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.

No comments: