Monday, January 31, 2011

Our Friends, Our Enemies, and Ourselves

My synagogue has recently been in the news. On a cold January Saturday night, vandals broke the windows of six different Montreal synagogues, including my own, an attack that was reported in the media the world over. In 2011, even a small wave of anti-Semitism is big news.

The fact that Jews still have real enemies will come to some as a bit of a shock. This attack provided an ugly reminder that even in open and democratic countries anti-Semitism is still very much alive. Living in a liberal society, we sometimes imagine that anti-Semitism is the result of some sad misunderstanding, and if only we can have anti-Semites meet with Jews, this age old hatred would melt away, Hollywood style. But that would be a mistake. In the online comments section of the Globe and Mail newspaper, multiple comments were removed by the moderator; a quick glance at some of the remaining comments gives you the flavor of what was removed. One commenter wrote that “Maybe the reason there is so much hatred toward Jews is because people feel in their heart something isn't right. This makes the news ?!? But truth about 9/11 and "dancing Israelis" Mossad boys doesn't make the news.” Another commenter wrote “I suspect that this was done by local kids... jewish kids stirring things up. Or maybe somebody not so young, cranking up the goyim guilt factor.” Like anti-Semites of every era, these writers believe that Jews should be hated because they are conspiratorial and evil. Paranoid hatreds like anti-Semitism are impervious to diplomacy and conciliation. Our synagogue’s broken window is a reminder that Jews still have real enemies.

At the same time, the aftermath of this attack demonstrated how many friends our community has. I got a call from the leader of the Liberal opposition in parliament, Michael Ignatieff, and an e-mail from the Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney. My inbox was a veritable interfaith gathering, with multiple responses from Ministers, Priests and Imams. Most touching was a note from the grandson of a Dutch man who had defended Jews from the Nazis, and had died in Sachsenhausen because of his activism; he wrote me to say that he would continue his grandfather’s legacy, and do anything he could to protect the Jews. 2011 is not 1938. The Jews are integrated into the mainstream, and most Canadians see an attack on Canadian Jews as an attack on Canadians, just as most Americans would see an attack on American Jews as an attack on Americans.

Contemporary acceptance of the Jews is remarkable by any standard. In a recent book, political scientists Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame found that Jews are the now most warmly regarded religious group in the United States. Sadly, the people who seem to show the least enthusiasm for Judaism are the people who matter the most: young Jews.

It’s sad that it takes a broken window to get Jews to think about their Judaism; in the aftermath of this attack, I heard from people I rarely see in synagogue. Like many North American synagogues, the majority of our members visit infrequently; and unless someone throws a rock through our window, the synagogue is forgotten 362 days a year.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks jokes that the one way to fill up synagogues would be by putting up large signs outside declaring “no Jews allowed”, because contemporary Jews would be certain to join any institution that would refuse them membership. Sacks is absolutely correct. Jews have had enormous success battling hatred and discrimination; we have made our way into country clubs that once restricted membership, and moved into neighborhoods that had restrictive covenants. But we are finding it much more difficult to handle success, and as Jews enter the mainstream, they leave their Jewish identities behind.

The Jewish world has changed in the last 100 years. Yes, we still have enemies, some as vicious as our enemies of 100 years ago. However, we have many more friends today, and Jews are a North American success story. What has changed the most is who we are ourselves. Jewish identity is increasingly defined by what we oppose: anti-Semitism, terrorism, and Holocaust denial. Otherwise, we have only the vaguest idea of what it means to live as a Jew.

But anti-Semitism may eventually fade away. And if anti-Semitism disappears, what will become of Jewish identity?

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