Was the attack in Monsey, NY, on December 29, 2019, an anti-Semitic attack? How about the increasingly frequent attacks on Hasidic Jews, as happened recently in Jersey City or the numerous incidents that are taking place in Borough Park, NY, or the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, or the synagogue attack in Poway, California in April 2019? The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, these are anti-Semitic attacks because the victims are easily identified as Jews and the words shouted and backgrounds of the attackers reveal that they chose their victims for this very reason. So why do I say that the answer is also no? That is what I intend explaining in this Musing. This is a difficult piece for me to write. There is absolutely no way in which I can treat the topic comprehensively. Furthermore, there are many ways in which my words could inadvertently hurt. I intend this, ideally, as a starting point for discussion rather than a finished piece. I am writing it because America is in crisis. If the American experiment fails, Jews around the world will be among those who will suffer, but in no way will they be the only casualties. My hope is that my words—and those my husband added while editing—might clarify the struggle.
Anti-Semitism—which I’m defining as singling out Jewish people for hatred— has existed since at least the generation of Jacob and Esau. Jacob received the covenantal blessing and continued the spiritual line of Abraham and Isaac. His brother Esau and Esau’s descendants, especially grandson Amalek, swore enmity to their cousins. One of the reasons that anti-Semitism is such a phenomenon is because the Jewish people are eternal. Other people and nations eventually exit the stage of world history, but the Jews endure. We also spread out around the world as prophesied in Genesis 28:14. This means that Jews constantly maintain their presence as targets of hatred, year after year, decade after decade, century after century and millennia after millennia. Amalek too has a spiritual component, but this destructive identity rests on different people and different nations at different times.
This spiritual dimension does not in any way legitimize the hatred, however, it does point to the fact that there is an unnatural and spiritual makeup both to the survival of the Jewish family and to the hatred of it. Any analysis of anti-Semitism that does not take this spiritual component into account is going to be lacking. For example, the great historian Paul Johnson wrote an excellent piece about anti-Semitism in 2005, yet he neglected the spiritual underpinnings. He recognizes that the hatred is irrational saying, “I would call it [anti-Semitism] an intellectual disease, a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone.” Understandably, as a historian, he didn’t discuss God’s unique relationship with the Jews and how this affects anti-Semitism as well.
However, many open-minded students of history would conclude that God has a covenant with the Jews and that because of that covenant no matter how many are murdered, as a people we do and will survive. That covenant also means that God holds us to a strict standard and, as He promises and warns in Leviticus 26, how we behave results in things going well for us or in great tragedies befalling us. Is this blaming the victim? No, it is reality. Often the victim is indeed complicit in his own misfortune.
As Mr. Johnson articulates, nations that succumb to the hysteria of anti-Semitism end up being diminished themselves. Whether we consider ancient Egypt or Rome or whether we talk of Spain in the late 1400s or Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany or Islamic countries today, God does, to paraphrase Genesis 12, curse those who curse his people. When God wishes to punish his children, He doesn’t need anyone’s assistance. Those eager to kill Jews who rush in saying, “Me, me, I’ll wield the sword,” and volunteer to be the instrument of punishment end up suffering even to the point of disappearing.
However, this does not let the Jews off the hook either. If we were faithful to God, no person or nation on earth could or would touch us. However, this refers to the people as a whole, not to individuals. In most generations, a minority is faithful while many more fail in that task or even actively rebel. We had to wander in the desert for forty years so a generation could die out before entering the land of Israel under Joshua’s leadership! The rejection of God’s will featured throughout the book of Judges did not cease when Biblical times passed.
Much ink has been spilled in trying to define who is a Jew. Are we a genetic group, a nation, an ethnicity, a religion? The baffling answer is all of those and also none of the above. The best I can offer is that there is a spiritual link marking those whose ancestors stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai (and ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that the ancestors of all converts to Judaism were there as well) that is incredibly difficult to shatter.
Nazi Germany declared that having one Jewish grandparent made you eligible for extermination. Were you raised as a Christian with Christian parents? That was irrelevant. Yet it touched a truth. People consider themselves Jews and are considered by others to be Jews no matter what their beliefs or whether there is any relationship between them and the Torah or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sometimes, the only relationship there is goes back generations or it is one of brazenly rejecting God’s presence in their lives. Other times there is intense fealty to one portion of God’s message but a spurning of the whole picture. Whether one is ignoring the guiding principles governing the relationship between man and God or man and his fellow man, this picking and choosing doesn’t end well.
