Where are You? Taking a Stand as a Jew
I address my words today not for the benefit of most of us here, but as Moses said, “Those who are not here with us today,” for the future, our children, grandchildren, especially those in high school and college, where the ideas that will shape the future are being taught and debated.
To speak of the future, I need to go back in time, to1951. My father had served as the Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt and he decided it was high time to leave Germany. He challenged the community to decide where they belonged—in the land of bloodshed and sorrow, or in another, greener land. He recalled the contest of Elijah against the priest of Baal, the contest that ended with the words which we use to end Yom Kippur- “Hashem Hu Haelohim”—The Lord, He is the only God It was a decision that people made after hearing Elijah’s challenge,” How long will you keep hopping from branch to branch.” Stop sitting on your suitcases, he told the community, and move on.
Fast forward over 65 years. Most of the Jews moved on to Israel, America, Canada, and elsewhere, but a small community remained. The small community prospered, and it was enhanced by the flow of newcomers from Russia and even Israel. There were new Rabbinical schools, a Jewish Museum in Berlin and a world class memorial to the Holocaust.
But over the last year, there has been a chill. It is not near the blizzard for Jews in France and Belgium, nor the freeze for Jews in Britain, but the surely start of a winter chill for the Jews in Germany. The country has absorbed a million refugees from the Middle East, primarily from Syria, without recognizing that they brought with them the entire baggage of ideology that was the hallmark of Baathist rule in Syria for decades- it was a population indoctrinated for decades on the hatred of Israel and Jews. The good intention was to undo the shame of the Hitler years. The consequences have been quite the opposite of the good intentions.
So Jews have been attacked by anti-Semitic vandals from among the refugees. To make matters worse, the reaction among Germans against the refugees has given rise to movements that also harbor ancient hatreds of the Jew. The mood is suddenly darker. One of the spokesmen for the Jewish community, Daniel Killy concluded that Jews are no longer safe in Germany.( Jerusalem Post, Manfred Gerstenfeld, Feb 2016).
Europe’s Jews have discovered, to their great dismay, that the left, the bastion of tolerance and acceptance, has adopted a fashionable anti-Zionism that serves to cloak open anti-Semitism. The British Labour Party, just for one example, was shocked to find that many high ranking members openly espoused clear hatred of Jews.
It is very much possible then, that my father was right-- 60 years premature-- but right. How long can the Jews of Europe keep bouncing form branch to branch?
But that is Europe. America is different. We are strongly rooted, well-entrenched. It is even said that Jews are everyone’s favorite minority. We have no worries. I thought so myself for many years--until recently.
No, I do not worry about a resurgent Nazi or Klan. That is an aging and shrinking population by any demographic measure, a population plagued by drugs, family collapse, and dwindling numbers.
However, I do worry about our campuses, so I address my words to our youth, even if very few are sitting here:
To my dear grandchildren, to your dear grandchildren:
You are going to be educated among the best and the brightest. The great American universities are there to open your minds to new challenges, competing ideas, ideas that will be annoying and uncomfortable but are essential to shaping future visionaries of this country. That is what you are promised.
However, for a long time now, we have witnessed a phenomenon termed the” Closing of the American mind.” Ideas are now marched through a narrow gate of permitted discussion.
For example, there is the concept that no one from the mainstream may appropriate ideas or elements on an oppressed minority. Borrowing of the cultural trappings of another is now considered an act of imperialism. This is a very fascist concept, first developed by Richard Wagner, when he denied that the Jew could possibly ever understand what it meant to be a German.
The trend today is to set up “safe zones” and “trigger warnings”, so that no one be offended by any concept or statement. Except for you, my young Jewish collegiate!
Thus, Jennifer Rubin reports in the Washington Post, ” Oh, but Jewish students are a different matter. . . the fact that none of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity seems of concern to the offense police tells us much about their agenda. Some minorities are more deserving of protection and respect, apparently.”
The most harrowing and threatening to our youth is the attempt to shut down any discussion of Israel which does not label it as “apartheid, racist, colonialist.” It comes from a new concept on the campuses of “ intersectionality” that claims that all oppressed peoples, a broad umbrella, that covers every ethnic group and every gender-oriented group, no matter what the differences may be, must work hand in hand to oppose “ white, male privilege” and imperial colonialism. It is particularly the Palestinians on campuses here that have successfully planted themselves as the core most oppressed group, and have created the atmosphere in which, you, the Jew, male or female, are guilty of “white, male privilege”.
With this comes an attempt to shut down Jewish expression.
Look at what is reported by the Washington Post. In the first half of 2016, “on more than 100 public and private colleges and universities with the largest Jewish undergraduate populations, . . . 287 anti-Semitic incidents occurred at 64 schools during that time period, reflecting a 45% “over the first half of 2015.
