Friday, December 27, 2019

Where the Battle Against anti-Semitism Begins


The distance from my synagogue on the Upper East side to the Jewish community of Jersey City is both 10 miles long and a culture gap wide. We both practice Orthodox Judaism, but our experiences of modernity are very different. In Jersey City, the Hasidic community teaches their children in Yiddish and they retain a centuries old style of traditional dress; while on the Upper East side, the children are prepared for Ivy League schools and dress in contemporary fashions. While there are certainly personal relationships between members of the two communities, they are somewhat uncommon, and usually based on business associations and family relationships. And if there is a chasm between our Orthodox community and that of the Hasidic Jews in Jersey City, the social and personal distance between the Hasidic community and those in non-Orthodox denominations is even larger.

Last week, after an anti-Semitic attack murdered four people in Jersey City, the distance became smaller. Violence against Hasidic Jews has been occurring for several years now; in New York City alone, there were over 30 violent attacks on Hasidim in the last year. But this has gone unnoticed, even by much of the leadership in the Jewish community. Part of this has to do with the uncomfortable fact that many of the perpetrators are African American, and these leaders worry that calling out extremists in the African American community will cause a rift between the Jewish and Black communities. But a large part of it has to do with the fact that Hasidic Jews are often ignored, even by their Jewish brethren. 

After the tragedy in Jersey City, it is impossible to ignore violence against Hasidim.  This attack killed a 24 year old Hassidic man, whose body was riddled with hundreds of bullets, a 32 year old mother who left three children orphaned, along with police officer who was a father of five, and a heroic Ecuadorian immigrant who in his last minutes saved another man's life before losing his own. Now, all segments of the Jewish community have begun to pay attention to attacks against Hasidic Jews.

Jewish solidarity has both its critics and admirers in the non-Jewish world. There are those who see it as a form of unnecessary clannishness, and this critique is often magnified into the conspiracy theories of anti-Semites. On the other hand there are those who admire a scattered, persecuted people who with great determination have always found a way to pull together.  However, for Jews solidarity is a foundation of our identity. Its roots are found in the Bible, where the Jewish people are referred to as the "Children of Israel", a metaphor that implies a familial relationship between all Jews. This sense of being a family writ large is described by the 12th century Rabbi, Moses Maimonides, as "The entire Jewish people, and all those who attach themselves to them, are as brothers...". Solidarity is part of Jewish identity.

This solidarity has varied at times. During the Holocaust, it was scandalous how little American Jews did to support the Jews of Europe. Decades later, the opposite occurred: American Jews stepped up forcefully to take the lead of the Soviet Jewry movement.  In recent years the pendulum has swung back again, and there seems to be more disagreement than unity in the Jewish community, particularly when anti-semitism involves partisan politics.

But a crisis makes solidarity easy. As George Elliot, at the end of The Mill on the Floss, notes: “What quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity…?” The shared challenges of Jewish History have forged within Jews a profound sense of mutual responsibility; and after three murderous attacks on American Jewish institutions in 13 months, the Jewish community is once again recognizing the importance of solidarity. 

It is clear that this resurgence of anti-Semitism is with us for the long term, and it will demand us to fight it each step of the way. It is not a simple fight, because contemporary anti-Semitism arises in many different ideologies, from extremists inspired by white nationalism, anti-Zionism, Islamic fundamentalism and Black nationalism. But before mobilizing against anti-Semitism, the Jewish community must first mobilize itself for unity.

Up until now, many of the Jewish responses to anti-Semitism have been colored by politics. The partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats has dramatically affected the way the Jewish community talks about anti-Semitism. After the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, some of the earliest op-eds in Jewish newspapers were devoted to spinning the tragedy in a partisan fashion. Instead of worrying about the threat of anti-Semitism, too many Jewish Republicans and Democrats worried first  about their own political affiliations.

Now that seems to be changing. Slowly, the Jewish community has turned to support the Hasidic Jews in Jersey City. Jews, whatever their political affiliation, have recognized that they need to put the fight against all types of anti-Semitism first. And this is critical; before going to battle against anti-Semitism, the Jewish community must unify itself, and not allow sectarian divisions to undermine their efforts. 

A few days after this attack, a group of adults and students from my congregation, and from the Ramaz School on the Upper East Side went to visit their counterparts in Jersey City and brought them Hanukkah gifts. These two sets of Jewish students would never have met had it not been for this tragedy. Now they were coming together as brothers, recognizing a truth the Jewish people always have known: we cannot survive if we do not unite. 

