Sunday, December 29,2019/7th Day of Hanukkah, 5780
Dear Members of Temple Beth Shalom:
We are horrified by the stabbings at the home of an Orthodox rabbi in Monsey, New York on Saturday night. The attack comes shortly after a series of assaults on Jews in the Greater New York during the Hanukkah week.
I want to share three statements with you. The first is from the New York Board of Rabbis, in which Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis in the New York area are members. (I am a member of the NYBR.)
The second is an excerpt from a tweet by an important commentator on Jewish matters, Bethany Mandel (who is a relative of mine by marriage). She writes, in frustration and anger: “…Jewish blood is cheap and Hasidic blood is on clearance.”
The third is the sermon I delivered at the erev shabbat Hanukkah service two days ago (below). It analyzes two major challenges we are now facing as Americans and as Jews.
2019: ELEMENTS OF A BIG PICTURE
There’s an old Jewish joke that seems always to be relevant:
The chairman of a major Jewish organization receives a telegram from the investigator he had sent to a troubled area. Only seven words were permitted in telegrams, and this one read:
“Commence worrying. Details to follow. Your investigator”
This bitter joke reflects our sense of edginess and precariousness even in a society that has welcomed Jews more fully, arguably, than any other country in history. The welcome may be owing to what has been featured as the pluralistic, non-ethnic nature of American society. Or perhaps it is due to America’s vast natural resources that have permitted upward mobility without coming at the expense of others – not a zero-sum game. Despite that, when a bank is robbed, we worry — was the robber Jewish? We worry that the three Congressional chairs dealing with the impeachment, as well as the scholar-witnesses who offered expert testimony on impeachment, are Jewish. Is it time to worry when a right-wing fundamentalist Christian minister rants on his email publication about a “Jew coup”?
What are we to make of the secular year now ending? What are some of the big issues that will trouble us in the year ahead? Tonight, I will focus on two issues that are separate from our concerns for Puerto Rico.
The first is the polarization of domestic politics. You are either with me or against me. Today, there is a near breakdown of willingness to agree or negotiate or compromise on anything. Every issue is subjected to a purity test, enforced by party loyalty: truth versus tribalism. Each side claims its narrative is true. Obvious lies are repeated endlessly to distract and confuse people. Institutions and government officials attack one another in the vilest of coarse ad hominem language. Each side claims to be defending the Constitution. But when loyalty replaces reason, reason is in full-scale retreat and demagogues, using powerful social media, get to have leverage that endangers American democracy.
And endangers American Jews in particular!
The second issue is the rise of global antisemitism. It’s only 75 years since the Holocaust, but the golden age of American Jews is over. The most ancient, most irrational, most senseless and murderous prejudice of the Western world is back and achieving mainstream status. In one of its forms, it is the disguising of anti-Jewish expressions as criticisms of Israel, not only Israel’s policies but its very existence. This strategy aims to delegitimize the only democracy in the Middle East, judging Israel by standards not applied to any of the real human rights violating nations in the world. That’s the method of operation of the BDS movement, as well as of the agencies of the United Nations.
And in domestic political and cultural terms, the “progressive left” vilifies all Jews as “Zionist oppressors,” and therefore disqualifies and excludes them from any and all social justice issues. There are Israel supporters on the right, but most of the “very fine people” at that end of the political spectrum want to make sure that “Jews will not replace us.” For Jews, there is no more left and no more right! Both exclude us.
And now add to this poisonous mix the accusations of disloyalty being leveled against American Jews.
These verbal assaults have led to physical attacks on ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews, who are especially vulnerable because of their distinctive clothing at the traditional Etz Hayyim synagogue in Pittsburgh, at the Chabad congregation in Poway, California, and the kosher grocery store in Jersey City. [And the night after I delivered this sermon, a machete attack on an Orthodox rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York while the family was lighting the Hanukkah menorah.]
To be sure, there has been a dramatic increase of physical violence in American cities and towns, in general, but the attacks on Jews are much more than simply one category among many: Jews are the first to be victimized. We are the canary in the mineshaft of Western democracy. The first to be victimized, but not the last. The red warning flags are up.
We can take a bit of comfort in the acts of solidarity that have followed some of these attacks, yet current Jew-hatred is a stubborn reality that I’m afraid is becoming the new normal.
As the new year approaches, let us resolve to hang on, to resist being intimidated into fearful silence. We Jews have always been prisoners of hope – asirei tikvah (Zechariah 9:12) and we shall continue to be so in the year ahead.