Almost two decades into the 21st century, few people — and they’re getting fewer with each passing day — deny that the scourge of anti-Semitism we so triumphantly relegated to the pages of the 20th century has reared its ugly head once more.
Not that anti-Semitism ever really went away, but from Pittsburgh to Poway to the handful of predominantly Jewish enclaves throughout Brooklyn, N.Y., headlines of deadly and other vicious attacks have demonstrated that to be Jewish in America is to be born a target. And yet, we continue to fight amongst ourselves in assigning blame, with various groups asserting that either far-right white supremacists are the primary danger or that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his supporters are the preeminent threat to Jewish lives.
That we are even having this debate is ludicrous. The fact is neither David Duke or the black man suspected of throwing a rock at the head of a Lubavitch Chasid in Prospect Park — an attack that some on the right attributed, to varying degrees, to Farrakhan, and others on the left seemingly excused as the natural outgrowth of racial strife owing to gentrification — particularly cares whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, an AIPAC supporter or J Street member. To the person who hates Jews, it is the Jew who is the target, not the person who happens to be Jewish.
I know this, because, like many of you, I have been on the receiving end of classic, textbook anti-Semitism in every place I’ve lived. Dallas, Texas? Check. Baltimore? You betcha. Coral Springs, Fla.? Philadelphia? Absolutely.
(The one exception was in Jerusalem, but when I lived there, it was a part of everyday life to suspect that your particular bus ride could end in a suicide attack by an Arab terrorist.)
Those yelling obscenities at me, from “dirty Jew” to “f—ing kike,” could have passed for a sample of the United Nations. The particular race of the hater didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was Jewish.
Of course, it’s pretty easy to pick me out of a crowd, with my long, flowing beard, yarmulke and tzitzit hanging down from my waist. That probably helps explain the attacks against the haredi community, more than anything else: Even in this “modern” century, the word “Jew” will most likely be associated with skullcaps, beards and/or side-locks. The attacks in Pittsburgh — at a building housing Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations — and in Poway, at a Chabad House, had less to do with a particular religious practice and more to do with targeting an identifiable Jewish place, and the people therein.
The same is true for the deadly shootings outside a Jewish community center several years ago in Overland Park, Kansas, and a nearby Jewish retirement village, attacks in which not a single Jewish person was killed. To the shooter, a neo-Nazi now on death row, his three victims might as well have been Jewish.
Which is why it is the height of stupidity for us, with so many dead, to split off into camps pinpointing which brand of anti-Semitism is the most dangerous, or which political camp offers us the most safety. The purveyors of anti-Semitism care not a whit about our identity or our politics; why should we?
What makes anti-Semitism so uniquely destructive, as opposed to all the other isms that have stained world history for millennia, is how easy it is for its targets to excuse or outright deny its presence in particular corners of society. In fact, it’s been there all along, everywhere we might have thought were our allies and our communal safety. Germany was once a beacon of Jewish achievement, its Jewish community having achieved the highest levels of society. And the United States could one day end up the same way.
We forget that fact at our peril, even as we pray that such a future never befall us again.
So what should we be doing instead of arguing with each other? How about embracing anew our shared Jewish identity and our collective Jewish experience?
The only real and effective response to anti-Semitism is Jewish pride, refusing to bend or to hide. Where the anti-Semite seeks to render synagogues empty, we should pack them full with worshippers. Where the anti-Semite seeks to spark fear, we should ignite joy. Where Judaism is being lived in private, we should bring it out into the streets.
The absolute last thing we should do is quibble among ourselves, when our brothers and sisters are bleeding. With Rosh Hashanah beckoning, may the New Year finally bring us real peace — among ourselves and our surroundings. pjc
Rabbi Joshua Runyan is the former editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.