Jews are meant to be a light unto the nations and they were given powerful tools with which to influence the world. Here is the catch: those tools can be misused to influence the world in the wrong direction as well. Let me offer an example my husband uses based on an idea taught to him by his uncle, one of the 20th century’s prominent rabbis. Someone riding a bicycle can stumble and fall. He will harm himself but no others. Most often, the damage to his body will be minor. That same individual who has an accident in a car can be more severely injured and can also injure others. He can go further and more comfortably than on a bicycle, but the downside is more serious as well. What happens if we now envision the individual piloting a commercial plane? He can transport himself and hundreds of others to locations thousands of miles away quickly and comfortably. Yet, an accident is likely to cause the death of everyone on board. In the same way, fire is a powerful force for good as well as for destruction and nuclear power can do both more good and more harm than fire can. Jews are the nuclear power of the world, both for good and for bad. As a group Jews are intensely involved in the entire mosaic of both human greatness and human failing.
The United States of America is a unique and amazing country for reasons that do not belong in this essay. One of the reasons it has achieved such greatness and has been such a blessing to the world is the safe haven and many opportunities it has offered its Jewish population. Yet those same Jews that have helped propel the country to greatness also have among their number those who have been encouraging secular socialistic policies that, if unchecked, will destroy America. Jews have been both a light to the nation and a heart of darkness. That is how spiritual reality works: it is a powerful tool for good and a powerful tool for bad.
People as disparate at President John Adams and historian Thomas Cahill recognized that ideas that civilized people share such as the value of each and every human life, justice that neither tilts toward or against the rich or the poor, and the importance of education entered mainstream thought through God’s chosen people. As a vessel for God’s wisdom, the Jewish people are invaluable. Yet, individuals are as human as members of all other groups. It would be nice, but completely unrealistic to assume that external religiosity is a foolproof indicator of goodness, but it isn’t. Many of those Jews who contributed great scientific, economic and social gains were a generation or two removed from Torah observance. There is no Moses or prophet available today to vet our thoughts and actions telling us if we are on the right track or heading for doom. But, we all can and must do our best to measure ideas against an unchanging moral code and beware of those who seek to replace God’s vision with their own.
When anti-Semitism is unleashed, those most easily identifiable as Jews often suffer the most. As an example, Leon Trotsky was one of many Jews in his generation who abandoned the faith of his fathers, embracing Bolshevik atheism in the early 20th century. As part of this rejection of his religious heritage, he changed his name from the Jewish-sounding Bronstein to Trotsky. His motivation may well have been a belief that religion, economic differences and nationalities separated people and were obstacles to a utopian society. Even the best motivation does not shield anyone from horrific unintended consequences. The Russian revolution he helped foment did not lead to peace on earth as promised and, in fact, it led to tremendous persecution against the Jews and the deaths of innocent millions. A story relates that when the chief Rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Jacob Maze, appealed to Trotsky to speak out against that anti-Semitism (and was rebuffed), the rabbi said, “Trotsky makes the revolutions and the Bronsteins pay the bills.” In other words, Jews who revolt against God and His Torah initiate actions that result in tragedies for the Jewish people. When that happens, those most recognizable as Jews are often the first to pay the price. For this reason, Hasidic Jews (often mistakenly referred to in the press as “ultra-Orthodox) and a Reform Temple in Pittsburgh are both targets.
However, I think it is a dangerous mistake to fixate on these attacks as anti-Semitic. Doing so suggests that they should be dealt with in isolation from similarly deadly attacks on churches, on concert-goers in Las Vegas, attacks on white people by black hooligans or on colored individuals by neo-Nazis, or on Amish schoolchildren or first-graders in a public school.
It is long overdue that we Jews stop viewing ourselves in an isolated way as victims in America. A Barnard College student was murdered by vicious thugs in Manhattan just at the time of the Jersey City massacre. A Texas church was shot up at the same time as the recent Monsey attack. It is not as if every non-Jewish citizen is living in a cloistered cocoon of tranquility, and only we Jews suffer.