This vision needs to be adopted by the entire Jewish community. Before we can fight against anti-Semitism, we need to recognize that the battle begins at home, in bringing our community together first.

The Universalism of Jewish Particularism


The Universalism of Jewish Particularism

There is a Jewish tradition dating back to the Book of Jeremiah[1] to pray on behalf of the local government. Today, most contemporary Siddurim contain a text known as Hanoten Teshuah, which is a prayer on behalf of the government.

One of the earliest records of this prayer[2], in translation, is found in a 1655 pamphlet written by Mannaseh Ban Israel entitled To His Highnesse the Lord Protector of the Common-wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland the humble addresses of Menasseh ben Israel, a divine, and doctor of physick, in behalfe of the Jewish nation. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and Menasseh Ben Israel wrote this pamphlet, addressed to Oliver Cromwell, to advocate for their return.  Concerned that the Expulsion from Spain 160 years earlier might imply that Jews had been disloyal to the Spanish crown, Menasseh ben Israel offers proof of Jewish patriotism by quoting the Hanoten Teshuah prayer in English translation. He added that every Jewish community prays for the local government, even before praying for their own community.

Manasseh is engaging in what is called apologetics, in this case a defense of the Jews against accusations hurled at them. Apologetics is one of the recurring themes in Jewish History; and in the modern era, a fair amount of Jewish apologetics have been about loyalty and patriotism.

One powerful example of apologetics is a pamphlet printed by the  Reichsbund j├╝discher Frontsoldaten, The Reich Federation of Jewish Front-Line Soldiers, in 1920, detailing the Jewish sacrifices for Germany.

“To the German mothers! 12,000 Jewish soldiers fell on the field of honor for the fatherland. Christian and Jewish heroes fought side by side and rest side by side in foreign land. 12,000 Jews were killed in action! Furious party hatred does not stop at the graves of the dead. German women, do not tolerate that a Jewish mother is scorned in her grief.”[3]

Jews in Germany felt the pressure to prove themselves as patriots, and volunteered for front line duty in World War I in a far higher percentage than other Germans[4]. Despite their sacrifices for Germany, anti-Semites accused them of disloyalty, and Jews had to write articles and books to prove their patriotism once again. This is not unique to Germany; for hundreds of years, Jews in the Western world have had to prove their patriotism in the public arena, and then respond to bigotry and ignorance with apologetics and advocacy.

However, the centuries of apologetics have inverted the Jewish self image. They have left behind a legacy in which Jews spend an inordinate time thinking about what other people want from us, rather than thinking about what we want for ourselves.

This inverted self-image can be seen in the over-emphasis of tikkun olam in the Jewish community. On college campuses and in other enclaves where universalism is valued more than patriotism, Jews now have to defend themselves against charges that they are too narrow and tribal. A tikkun olam theology offers the perfect apologetic argument against this accusation. Instead of being tribal, Jews are emissaries of kindness, out to serve and save the world. For a Jewish community that has marinated in 300 years of apologetics, this is just another pivot in making ourselves understood by the people around us. The problem is that the demands of a tikkun olam ideology can clash with Jewish identity itself.

An excellent example of this is a public debate between Rabbis Danny Gordis and Sharon Brous during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. On the surface, it was a highly nuanced disagreement; both agreed on the importance of supporting Israel, and both agreed that the humanity of the Palestinians must be respected. Yet they had a very emotional disagreement, because those nuances speak volumes.

Rabbi Brous, The spiritual leader Ikar in Los Angeles, wrote a congregational letter that said: I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives…. supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.

Rabbi Danny Gordis of the Shalom center in Jerusalem blogged a furious response to Rabbi Brous’ letter, in which he wrote:

Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others. Noble Jews have moved beyond difference…..What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?

It is no secret that on this question my sympathies are with Gordis. Indeed, if your children got into a car crash with a drunk driver, would you run between the two hospital rooms to see how everyone in both cars were doing? There is a hierarchy of responsibilities, and there are times when you must focus on your family, and only on your family.

But this does not mean that we should lightly dismiss Brous’ concerns. The message of universalism is deeply embedded in the Torah. Even at the Passover Seder, we pour drops of wine during the list of the plagues, to show sadness over the deaths of our enemies.

