling for two millennia to the dream of returning to its ancestral homeland. Jews confound the neat schemas of liberalism and wokeism, alike. A century ago, Theodor Herzl observed in his Zionist manifesto, the Jewish State, that accepting the Jewish people in its uniqueness is something most non-Jews will fail to do – regardless of whatever humaneness or “philosemitism” they possess. Herzl was right. You may value your attachments to Jewish friends and Jewish ideas when it benefits you but when there is a price to be paid, you may let go.
Jewish aloneness, in 2023, is not an either-or but a both-and; a blessing and a burden. I had understood this both-and-ness from my lifelong study of Jewish history, but I never thought it would define me, living in America. Now, I realize Jewish aloneness is the cost of my belonging to the nation that I love. I need not fear being run out of town by a pogrom, as my ancestors were, but I do worry that I will never again be able to live at ease, as a Jew in America.
I cannot express how draining it is for me and fellow Zionist Jews to live in a society where we cannot just be or at least enjoy the benefit of the doubt; where our friends, colleagues, mentors and neighbors can be part of the fabric of our lives one day and tear themselves away, the next.
What to do? Some of my Jewish friends have chosen to deal with this conundrum by living in enclosed Jewish communities. Others have chosen to assimilate. Others still live in a state of denial. I can understand why people make each of these moves but none of them are good options for me. I feel too connected to humanity to distance myself from it. I love Judaism too much to drop out. I value truth and cannot deny the antisemitism I observe now. What other option is there but to live in my own country?
I have been a Zionist since before I could talk. When, after three happy years in Israel I realized I could not settle there, I consoled myself with Maimonides’ halachic ruling that a Jew can leave Israel for the sake of their torah education, livelihood or to marry. (I checked all three boxes). When we married, my wife and I shared a hope to eventually make Aliyah. But who knew when or if that would happen? We kept all our options on the table. Now we recognize that it is hiyyuv, a long-term imperative, that we eventually go to Israel and replant our family, there.
In thirty years, you and I may reconnect at a social work congress. I do not know where America will be by 2050. Will it still be a pluralistic society? A democracy? One thing I do believe with perfect faith – the Jewish state will live. The Jewish people has outlasted all the ancient and modern civilizations that have arisen against it – even Nazi Germany and the USSR. It is a no brainer for me that Israel will outlast Hamas – and whatever other enemies it faces in the twenty-first century.
I witness Israel’s resilience, now, and it makes me feel more whole within the brokenness.
PS – I recognize that I have asked for your empathy without giving you mine. Your silence has created a wall that I have not penetrated, yet. And my heart is open. If yours is too, let’s talk.