July has been a challenging month, to say the least. It has reminded me, among other things, that my Jewish identity depends not only on how I define myself, but also on how others define me.
Growing up in idyllic Western Massachusetts, the fabled Berkshires, I was not really exposed to anti-Semitism. I say, “not really,” because when a high-school friend used the idiom “to Jew you down,” in conversation with me, I knew that she did not really understand the import of the phrase, and she certainly did not connect it to any actual Jews (like the one she was talking to). And when I chose in 6th grade to wore a kippah every day to my small-town public elementary school, and an assortment of kids amused themselves by knocking it off of my head just to see me pick it up and kiss it (I now know that you do not have to kiss a kippah if it falls, but I did not know that in sixth grade), I knew that that was just ordinary kid-teasing, not anti-Semitism per se.
And really, for my entire life, having grown up decades after the Shoah, in a free country that is Israel’s greatest ally, I have had only limited exposure to classic anti-Semitism. Having lived in Great Neck for seven years, I am certain that virtually all of our children on this peninsula are accustomed to the idea that hatred of Jews is something that happens far away, if at all.
And I must confess that there have been times in recent years that I have watched the anti-Israel activism around the world, and even on US university campuses, and drawn a distinction in my head between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
But no more. I think that it is undeniable that we are seeing a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world. Let me give you a few examples from the past week:
In Los Angeles: http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/la_pro_israel_rally_interrupted_by_violence
In Berlin: http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/179842/berlin-protesters-chant-jew-jew-cowardly-pig-come-on-out-and-fight
In Calgary, Alberta:
|Anti-Jewish sign appearing in a cafe in Belgium. The Turkish reads, "Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Jews are not under any circumstances."|
Now consider this:
There are several armed conflicts going on around the world. Ukraine is in the news lately, primarily because of the Malaysian plane that was shot down by a missile last week. But what about the civil war in Syria? Estimates of total dead range from 120,000 to 160,000, including tens of thousands of non-combatants, and hundreds of children, and, get this, 2,000 Palestinians. That’s right! Nearly three times as many Palestinians have been killed in Syria at the hands of Syrians in the past three years than in Israel’s current incursion in Gaza.
So where is the international outrage over Syria? Where are the students holding “die-ins”? Where are the riots on the streets of Paris? Why are no Berliners chanting, “Gas the Syrians!”?
The only conclusion that can be reached is this: nobody cares about Arab deaths, unless they are at the hands of Jews. Why? I can only point to one thing: hatred of Jews and all things Jewish. (Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic, makes the same observations, but sidesteps the question of anti-Semitism.)
Because, let’s face it: we’ve done pretty well, despite the dramatic challenges we have faced in the last century or so. Israel is a modern miracle, a near-impossibility that has not only come into existence, but thrived despite all of the challenges she has faced: an unfriendly agricultural climate; geographical separation from much of the world; 66 years of war; terrorism within and without her borders; and so forth.
And Israel is, we hope, the final stop on a long and at times unpleasant journey. This morning in Parashat Mas’ei, we read about the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert. By my count (and I could be wrong), the Torah identifies 43 different locations where the Israelites camped on their way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel. We are a nation that emerged from wandering in the desert, and we have carried that trait with us across centuries and continents. We are a people that has constantly been on the move.
Truth be told, much of that movement was due to the very same, ancient hatred that we have seen expressed in the past week. Most of our relocations have been, historically, to allow ourselves to live better somewhere else. And with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, perhaps we were deluded into thinking that having a home base would bring that wandering to an end, and perhaps lessen the hatred to boot. (Hence the recent wave of French emigration to Israel.)
In the middle of the 20th century, it was widely known that a rabbi had two major subjects to address in every sermon: the Shoah (Holocaust) and Israel, and the implication that was reinforced every Shabbat in synagogues like this all over North America was, Israel is the answer to anti-Semitism.
That may be true. It is certainly a good thing for the Jews to have a homeland.
But the downside of this formula was that it sent the message that the reason to return to synagogue each week was to be reminded about how everybody hates us; that the reason to stick together, to stick to Judaism, was because the non-Jews of this world would never let us join their clubs.
Well, we are past that. One only has to glance at the rate of intermarriage in this country to see that the barriers to full membership in non-Jewish society have been lifted. We are free to be who we want to be, and that can mean to be Jewish or not Jewish or whatever.
But the rising tide of anti-Semitism (actually, anti-Semitic acts are decreasing in the United States even while they are on the rise abroad) threatens to cause us to do something that I have always repudiated: to be defined by those who hate us. Our identity should be positive, not negative. We should be defined by who we are, not by what others say or feel about us. We are not Jews by virtue of prejudice; we are Jews because we embrace our heritage. And in today’s climate of infinite choice, we have to emphasize the positive reasons to choose Judaism (And I’m not talking about potential converts; I’m talking about born Jews. We are all Jews by choice.)
So what are those features of positive Jewish identity? What does it mean to be Jewish? Help me out here:
Torah / study / learning / law
customs / holidays / rituals / prayer
foods / music / prayer / art
These are all features of our positive Jewish identity. And there are so many of them!
My challenge to all of us, the strongly affiliated and the not-so, is to look at the hatred that is being directed at Jews around the world. And then ask yourself: what does it mean to ME to be Jewish? For some of us, being Jewish is an essential part of who we are. For others, it matters, but we may not know why beyond a nagging feeling that it ought to matter.
Whatever the nature of your connection, I challenge you to dig deeper and qualify how and why you are and need to be part of a community. If you do not have an answer to this question, then you will only be letting those who hate us - whether they know you personally or not - define you.
Knowledge and love and personal connection are what has sustained Jewish civilization for centuries, through times of oppression and genocide and the constant uprooting and relocation that has always been a part of Jewish life.
And though I would certainly never talk anyone out of becoming more observant, what I am advocating here is not that. I am suggesting that we each take a moment, or several, to determine how you fit in and belong to this greater cousins’ club known as Am Yisrael.
Why is this important? Because we need to be equipped to defend ourselves and our tradition. When an angry mob in Germany (!) chants, Jude, Jude, feiges Schwein, komm heraus und kämpf allein, / (Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come on out and fight), we may be frightened, angered, disgusted, shocked, and so forth. But, like Israelis, who have managed to live with terrorism and fear and constant political pressures inside and out, we have to try to tune that stuff out, and arm ourselves with all of the positives of being Jewish. We have to equip our children with pride, so that they can saunter out into this world and face the mis-informed mobs on college campuses and speak with quiet confidence about the richness of our ancient tradition.
This week has left me fundamentally changed. Never again will I doubt that anti-Semitism lingers under the surface of much of humanity. Never again will I separate anti-Zionism or anti-Israel activism from anti-Semitism; I am now certain that they are one and the same.
We conclude Bemidbar / Numbers today, and whenever we get to the end of one of the five books of the Torah, we stand up and proudly declare, “Hazaq, hazaq, venithazzeq!” Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.
We can fear the anti-Semitism, and but that would be exactly what the terrorists want us to do. Or we can be strong: strong in our beliefs, strong in our pride, strong in our commitment to Israel and Jewish living and learning, and thereby strengthen one another. That is the formula that has worked for two thousand years, the secret to a strong community, and it will continue to work for us as well, as we continue the Jewish journey.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/26/14.)