This universalism begins in the first chapter of the Torah, when the world was created without Jews. God created Adam and Eve, and from there, the world is meant to evolve into a universal society. (The prophetic visions of the Messianic era are also universalistic.)  And even after rejecting humanity during the flood, the world is once again restarted as a single society, with the family of Noah.

But then comes God's third attempt to recreate humanity; and this time he leaves the rest of humanity in place, but chooses Abraham alone.

Abraham is tasked by God with creating a new nation, and this new nation will demand intense patriotism and solidarity. This choice is puzzling. Doesn’t God love all of humanity? And if Abraham's descendants create a singular and segregated national identity, how are they going to change the rest of the world?

For contemporary readers, God’s choice to fix the world with a chosen nation sounds counterintuitive. Tribalism is seen not just as spiritually inferior, but actually as a cause of conflict. The assumption is that every group that organizes into a strongly connected “us”, will always stand in opposition to others who are “them”[5]. Tribal solidarity is now viewed with suspicion, and too many Jews contort themselves to fit a universal narrative.

I would argue that Jewish solidarity is actually one of the better ways to improve the world. To turn Cynthia Ozick's phrase on its head, the Jewish approach is "the universalism of particularism".

The Bible tells us that Abraham's name represents the fact that he is an “Av Hamon Goyim”, the “father of a multitude of nations”. But who are the multitude of nations? The 13th century Spanish commentary of the Ramban[6] says it is a reference to the Jewish people themselves. The Jewish people is not one unitary tribe; even in biblical times there were the 12 tribes of Israel. And those tribes didn't always get along with each other.

This reality remains throughout Jewish History. There are always multiple tribes, Jews from different countries with different ideologies. In our own neighborhood there are Jews from Syria, Poland, Hungary, Morocco, Ethiopia and Germany; and there are Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and unaffiliated Jews, each with a different ideology and culture.

What is remarkable is how Jews can still feel a sense of solidarity with each other, no matter how different they are. Throughout history the multiple Jewish tribes have banded together, despite the dramatic differences between themselves[7].

This international coalition of Jewish tribes is a reminder that you don’t have to be alike to be a family. The mission of Abraham’s children is to create one nation out of many tribes, and build a model of what the world could be. This is superior to a universalism which seeks to embrace exotic foreigners, but finds it difficult to connect with unenlightened kinfolk in the same country. Truly universal love does not neglect those who are closest to you, no matter how much you disagree with them.

This is why particularism is the Jewish way to universalism.  First of all, because you are allowed to love your family more. But more importantly, learning how to embrace the various tribes of Israel is a perfect way to overcome tribalism.

The State of Israel represents not just the ingathering of Jews, but the ingathering of tribes from all over the world. While there is plenty of friction in Israel, what is remarkable is how these tribes have preserved this powerful sense of solidarity.

One story that I heard from Rabbi Sharon Shalom, (an Ethiopian Rabbi and author) illustrate this quite well. In the late 1970’s, Sharon fled with thousands of other members of the Beta Israel community to the Sudan. There, he was rescued as part of the Mossad’s “Operation Brothers”. The Mossad operated a beach resort called “Arus” as a front, and every few months would smuggle a group of Beta Israel children in middle of the night to the beach. There, they were taken by Israeli commandos to a waiting boat that transported them to the Sinai. Sharon remembers being hugged by a big Israeli commando, who carried him to the boat; and he remembers how the commando had tears in his eyes. Sharon was a young boy, and couldn't understand why the soldier would be crying. Now he understands.

But the story continues. A few years ago, he got a call from a member of the Mossad, who had been the commander of operation that took Sharon to Israel. The Mossad agent said that his daughter was getting married, and he wanted Sharon to be the rabbi at the wedding.

At the chuppah, everyone had a good cry; the Rabbi, the Mossad commander, and the bride and groom. These were the tears of a big family reunion, a reunion that brought together Jews from around the world.
These tears are transformative. They reflect a Jewish commitment to connect with other Jews, no matter how different and distant; and they are a model of how the entire world can transcend their own differences.


[1] Jeremiah 29:7
[2] See “Hanoten Teshua' The Origin of the Traditional Jewish Prayer for the Government”, by Barry Schwartz, Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 57 (1986), pp. 113-120
[4] Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews In Germany 1743 – 1933, page 338
[5] See Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua D. Greene, Penguin Publishing Group, 2013
[6] Genesis 17:15
[7] Yes, there has been more than enough division as well. But that actually proves the point; only a people deeply concerned about unity would constantly worry about divisions and infighting.