Jews across the world are rightly agitated by rising Jew hatred, not merely hostile rhetoric and anti-Israel activism but also physical attacks on random Jews. In France and Germany, in the United States and (lest we forget) Israel, and in other countries, Jews have been assaulted by enemies of the Jewish people in sudden and unprovoked beatings. Jewish institutions have been targeted in these countries as well, and most Jewish places of worship and assembly have beefed up security in recent years.
Is it worse than ever? Of course not, but Jews are understandably concerned and at a loss as to why it is happening and how it can be prevented. A recent AJC survey indicated that 88% of American Jews think Jew hatred in America today is a problem, and 84% think it has increased in the last five years. Yet, 98% have not experienced a direct personal attack, whether physical or verbal, and 95% have not avoided attending Jewish events for reasons of safety. Thus, the perception might be worse than the reality.
But the reality is that hardly a week goes by without a report of a physical attack on a Jew somewhere in the world. Certainly, the plethora of Jewish media outlets and web sites publicize these attacks, such that Jews who pay attention to these things know about it quickly, and repeatedly. Domestic politics has largely cultivated this perception as well, as Jewish Democrats have undeservedly embraced the narrative that President Trump and Republicans are to blame; that would hardly explain why a young black man in New York City punches a Hasidic Jew in the face almost every week (young black males not being generally perceived as MAGA hat wearers).
Sadly, it seems that nothing ever changes. Jew hatred is a persistent evil that, logically, should have disappeared after the Holocaust, after the founding of the State of Israel, or after the social progress in so many societies. And yet it endures even in countries where few or no Jews live.
One could spend a lifetime studying this phenomenon and not ascertain any definitive source. Every reason proffered is insufficient, and every putative cause is debatable. To listen to the nasty diatribes or read the rabid ranting of Jew haters today and historically, the causes are multi-faceted, contradictory and often mutually exclusive. They hate Jews because Jews are too clannish or too cosmopolitan. They hate Jews because we are too wealthy or too poor, too liberal or too conservative, supporters of Trump or opponents of Trump. Some hated Jews because Jews were Communists and others hated Jews because Jews were capitalists. They hate Jews, many say today, because of Israel, but Jew hatred long predates the establishment of the State of Israel. One could go on and on, and no reason is ever dispositive because all of this ignores one fundamental dimension of our existence.
There is a paradox at the heart of one of the most well known – and challenging – descriptions of the Jewish people. Moshe proclaimed in his final charge to the Jewish people, almost his very last words (Devarim 33:28), that “Israel dwells securely when alone (“badad”), itself an echo of the most famous exposition of this notion, Bilaam’s characterization of the Jewish people as “a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).
We are so familiar with this idea that we don’t ever consider why this is or should be a value. The great Rav Avraham Zuckerman zt”l noted that the Torah posits that the Jewish people are central to the world’s existence. Blessing flows to the world through us and our responsibility for the fate and welfare of other nations is a paramount feature of our existence. By definition, we are engaged with the rest of mankind. Nonetheless, we are also mandated to dwell alone, not be commingled with the nations but rather to retain a separate and distinct identity. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch even contended that we exercise our greatest influence on the nations when we are alone and distinct.
How can we be both alone and engaged? Moreover, Moshe underscores elsewhere (Devarim 32:12) that “G-d will guide us to be alone…” When does that happen?
Perhaps the answer will explain the current unrest in our world today. Indeed, the bane of Jewish life (in addition to persecution) has always been assimilation and its corollary – life in the exile. In every society in which we have lived, Jews have assimilated in large numbers over time. But when we are threatened with disappearance – when our assimilationist tendencies pass the tipping point – it is then that Jew hatred seemingly rises out of nowhere to remind us of our identity. As much as we try to hide it, G-d will not let it be hidden.
That is what the Torah means when Moshe declared that “G-d guides us to be alone” – to feel alone, to feel singled out and even excluded. And this Jew hatred, which is always beneath the surface, then explodes, the lid bursts off, and people who have no logical reason to hate Jews just start attacking Jews.
Has the US crossed that tipping point? The truth is that I don’t know how G-d runs His world or makes these judgments. What I do know is that assimilation in the United States is worse than ever and intermarriage is more accepted than ever. Both trends are extremely damaging and it is certainly unsurprising that these wake-up calls – these inexplicable attacks on Jews – have proceeded apace.
Several weeks ago, three Jewish athletes played baseball on Yom Kippur for their MLB playoff teams, all of whom, rightfully, lost. It does not seem that much thought was even given to the question of playing or not playing. A Sandy Koufax opting out of playing on Yom Kippur is simply unimaginable today. The attachment to Judaism outside the religious world is much more tenuous; the connection to Judaism is cultural – not national. It is personal – and not anyone else’s business. Even that modest symbol of commitment – abstaining from a public desecration of the Day of Atonement for the most frivolous of reasons – has been lost.
When Jews start vanishing and their Jewish identity evaporates, then “G-d guides us to isolation,” to feeling our identity through the hatred of our neighbors. That the targets are often clearly identifiable Jews does not mitigate the hypothesis; after all, we are all in this together and responsible for one another. “Once the destroyer is unleashed, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (Bava Kama 60a). Eventually, the world takes notice of this unusual phenomenon – this original, incomprehensible and unshakable hatred of the Jews – and they too will acknowledge the one G-d.
Some will be adamant that more education is needed to win over hearts and minds and eliminate this scourge. It is wishful thinking and a waste of resources. A recent Schoen Consulting poll revealed that almost 1/3 of American adults believe that far less than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 22% of millennials hadn’t even heard about it – and this after decades of billions of dollars spent on Holocaust education, memorials, museums and programming.
Others will argue that this is tantamount to blaming the victim, as if to say we bring Jew hatred on ourselves. Such a contention is a denial of Jewish tradition and thought – and that itself is an accurate synopsis of the problem. Of course we do not deserve to be attacked in the streets or in our synagogues, and many will say (rightfully so) that we should arm and defend ourselves and fight back. All true. But that doesn’t address the root of the issue. When our Jewish identity is expressed through virtuous acts and closeness to G-d there is no need for the negative pressures and overt hostility to reinforce that identity.
This is our world, and that is the downside of this process. The counterforce to assimilation and the attenuation of Jewish identity is a shocking and forced reassertion of Jewish consciousness. As our Sages stated (Masechet Megila 14a), Haman’s extermination plans did more to bring about the repentance of Jews than the words of all forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses combined.
But there is an upside as well – we have the capacity to transform ourselves and the world itself and render Jew hatred a distant memory. For it is not only the Jewish people who are alone in the world. It is G-d who is also “alone,” until we bring His kingship and His glory to the attention of all the nations who will realize and even rejoice in the knowledge that there is no G-d but G-d and that we are His people.
As we near the end of days, it will become more and more difficult for Jews to retain their Jewish identity. That is when we must redouble our efforts and immerse ourselves in Torah and mitzvot, in Shabbat and Kashrut, in the traditional morality and value system of the Torah that we brought to the world. In fact, our lives depend on it.