We American Jews enter a new decade that feels like a much older one. Fresh off murderous and violent attacks on Jews in Jersey City, Monsey, and across Brooklyn, resurgent anti-Semitism and the resulting fear for our physical safety is for many American Jews a new phenomenon and one we never thought we would experience. Uncertainty is gripping the Jewish community and the new decade feels as if it will be a pivotal one for the quality and sustainability of American Jewish life as we know it. It strikes me that we are both overreacting and underreacting at the same time and need to recalibrate our approach.
What we have seen on the streets of the New York metropolitan area, and the fear that it has engendered, seems out of place here. It is reminiscent of scenes from European cities, where Jews are attacked for displaying outward signs of Judaism, or attacked for the offense of speaking Hebrew in public, or attacked in their homes for nothing beyond the crime of being Jewish. Orthodox residents of Crown Heights and Williamsburg are afraid to walk the streets or send their children to school. None of this is normal, none of this is acceptable, and it should not be treated as either. And it is not incumbent upon American Jews to find a solution; it is incumbent upon our elected political leaders and American society writ large to find a solution. When Jews are afraid to be Jewish, it says absolutely nothing about the victims and everything about the perpetrators and anyone or anything that abets them.
Yet while making sure that this problem is dealt with swiftly and comprehensively, it is also important to diagnose the breadth of the problem accurately. Deborah Lipstadt has forgotten more about anti-Semitism than I will ever know, but her speculation that American Jews may end up imitating medieval Spanish Marranos – hidden Jews who privately maintained their Judaism while outwardly appearing as Christian converts – by going underground strikes me as inapt. Spain’s Jews faced a choice at the end of the fifteenth century of expulsion, conversion, or death. The entire force of the Spanish state, intertwined as it was with the Catholic church, was brought to bear against the country’s Jews. Hiding one’s Judaism was not about avoiding potential danger, but in response to a fatal decree from absolutist monarchs. While a step down from the Inquisition and Torquemada, the environments created by the ruling class of Tsarist Russia that fomented pogroms or by Soviet leaders that sanctioned anti-Jewish discrimination were also the result of official state policies, of governments giving the green light to or directly leading anti-Semitic mobs.
Contrast that to the reaction of federal, state, and municipal governments to the anti-Semitic incidents in New York and New Jersey. They have been denounced by the president, governors, mayors, and members of Congress. Elected leaders have promised to devote resources toward combatting anti-Semitic attitudes and protecting Jewish institutions and have rushed to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish community. Until words are turned into actions, we should withhold judgment on the seriousness and efficacy of these promises. But that the wall to wall reaction is to condemn anti-Semitism and evince a desire to remove its scourge demonstrates why the situation in the U.S. is a universe away from the ones that previous generations of Jews fled from in Europe.
As for Jews going underground in Europe today, it is indeed frightening and saddening. But it is unfortunately not a recent occurrence. It is the norm in Europe, whereas in the U.S. it remains the exception. I do not dismiss or make light of college students who feel compelled to downplay their Judaism or their Zionism. If it happens to even one person, that is one person too many. But we are not at the point in the U.S. where we have blast walls and machine gun-toting guards outside of our synagogues, where we have to ask a local for the address of a kosher restaurant that has no visible markings or identification as such, or where government officials issue warnings against wearing kippot in public, nor do I think we ever will be. Not for nothing is anti-Semitism described as the world’s oldest and most persistent hatred, and it should be clear to all American Jews that we will never be free of it entirely. Jews will be killed for being Jews, and it is small comfort to point out that such incidents remain exceptional. But it is premature to declare that it is open season on American Jews, that American Jewish life is fated to retreat behind high walls and closed doors, and that past is prologue.
All that said, there have been too many recent instances of American Jews not taking the current moment seriously enough, and nearly all of them revolve around some form of excusing inconvenient anti-Semitism away. We have all seen this in doses over the past few years, with a camp that kicks into high gear over right-wing white nationalist anti-Semitism but is blind and deaf to the far left variety that inherently views Jews as oppressors, and a camp that has a hair trigger for the anti-Semitism of progressive intersectionality but is blinded to right-wing classically anti-Semitic stereotypes by the glow of the Jerusalem embassy. On both sides, this has to end. It cannot be that the far right and the far left, despite the chasm that separates their worldviews, can manage to be united in their sneering hatred of Jews while we Jews ourselves cannot manage to be united in combatting that hatred.
If your response to the Jersey City or Monsey attacks was that it is a complicated situation, you are not serious about anti-Semitism. If your response to any display of anti-Semitism is some form of whataboutism in insisting that the other side’s is worse or more dangerous, you are not serious about anti-Semitism. If you think that it is okay to rail about globalist Jews as long as you support Iron Dome or West Bank settlements, or that it is okay to rail against evil Zionists so long as you display phantom nuance by separating them from good non-Zionist Jews, you are not serious about anti-Semitism. And if your reaction to a politician who proudly stands next to Robert “Judaism leads people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell” Jeffress differs at all from your reaction to a politician who proudly stands next to Louis “Jews are the mother and father of apartheid” Farrakhan, you should think about whether you are more interested in combatting anti-Semitism or more interested in weaponizing it. If we want to make sure that anti-Semitism remains unacceptable, then we have to treat it as such no matter the source, the target, or the ostensible motivation.