Friday, May 17, 2024

Proud Jews, Despite Everything


A sign displayed at the reinstated Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University.

Last Shabbat, several synagogues in New York received fake bomb threats by email. These phony messages are called “swatting,” and are intended to both provoke a police response and disrupt the synagogues; the emails’ IP was located in Finland.

At a meeting with the Governor about the incident, one of the rabbis shared with us that her non-Jewish staff members have requested to work remotely; they no longer feel safe coming into the synagogue.

I remarked to the Rabbi afterward: “You don't have to be Jewish to be paranoid about antisemitism.”


And there is a lot to be paranoid about. On Monday night, a mass of pro-Palestinian protesters marched up Madison Avenue right outside our building. A group of people from our building came out with Israeli flags in response; immediately, one of the women had the flag pulled out of her hands and was punched in the side of her head, bruising her eyeball and face.


My neighbor was assaulted because she is a Jew; this is just one anecdote that reflects the dramatic rise in antisemitism since October 7th. It is not a paranoid anxiety to worry about the safety of American Jews. As Golda Meir famously quipped, “Even paranoids have enemies.” 


History reminds us that we ignore antisemitism at our own risk. Before the Holocaust, too many European Jews missed the warning signs. In 1936, Mordechai Gebirtig wrote a Yiddish poem Es Brent (It's Burning) in response to the Przytyk pogrom in 1936, where a mob attacked Jewish homes and killed two Jews.


The words of the first stanza admonish a lackadaisical Jewish community for ignoring the threats they were facing:


It burns! Brothers, it burns!

Our poor shtetl pitifully burns!

Angry wind with rage and curses

Tears, shatters and disperses.

Wild flames leap. they twist and turn,

Everything now burns!


And you stand there looking on

Hands folded, palms upturned,

And you stand there looking on

Our shtetl burns!


By 1939 this poem was seen as prophetic, foreseeing a catastrophe that was about to arrive; Elie Wiesel would later refer to Es Brent “as sounding the death knell of the shtetl and a thousand years of Jewish history in Poland.”


Some wonder whether America has reached the point of Es Brent. While we worry about Israel, visiting Israelis always ask me about antisemitism, uncertain how I can feel safe with all of the mayhem that is occurring here.


Although I understand this fear, I do not subscribe to it. The United States of 2024 is nothing like Poland of 1936. America has a long-standing pluralistic, democratic culture, and American Jews are far from powerless. Most importantly, the vast majority of Americans support us. This is not the time to take flight.


But we can’t take it easy either; we must never lose our will to fight. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud recounts a conversation he had with his father Jakob, when he was 10 or 12 years old. Jakob said: "While I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday on a street in the village where you were born; I was handsomely dressed and wore a new fur cap. Along comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud with one blow and shouts: "Jew, get off the sidewalk." "And what did you do?" "I went into the street and picked up the cap." Freud was embarrassed that his father did so little to stand up to an antisemite.


Perhaps Freud’s judgment of his father was too harsh; Jakob Freud might not have had much choice in his response that day. But Freud’s sentiment is absolutely correct. To hide in the shadows as a meek and weak Jew may be an understandable adaptation to a difficult situation; but left on its own, cowardice will warp the very foundations of Jewish identity. As a perpetual minority, Jews have always been vulnerable to feelings of inferiority that can slowly eat away at the Jewish soul. One must be a proud Jew if one is to be a Jew at all.


Rabbi Zadok of Lublin writes that the essence of Judaism is to declare oneself a Jew; everything else is secondary. He brings as proofs two texts. One is in the Talmud, which implies that one can convert to Judaism without knowing anything about Judaism. The second is a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch that says even in times of persecution, it is forbidden for a Jew to claim that they are a non-Jew.


Judaism then is quite simple; to be a Jew means embracing being a Jew, even without fully understanding what that means. And this further implies that all the good deeds and Torah scholarship in the world are not as important as being a proud Jew. (This passage was so controversial, it was censored out of the initial publication of Rabbi Zadok’s writings.)


An earlier precedent goes back to the Tanakh. When Jonah declares “I am a Jew,” he is stating all of Judaism on one foot. All the rest is commentary.


Sadly, it's not so easy to be a proud Jew nowadays. The noisy intimidation of poster defacers and encampment makers has driven Jews underground. On the street, Kippahs come off and Chai necklaces are covered up. No one wants to be like my neighbor, the victim of an antisemitic assault.


More insidious is the social ostracization, which is far more influential. Students on campus have been frozen out by their friends for refusing to join in protests. Online, Jews on dating apps are peppered with questions about Israel. Appointments are canceled and letters of recommendation denied for having the wrong point of view. Young Jews are now offered the choice to condemn Israel or be considered an enemy of the people; there's no room for conversation.


It is challenging to be a Jew on campuses filled with pro-Hamas professors, activists, and propaganda.


One would have expected students to take the easy route; keep their heads down, go with the flow, and hide their identities. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Remarkably, Jewish students have defiantly declared that they are proud Jews.


In an exceptional letter circulated at Columbia this week, 540 Jewish students (at last count) wrote about their love for Israel. Entitled In Our Name: A Message from Jewish Students at Columbia University, they explained that:

Over the past six months, many have spoken in our name…some are our Jewish peers who tokenize themselves by claiming to represent “real Jewish values,” and attempt to delegitimize our lived experiences of antisemitism. We are here, writing to you as Jewish students at Columbia University, who are connected to our community and deeply engaged with our culture and history. We would like to speak in our name.


We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity. Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief…..


We are proud of Israel. The only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is home to millions of Mizrachi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern descent), Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Central and Eastern European descent), and Ethiopian Jews, as well as millions of Arab Israelis, over one million Muslims, and hundreds of thousands of Christians and Druze. Israel is nothing short of a miracle for the Jewish People and for the Middle East more broadly…


Yet despite the fact that we have been calling out the antisemitism we’ve been experiencing for months, our concerns have been brushed off and invalidated. So here we are to remind you:


We sounded the alarm on October 12 when many protested against Israel while our friends’ and families’ dead bodies were still warm.


We recoiled when people screamed “resist by any means necessary,” telling us we are “all inbred” and that we “have no culture.”


….We felt helpless when we watched students and faculty physically block Jewish students from entering parts of the campus we share, or even when they turned their faces away in silence. This silence is familiar. We will never forget.


One thing is for sure. We will not stop standing up for ourselves. We are proud to be Jews, and we are proud to be Zionists. 


This letter is an exceptional statement of Jewish identity, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. Written during a crisis, on a campus filled with contempt for them, they refuse to surrender to ideological bullies who want them to relent and convert to their cause.


These students aren’t going to hide who they are. They will not stop standing up for themselves. And they have it exactly right.


They are proud Jews, despite everything. And the rest of our community should follow their example.

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