This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, April 2015
- Item – Western Europe: militant Islamists attack both free speech (journalists and cartoonists) and Jewish institutions (a kosher grocery and a synagogue) in murderous rampages in France and Denmark.
- Item – Los Angeles: a Jewish student applying for a position in student government has her impartiality questioned because of her membership in a Jewish campus organization, and the fact that she is Jewish.
- Item – Missouri: a candidate for governor commits suicide amid a whisper campaign that he is secretly Jewish, which his grandfather was but he was not.
- Item – Evanston: student government passes a non-binding resolution recommending that Northwestern University divest from companies “implicated” in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
I am generally a positive thinker. I try to think the best of people, to give second chances, to understand context and circumstance. I am not an alarmist or agitator who riles people up for fundraising or identity politics. When I look at previous periods of Jewish history, levels of anti-Jewish sentiment and activity are at historic lows – certainly compared to pogroms in the 1880s or mass expulsions in Europe in the Middle Ages or from the Middle East in the mid-Twentieth Century, and especially the horrors of the 1930s and 40s.
I am also a realist who wants to face reality. And one cannot be a realist while simultaneously holding a naïve faith in inevitable progress. When one of our Sunday School students tells his father that he’s scared to go to a synagogue because people are shooting at them, when a steady stream of Facebook posts wonder about the future of Jews in Europe, when an online Trinity College survey shows that 54% of Jewish college students report experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism on campus, we can’t help but become more nervous.
Yes, we can certainly get some perspective. The proportion of Americans with anti-Semitic attitudes, as shown by regular Anti-Defamation League surveys, is less than half of what it was 50 years ago, and even lower among native-born Americans. And some on campus might report any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, while others would differentiate between appropriate critique and crossing the line. The violent incidents in Europe are perpetrated by lone gunmen rather than entire communities, and are fought against by government and police – the opposite of Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, European politicians and governments are explicitly defending Jewish rights and institutions, posting armed police to protect synagogues. And I am never afraid to visit Ukrainian village in Chicago, even on Easter. I see no Kristallnacht event truly worthy of the name on the horizon, either there or here.
Nevertheless, there are still reasons to be concerned. While still a minority (30% or less in most communities), too many in the Muslim world are willing to excuse extreme, even violent behavior. And the conflation of Israel and all Jews may be natural given our own slogans (“We are One,” “Israel Solidarity Day”), even though those outside of Israel do not have a vote on its choices.
There are times that saying “I am Jewish” requires courage. If we draw inspiration from our heritage in good times, then we should also find strength from our roots when life is difficult. Our centuries old chain does not end here. And this time, we do not stand for ourselves alone.