I admit it, my Brooklyn childhood in the 1960s was a Jewish bubble. I thought everyone was like me and my family — Conservative Jews who went to shul on the High Holidays, fasted on Yom Kippur, had two Seders on Pesach led by their grandfather and abstained from bread for the eight days (though somehow I thought pizza was okay; maybe because it was flat?), and EVERY door housing a Jewish family was adorned with a mezuzah. This mezuzah-mitzvah was performed by every Jew I knew and was revered and maintained by gentile neighbors who, when moving into a formerly Jewish apartment, would not remove the mezuzah. Jew and gentile back then were more familiar with stories from the Bible. Gentiles may not have liked the Jews (some did; many did not) but they knew of the moments preceding the Exodus when G-d dispatched the Angel of Death to examine the doorposts of Egypt and take the firstborn sons living in homes whose doors were not marked by a mezuzah, as we read in this week’s parashah, Bo. Both Jew and gentile wanted this Jewish “life insurance policy.”
It seems that in this benighted “post-religion,” “pre-Moshiach period,” due to a combination of several factors (e.g., the public’s declining knowledge and interest in the Bible, decreasing respect for the right of others to practice their religion, outright anti-Semitism, or concern for safety), mezuzos are not merely objected to by Gentiles, but are absent from the doors of an increasing number of Jews — which is quite relevant, and a tragedy.
For the last few years, mezuzos have been under legal and physical attack. Since last summer’s war in Gaza, there has been a 50 percent increase in anti-Israel activities on campuses. Students in colleges and universities across America who have fulfilled the mitzvah of mezuzah have found them torn down and violated, often replaced with a swastika. The perpetrators may claim the attack is in retaliation for supposed crimes of Israel, but a mezuzah is not the address for complaints against the State of Israel; it is far more than the nation’s flag. The text of the mezuzah is arguably the concentrated synopsis of Judaism and desecrating it is not a political act but an attack against Judaism.
On the legal front, numerous condominium and co-op boards have claimed that affixing a mezuzah to the doorpost of an apartment contravenes the bylaws of tenant association agreements. Frequently, these boards have applied these rules with prejudice, fining Jewish residents who by hanging a mezuzah supposedly violated the agreement, yet permitting gentiles to display cultural symbols of their faith — wreaths, holiday decorations, crosses — on their doors. Cases have been brought by Jewish homeowners in Florida, Illinois, New York and other states to permit and protect their rights to affix a mezuzah.
In Brooklyn, the Jewish residents of an apartment building had their mezuzos set on fire, a dozen apartments in all. It is particularly disturbing that this horrific act of hate occurred, coincidentally or not, on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, a date dedicated to memorialize the heinous acts committed against the Jews of Europe 70 years ago.
The growing shadow of anti-Semitism has been darkening Europe, intensifying over the last few years. The mezuzah has become controversial because of its duality informing both the Angel of Death and the anti-Semite which is a Jewish home. The mezuzah serves both as the symbol of Hashem’s protection and as a virtual invitation for the anti-Semite’s harassment. Jews of the Netherlands, Belgium and now France have been encouraged to remove mezuzos from exterior doors by some Jewish organizations and by gentile neighbors who feel threatened. In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris of two weeks ago, a Jewish French woman was confronted by a neighbor who politely but firmly requested, as ‘official’ representative of the building, that she remove her mezuzah. The neighbor’s argument can be encapsulated by the words, “You don’t want to endanger everyone…” After considering the sacrifices her ancestors made so she could live freely as a Jew, the woman came to a solution worthy of Solomon: She will remove her mezuzah when she moves, in the immediate future, to Israel, the destination for an increasing number of French Jews who wish to publicly live as Jews.
Historically, how a society treats its Jewish minority is the surest metric for the moral condition of the society. When it becomes unsafe to display a mezuzah in Europe it is a sign of malaise in the society, threatening Jew and gentile alike. The commandment of mezuzah directs us to write the words on the doorposts of our homes and upon our gates, which is exactly where they belong — because that is where the barbarians lie in wait for Jews and all of humanity.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst, and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.