What atmosphere will you now confront?
Jennifer Rubin summed up, “As a result, Jewish students engaging in Jewish activity having nothing to do with Israel — wearing their Jewish sorority or fraternity letters, displaying Star of David necklaces, walking to Hillel for Sabbath dinner — report fearing for their safety and wellbeing. “
Here are the claims thrown at you. You need to know them and know the answers, but don’t expect anyone to understand you.
You are told that if you identify with Israel you stand accused of genocide. Arabs, including Palestinians, are being killed by the tens of thousands by fellow Arabs, aided by Russia, and Iran, but if you fail to demonstrate against Israel on the campus, it is you who stands accused of genocide.
You are told that you must support the boycott of Israel to protest the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. You will not be told that this boycott platform calls openly, not for the withdrawal from the West bank, but the withdrawal from Planet Earth. Thus, one of the key leaders of the movement declared,” OK, fine. So BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state. . . Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself. (Ahmed Moor)
You are told that you are colonialists, that you are European invaders and the uprooters of indigenous peoples. International law recognizes the right of colonized people to rise up and even engage in acts of terrorism. You are told that as a colonizer, you, or the Jewish state you admire has no right to defend itself. Not in the West Bank or in Gaza, and certainly not in Tel Aviv.
You are not told, because it contradicts the party line, that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East. Yes, not just because European Jews stem directly out slaves brought from Judea to Rome, 1900 years ago, but because, until the past two centuries, most Jews lived, and had lived in the Middle East since Abraham and his family. You are not told that the nations of the Middle East would have been congratulated by Hitler for creating Judenrein states.
You are not told that your “white male privilege” came at the expense of being spat upon as “impure “ in the Middle East, that you paid a special tax for the privilege of breathing in Moslem societies and that you survived at the mercy of the Christian rulers of Europe, that you were equally despised, for centuries in both Europe and the Middle East. No, rather, because your families have succeeded in this country, you are guilty of “privilege.”
Why, you might ask, should we not just close the door on those who shout at us and block our meetings and deny speech to anyone not toting their party line, dictated now directly by Palestinians here in the United States.? Just ignore it?
Because, quite understandably, we, as Jews, are used to siding with the oppressed, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. To be on the side that calls for justice is in our skin, in our DNA. We have been through so much; we want to be on the side of righteousness. That is where our Jewish youth stand.
Historically, we have been there. But be aware, that the very revolutionary movements to which we belonged spat us out the minute it was expedient, be it in the former Iron Curtain, and yes, in the movements for Arab nationalism, as well.
If you are going to be involved in justice and the struggle for the oppressed, do so, because you believe it is right, but do not believe that you will be beloved for it as a Jew.
Now, you might ask, why should we really care? After all, it is very natural for students to be burning idealists and get carried away with the fervor. They grow out of it as they meet the real world. Wasn’t I once on the front lines of a campus protest in the heyday of protests? I grew up, I matured. Bill Clinton grew up, and became a centrist President. Isn’t that what always happens? Maybe not!
I address my concerns to you, my next generation, because ideas have consequences. The campus protester today becomes the thought leader tomorrow. Those young protesters will become future elites, they will hold positions of influence, it is inevitable. But they will bring with them the attitudes towards Jews and towards the Jewish state that they learn today. Today’s American leadership, on both sides of the aisle, support Israel strongly. Tomorrow’s leaders, however, will have been influenced by the likes of Omar Barghouti and the radical Palestinians on campus. What your fellow classmates absorb on campus today can shape whether this country continues to underwrite Israel’s security. What your fellow classmates absorb on campus today can affect the well –being of the Jewish community here, too.
You must be ready to take a stand. You must say, like Abraham,“Hineni”, Here I am.
I want to leave you with these words of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. He was passionate fighter for the cause of the Jewish people, without let-up, to the point of hounding President Truman till Truman could no longer stand to see him. Nevertheless, his drive helped seal the United States’ recognition of the new Jewish state. He composed a poem of the history of the Jewish people. I will read only the opening and closing verses:
I stood with Abraham in his lonely vigil
And read the destiny of my people in the stars.
I was with Isaac when he built the altar
Where his faith and devotion were put to test.
He went on to list the key events of Jewish history, from the Exodus to the rebellion against Rome to the Holocaust and the rise of Israel, and then he concluded, with a challenge to you, and all of us:
Shall I leave them now?
Can I part company with this immortal band whom I love?
They have become too dear and precious to me.
They are bone of my bone,
Flesh of my flesh,
Soul of my people.
They are my people.
Their quest is mine.
They will live within me
and I will live with them.
So, my young collegiate, this is your people, this Yom Kippur Day, and always. Here is where you belong.