Amid the ongoing debate and turmoil over President Trump’s controversial remark that “it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” for Jewish people to vote for a Democrat, it is important to recalibrate the conversation and focus on what is a far bigger issue facing our community:
As I sat down to write this piece, I read about two new incidents of anti-Semitism in America. The Justice Department in a regular email sent to immigration court employees included a link to a white nationalist blog called VDare that used racial and anti-Semitic slurs to directly attack sitting immigration judges. The Justice Department later apologized for sending the link and reiterated its condemnation of anti-Semitism in strong terms.
Next, an editor with the New York Times issued an apology for numerous anti-Semitic and racist tweets he had sent dating back to 2008, some of which have since been deleted.
Both incidents occurred in one day. There isn’t a day that goes by without some new story about anti-Semitism. This just confirms what Jews of all stripes are feeling and experiencing. As New York Senator Charles Schumer put it in a meeting with Agudath Israel leaders last February, “I don’t recall this level of anti-Semitism in America in my lifetime.” On the political front, outspoken advocates, both on the far right and the far left, are no longer inhibited from spewing their anti-Semitic venom. Provocative statements from the president, no matter how hard some try to explain them away, are only serving to exacerbate an existing problem. Whether it is the recurrent hate crimes against elderly Jews walking to shul in Brooklyn, or the increase in Nazi graffiti on Jewish institutions, or the regular reports of high school students recording their Nazi salutes, or the murderous shooting incidents in two synagogues, Jews are living in fear in this country for the first time in our memories.
Having said that, the American experience is clearly different from that of European Jewry before the Holocaust. We have not had to go through the organized governmental or communal anti-Semitism in our lifetime that was a normal part of life in pre-World War II Europe. While we are witnessing many incidents, some very disturbing, we still enjoy rights, freedoms and protections probably unprecedented in our long and difficult galus. All this means is that we may be in a very early stage of something much worse. It also means that we had better deal with the situation now, while we still have a modicum of influence to effect some meaningful change.
Given all this, how should we as Jews respond to the current disturbing trend in this country? Should we increase security, carry weapons or train militias? Should we attack anyone who utters an anti-Semitic epithet? Should we distance ourselves from people or statements that raise the ire of fellow Americans? Should we study our history for solutions and, if so, what lessons should we take? Or, maybe, should we just sit tight and wait for it all to blow over?
Without question, it is necessary for Jewish leaders to come together, study and understand what is happening, and, with a unified voice, address the problem of rising anti-Semitism in America. In order for that to happen, we must first admit the depth of the problem. Understanding what one is dealing with is the first step toward any solution.
Any meaningful response in the realm of hishtadlus should have two components. We need an organized comprehensive plan to protect our shuls, schools and communal facilities. Our communication systems are outdated. If, chas v’shalom, a serious incident were to occur, we would need ways to warn or let others know.
There are no developed response plans, either local or national. What if an attack were to take place on Shabbos or Yom Tov (as two already have)? How would we communicate? What would we do? Any plan should include a preventive security system involving training our first responders and potential security personnel, as well as communal and institutional awareness meetings. It goes without saying that all of this involves funding. We will have to tap governmental and private donor sources to make it happen.
Just as important will be our plan to respond to anti-Semitic incidents and statements. We have to make it abundantly clear that we will not tolerate either one, and we should respond quickly and effectively. Anti-Semitism should be as politically incorrect as any other ethnic slur. Support for white nationalism, left-wing hate speech, Nazi salutes, anti-Semitic chants and rallies must be denounced in the strongest possible terms, no matter the political consequences. At the same time, we have to be prepared to speak out against other forms of racism and hatred if we are to have any credibility. We have to remember that in the democracy we are privileged to live in, we have to maintain and strengthen our political relationships on both sides of the aisle.
While we clearly need a strong defense and offense to combat anti-Semitism, we as religious Jews have additional perspectives to bring to the table. Although all of the above qualify as hishtadlus, or effort, which, according to many Rishonim, is incumbent upon us, let us not lose sight of the words of those same Rishonim that our hishtadlus does not create results. It is our job to make the effort, but our effort has nothing to do with the ultimate outcome, which is in the Hand of the Borei Olam alone. As such, we must turn to the Torah for direction in these dire times.
We are taught to hold fast to Torah and mitzvos. At the same time, we are told not to incite more hatred by engaging in inappropriate communal norms, such as flaunting luxury. At times when Hashem seems to be treating us with the middas hadin, we have to be more careful about lashon hara and sinas chinam. We must strengthen our limud haTorah, kiyum hamitzvos, and tefillah.
All of this sounds difficult to accomplish, but we are living in difficult times that demand serious effort both in ruchniyus and gashmiyus. May we merit to find favor in His eyes so that He will return the crown to its proper place through the Geulah in our times.