Time for a Reassessment Among Jewish Americans
When I began traveling around the country last summer to speak to the Jewish community about my newly published book, We Need to Talk About Antisemitism, Jewish Americans had one basic set of questions: How can we keep our kids in the Jewish fold? How worried should we be about rising antisemitism? How can we fight it?
Then, on October 7, when Hamas murdered over 1,200 people and kidnapped some 240 others, everything changed, not only for Israel but also for Jews in the United States.
American Jews started asking an entirely new set of questions that were unimaginable for many just the day before: Are we safe here? Should we buy a gun? Which colleges are safe for our children, if any? Can I trust my neighbors? Should this change how I vote? Why are groups of young people openly chanting for the demise of Israel and the death of Jews? How can this be?
Politically liberal people who, on October 6, considered Fox News a virtual swear word are now glued to the cable news channel.
Jews in this country are in a period of profound reassessment. Maybe we were wrong—about a lot of things.
And of course, I hear the age-old question: Why do they hate us? The answer to that is unchanged. To understand why, first accept that antisemitism is a collection of nonsense contradictions. Fascists once called Jews communists while communists called Jews capitalists. Poor Jews are attacked and bullied, but rich Jews are maligned and resented. Orthodox Jews are criticized for being too distinct, for clinging to “tribal” roots, while liberal Jews are criticized for assimilating, for passing, for privilege.
Jews in America are hated by white supremacists and yet are accused of being white supremacists. We are despised by the elite and also called the elite. For centuries, Jews were despised for being a nationless nation, a wandering people with no home. Now, Jewish nationhood is portrayed as the source of all evil.
So why do people hate the Jews? It’s not because we are economically rich or poor, religiously Orthodox or liberal, politically left or right, or whether there is a Jewish state or not. People hate the Jews because we are Jewish. That’s the definition of antisemitism.
If antisemitism is a fact, then what can we do about it? Historically, there are three options: Stay and fight, leave and rebuild, or do nothing.
If we stay and fight, we can try to change the trajectory from within. We can write letters, form Facebook groups and use leverage. Right now, Jews around the country are doing exactly this—withdrawing donations from problematic universities or calling representatives to let them know where we stand. We can speak up and speak out; counterprotest and counterprogram; fundraise and organize. We can remind people that just as we have every obligation to fight for the dignity and justice for others, we also have every right to be a part of that work. We can stay on college campuses and in social justice groups and muster the chutzpah to shame the shaming of Israel.
Then, there’s option two: Leave and rebuild. We can literally leave and move to Israel, much like the Jews of France have been doing for the past several years at record numbers. Or we can leave on smaller levels. If an institution doesn’t want us or doesn’t protect us, we can leave it and build our own newer and better structures or join those organizations and institutions that already work within the Jewish world. If we don’t feel the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion complex supports us, for example, we can build our own social justice mechanisms that reflect our values of gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness) and tikkun olam, visiting the sick and lifting up the fallen, to name a few.
There is plenty of precedence in Jewish history for shedding institutions and building new ones. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and burned the city down, we lost the central institution of the Jewish people, but we were not defeated. Instead, the rabbis and scholars of the time kept going—eventually writing the Talmud, which gave us nothing less than the basis of the rabbinic Judaism we know today. Their insistence on reinventing and rebuilding is why 15.3 million people still exist under the umbrella of this thing we call the Jewish people.
And then there’s option three: Do nothing. Rabbis like to say there are no wrong answers, but in this case, there is one wrong answer. Doing nothing is not an option. It would lead to an outcome we absolutely cannot tolerate. Ignoring antisemitism enables it and helps it to flourish. I beg you not to choose this option.
Originally, I wanted to title my book Wake Up and Shake off the Dust, a reference to that call to action from Isaiah that is paraphrased in Lecha Dodi, which we sing each week during Kabbalat Shabbat. The great prophet implored: “hitna’ari, me’afar kumi….”—“Wake up, shake off the dust, Sit on your throne, Jerusalem! Loose the bonds from your neck, O captive one, fair Zion!” Isaiah’s vision is about being awake, aware and free as a Jewish people.
When I wrote my book, I felt like I had to shout my message of awakening to be heard. Now, suddenly, Jewish Americans are wide awake, perhaps seeing clearly for the first time what’s been there all along.
Rabbi Diana Fersko is the spiritual leader of The Village Temple in Manhattan and the author of We Need to Talk About Antisemitism.