The hostage situation this week hit a lot of us hard. While we’re so grateful that none of the hostages died, we’re still understandably shook. One week ago, our hearts beat with the hearts of those who were held for hours. We sat in the pit with our Jewish family, able to do nothing but hold space and connect with them through our people’s Oneness. If ever we understood the phrase “kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh” - all of the Jewish people are responsible and connected to one another - it was in those tense moments of waiting.
This event hit the Reform Jewish community particularly hard. It was impossible not to see ourselves in that situation, to imagine the scenario in our own building with our own congregants and clergy. I don’t know Rabbi Charlie personally, but many of my clergy friends do. We’re peers. Reform clergy are having a particularly raw week.
It’s hard to disconnect this incident from what we are all craving most at this moment: a basic sense of safety. All we want is to just feel secure from disease; to embrace people without fear of the aerosols they may emit. We just want to go to work or out to dinner without having to run an “exposure risk algorithm.” And when we do re-enter the public sphere, we want to attend sports games and concerts without fear that some crazy person will disrupt it with violence. We just want to be carefree for a minute. This is what every American is feeling right now.
So then add on top of that the experience of being LGBTQ+, BIPOC, poor or otherwise marginalized.
Tonight, though, we have to talk about Jewish Americans - our collective trauma, the aggression our people experience in large and small ways every day in America.
We deserve to enter Jewish spaces without feeling like there’s a target on our backs and the backs of our children. We are exhausted by constantly mustering the gall to be “proudly Jewish” everytime a madman threatens a synagogue, or mobs with tiki torches chant “Jews will not replace us” or a member of congress makes reference to Jewish money and influence.
Not only am I feeling vulnerable this week, but I’m also angry. I preach against racism, I preach against bigotry - diseases that weaken and desecrate our society.
But why am I starting to feel like anti-semitism is a chronic disease that our nation has decided it can just live with? Why have we Jews been left to our own devices to fundraise and rearrange temple budgets, taking money away from program and ritual fund just to funnel it into security guards and security cameras?
How can it possibly be that FBI and national leaders could initially look at Colleyville and determine that anti-semitism was not the motive? Just because the perpetrator wasn’t yelling slurs doesn’t mean it is any less present. He’s actually part of a long, twisted tradition - going back to the 8th century, of using Jews as bait and exploiting Jewish familial ties to extract money or other outcomes. From then to today, the anti-semitic assumption is that BECAUSE there is some sort of Jewish power conspiracy, they can take us hostage to get what they want.
Bret Stephens put it perfectly in today’s NYTimes:
In the days since the attack, the F.B.I.’s head-in-sand approach, along with so much of the media’s strange pattern of omission, has been the chief topic of discussion in every Jewish circle to which I belong. How can it be, we ask ourselves, that Jews should be victimized twice? First, by being physically targeted for being Jewish; second, by being begrudged the universal recognition that we were morally targeted, too? And how can it be that in this era of heightened sensitivity to every kind of hatred, bias, stereotype, -ism and -phobia, both conscious and unconscious, there’s so much caviling, caveating and outright denying when it comes to calling out bias aimed at Jews?
We Jews feel alone again. If it is not classic Jew hatred, then we’re weathering the assertions that because Jews have power and privilege that we can’t be victims as well.
I’m not in the business of comparing the oppressions. Each oppression has its own causes and symptoms and challenges. All I am asking for is that we not deny the oppression that exists for Jews in America. Please just see it and decide that it too is not okay.
Dara Horn just received the National Jewish Book Award for her recent publication about anti-semitism: People Love Dead Jews. It is eerily relevant in the wake of Colleyville. But that’s her point, actually. In the book, she tackles the ambivalence to anti-semitism, which is anti-semitism in and of itself.
As she tours Holocaust Museums and exhibits, she questions what effect the Holocaust has on our modern reactions to anti-semitism. She writes:
“The last few generations of American non-Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust - which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make anti-semitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events [are] dying off, the public shame associated with expressing anti-semitism [is] dying too…”
But more than expressing regret that the “shock factor” has worn off, Horn is concerned that our current display of Holocaust artifacts and our harping on the enormity of the situation, has the adverse affect to what we want to achieve: “yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as to not repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.”
What happened in Colleyville is not the Holocaust. Fliers linking Jewish people to the COVID pandemic is not the Holocaust. Swastika gratifi on a middle school is not the Holocaust.
But it shouldn’t have to be the Holocaust for Americans to speak out. We shouldn’t rationalize the catcalling or shoving that happens to ultra-orthodox Jews on the streets of New York and Jersey City as justified protest to “gentrification” or qualms with Israel.
It’s wrong to victimize Jews. Period. End of sentence. I await the outrage.
And despite this, I welcome the heartfelt notes I’ve received from local Christian and Muslim groups. I most especially welcome the Jewish pride that this evokes in myself and others.
Because, the most important thing we can assert is that being Jewish is NEVER a burden. A heavy responsibility, sure, but never a burden.
As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serial threatened by despair. Every ritual, every element of Jewish law is a protest against escapism, resignation of the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known…[all] in the name of a world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”
I pray that in our fear, exhaustion and anger, we can find that voice of protest. The still, small voice within that refuses to despair. That voice that in its more tenuous moments, grabs hold of the ancient song of our people and rides a while on its current until its strength is restored and it can begin to sing along.
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