Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 20, 2019

White Supremacy and the Maccabees

A few weeks ago, I attended the Jewish Education Project’s Jewish Futures Conference. The topic this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jewish Education's Battle Amid Growing Anti-Semitism. One of the speakers was Shannon Foley Martinez, a former violent white supremacist who now helps other members of hate groups leave the movement and find a new life. 

She told us her story. Turns out it’s a pretty typical blueprint for someone who might enter the alt-right. 

“I grew up always feeling like the black sheep. I came wired to ask “why” in a family that valued conformity. Then, when I was 11, we moved from Philadelphia to just north of Toledo, Ohio, and as a result, my sense of not belonging expanded from just my own house to the greater world. I began looking at counterculture as a place to find an identity that vibed with
me since mainstream culture didn’t seem to be it.

One of my early favorite book was the autobiography of Malcolm X. I loved the power of the ideas and the revolutionary nature. Loved how he presented those ideas and the conviction behind them. Around that time I also was introduced to skateboard culture. I began hanging out more with the punk rock scene and listening to different music. I cut off my hair. I liked that my appearance was shocking and that it created a reaction. I felt powerful.

Then when I was 15, I was raped at a party by two older men. And because my childhood was one where I was frequently reprimanded, I knew I couldn’t tell parents. That trauma triggered me and increased my willingness to take risks. My willingness to use violence as a remedy and to embrace more extreme ideology.”[1]

Martinez’s experience stands in line with what research has exposed in regards to white nationalist movement “risk factors.” Research shows that it is NOT the “stated cause” that draws a person to these supremacy groups. Typically, a recruit is an adolescent or young adult from a middle class background. Many have experienced abuse and family instability. They crave personal significance, have high sensitivity to rejection, and get caught in binary thinking.

“Most people join hate groups for a sense of belonging and a sense of power, similar to the way some youth gravitate to gangs. It is only after recruits have been socialized to the group and developed social ties that members are exposed and indoctrinated into the central tenets of organizational hate.”[2]

Hate, as we know, is not logical or natural. It’s learned and artificially fostered. What is natural is the need to belong; a desire to be loved and understood. Martinez credits her then-boyfriend’s mother for her rescue. Having been kicked out of her parents’ home, she moved in with her boyfriend and, for the first time, experienced unconditional love. This woman showered her with tenderness. She encouraged her to think about her future…an idea foreign to extremist groups, which thrive on impulsivity.

So is this the solution? Just unbridled love in the face of hate? I don’t know. I, for one, am officially overwhelmed by the onslaught of anti-semitism we have witnessed in recent history. From vandalization, to slurs to murder, we know, statistically and otherwise, that anti-semitic acts are up in the last few years.

The fact that people hate Jews is not new. Anti-Semitism is as ancient as Judaism itself. In fact, there is weird consolation in understanding that anti-semitism exists because of the fact that we Jews continue to thrive. We refuse to be harassed into submission and eradicated, a declaration of purpose and strength that will always inspire hate. So long as we flourish, people won’t want us to.

Ariel Burger, a student of Elie Wiesel also spoke at the Jewish Futures Conference. He put it perfectly – anti-semitism is the “shadow of Jewish eternity.” Jewish survival is a “sublime mystery” but with that comes the insidious specter of hate.

If I try to understand these people, not sympathize with, but understand, I see folks who are less connected to a cause and more psychologically distressed. I can understand this real need to belong, to feel like you matter. I’m so sad that no one was able to make them feel that way. I’m so sad that hate and violence act like a drug, filling up the dark hole in their souls with artificial relief.

Strangely, and almost blasphemously, when thinking about the alt-right, my thoughts also turn to the Maccabees – the heroes of Hanukkah, the holiday almost upon us now.

The Maccabees were NOT white or Jewish supremacists, it’s pretty antithetical to Judaism to be a supremacist. But they were right-wingers, disturbed by the assimilation of Jews into the broader Hellenistic culture. They advocated a return to traditional Jewish values and used violence and guerilla warfare as a means of intimidation and rebellion.

And yet, the groups couldn’t be more different.

Today’s alt-right have an artificial, ungrounded sense of persecution. That deep pit of self-loathe and lack of purpose was not put there by whatever group they’ve chosen to hate. Perhaps it came from other trauma, abuse or emotional distress, but that is a different issue. Supremacists seek to lose themselves in something bigger, to be enveloped by a cause that can do the thinking and feeling for them. They do this in order to find reprieve from their disenfranchisement. But in doing so, they lose their sense of right and wrong. They find acceptance but not peace.

The Maccabees, on the other hand, were empowerment done right. When faced with injustice, they found the language to express themselves, to assert their Jewishness in a way that celebrated their otherness. They did not seek to eradicate their foes or assert their superiority. No…they just wanted their temple back – the opportunity to worship God and be in relationship with one another and their creator.

When you’re truly empowered, your best traits shine through. You don’t desecrate, destroy or vandalize; you clean, build and re-dedicate yourself to holy service.

Martinez posited that outside of food, shelter and clothing, there are a few things all humans need to truly thrive: All humans need to give love and be loved, to feel truly seen and heard, and feel a meaningful connection to something greater than ourselves.

History tells us that the Maccabees had political motives and zealotrous commitment to their
cause, yet they still deserve to hold a place next to the heroes of Jewish tradition. Like Queen Esther, like Abraham, like Miriam, like those who were martyred in our people’s darkest times, Jews of all generations don’t lose themselves to faith, they are empowered by it. We have always been guided by our love of Torah and our commitment to community. We believe in hearing all opinions and even documenting them in case they one day ring more true. And finally, the shear insistence that “God is one” in and of itself ensures a sense of belonging and a commitment to a greater good. We Jews have a purpose – that is why “am Yisrael chai,” the people of Israel still live.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 states, “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might.” Jews have been disenfranchised, persecuted and killed. Yet in every age, we have be able to muster whatever power we have, no matter how small, and use it to do the next right thing.

May the brave, empowered memory of the Maccabees shine through this Hanukkah. We will proudly, boldly, display our chanukiyot in our windows, publicizing the miracle of our survival and our commitment to igniting the love and warmth within every human heart. Amen.

[1] Direct quote comes from here, but the same sentiments were expressed at the Jewish Futures Conference.


1 comment:

  1. This speaks volumes and illuminates the interface between the Maccabees and current thinking about those who fight to preserve faith. Yes, and the points about- basic needs - so true. Thanks Mara for helping us dig deeper and think about how to be the best humans possible.