Liberalism, promoted, encouraged, and financed by too many Jews for the past fifty years has, over the years morphed into Leftism. The overwhelming majority of individuals supporting those ideas did so with benevolent motivation and the desire to help make a better society. Yet, taken to excess, as it has been, this has largely been responsible for the collapse of civilized conduct on the streets of American cities. Today, the more Leftist a city and the more secular, the more anti-Biblical behavior is tolerated including assault and murder. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle do not even take sensible precautions to prevent human excrement on the sidewalks.
It is not hard to see that there are more acts of violent anti-Semitism and violence in general in New York and Chicago than in Dallas and Salt Lake City, cities in which the restraints of religion still exert cultural sway and where liberal Democrat ideas have not been in charge for over more than four decades. The far-Leftists (including both non-Jews and Jews) increasingly in control of the Democratic Party even shamefully refuse to condemn the openly anti-Semitic members in their ranks. As ancient Jewish wisdom predicts, those who show kindness without the balancing arm of firmness and rules as instructed by God, end up inflicting cruelty. Over many years, Jews and non-Jews whose values have been sculpted by secular fundamentalism blame all manner of causes rather than taking an honest look at the failures of the policies they supported that have led to suffering for so many.
Jews who do strive to follow Torah rules are not guiltless either. Too many have assumed that as long as they have their own schools and communities, the precipitous decline in civilization didn’t really impact them. This latter group needs to join the general outrage at the collapse of the culture which has been going on for half a century rather than maintaining a parochial focus on anti-Semitism. Yes, there are very disturbing attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, but to pretend that the mind-addled predators that attacked Jersey City or the mad Monsey murderer are avid followers of the rabid writings of Joseph Goebbels is to miss the point.
As difficult as it is to understand or accept, many of those who led and participated in torturing and murdering Jews under the Nazi regime were decent husbands, fathers, professionals and members of their community. That is not so for today’s anti-Semites. It’s not as if absent their Jew-hatred, the attackers in Pittsburgh, Monsey or Jersey City were model citizens. At the present time, Jews are collateral damage rather than the bullseye of the target in the collapse of American civilization at the hands of secular Leftism.
If you wake up one morning to find that the food in your fridge is spoiled, the lights won’t go on and your house is freezing, it would be a futile mistake to call a refrigerator repairman, an electrician and a heating company. You might look around and see that your neighbors are having the same difficulties as you are. The problem isn’t personal but a massive breakdown of your city’s electric grid. Expending money and effort on the symptoms isn’t going to solve the problem.
America has a systemic problem. About half its populace rejects the Judeo-Christian values and founding principles on which the nation was built. Effort expended on dealing with the symptoms, among them anti-Semitism, rather than on recognizing the source of the problem may serve as a band-aid but will not be effective on a large scale.
Did the attacks in Monsey or in Borough Park or Pittsburgh target Jews? Yes. Are proclamations against anti-Semitism, the dangerous focus on hate crimes, getting increased funding for security or political posturing the answer? None of these popular prescriptions are solutions to the problem.
What can we do? Certainly, prayer and repentance are elements, but action is necessary as well. Each American needs to take a stand in today’s world. To do so, we need to be informed and being informed today means searching for information as the media is untrustworthy.
In 1999, my husband and I wrote a book, America’s Real War: An Orthodox Rabbi Insists that Judeo-Christian Values Are Vital for Our Nation’s Survival. It was a best-seller and stirred great response, both positive and hateful. The American Alliance of Jews and Christians is one of the outgrowths of the book as it argued that Jews and Christians must come together, not theologically, but politically. It attempted to answer the question of why Jews were so liberal when so many liberal policies were either in rejection of God or with complete unawareness of the reality of unintended consequences. The book pre-dated 9/11 and so many other historic changes in the world. It is time to bring it up to date so it may serve as a tool in today’s battles.
We are considering a 15-week-series discussing and updating the book as well as joining together to find solutions to today’s problems. Make sure you are on our mailing list so that you will hear as details become available. Head to Friends of Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin on Facebook, comment on this Musing or shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know of your interest.