America’s Jews face a New Reality

Hitler’s Brown Shirts are alive and well, trolling the streets of America in keffiyehs, harassing and assaulting Jews, painting swastikas on walls, and vandalizing synagogues and Jewish-owned property.  This is the image that comes to mind, a comparison between the activities of the Nazi Party’s para-military troops of the 1930s who attacked Jewish citizens of Germany and vandalized Jewish-owned property, and the swarms of pro-Palestinian ruffians who have literally been hunting Jews in order to harass and assault them.

This sudden explosion of violent physical antisemitic behavior witnessed in recent days in a number of large American cities, but also in Toronto and London, was not a spontaneous expression of mass rage.  It was almost certainly an orchestrated campaign emanating from somewhere within the Gaza-based Hamas terrorist organization.

An attack on a Jew in New York City (Photo credit: YouTube screengrab, cropped)

For over a half-century and throughout all of Israel’s wars, American Jews have felt secure when publicly demonstrating their support for the Jewish state, as secure as when walking down the street simply going about their daily business; there was no reason not to.  Jews identifiable by their garb, a kippa, a Magen David, or a Hebrew necklace felt no threat to their person.  Their homes were their castles.  Jewish businesses were never singled out and targeted.  Until recently American synagogues required no security.  This idyll is no longer the case and it represents a watershed in American Jewish life.

It is natural to wish that this new reality be limited in both scope and time.  It is understandable for Jews to think “This is America, America is different,” or perhaps “It will never come to my neighborhood,” or “It will pass.”  “It will pass” we know was the belief clung to by far too many of Germany’s Jews for far too long.  It had to pass. After all, Germany was… well, Germany. Germany was home, Germany was enlightened, Germany was the fatherland. Jews had been there so long, had come so far, and had proudly achieved and contributed so much to German culture, the sciences, the economy… and they did so as Germans. 

Their ultimate tragic fate brings to mind the parable of the frog who, ignoring the rising temperature of the water in the pot, remains until it is boiling.   Yes, it is unrealistically alarmist to think that any future American government would round up Jews and send them to concentration camps, or worse.  But the threat to America’s Jews need not take the form of state-sponsored antisemitism.  It is enough, as witnessed during recent days, that local police are not able, perhaps not willing, to provide protection against the growing ongoing number of assaults.

Jews on the political left argue that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are separate matters and should not be conflated.  This position emerged in response to the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) widely accepted definition of antisemitism, with examples that include the denial of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  But it is not for Jews to parse the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.  Hitler defined who was a Jew and who was not… and acted upon it. 

Those who promote this dichotomy might think it stands to reason that American Jews who feel no affinity to Israel, and especially those determinedly opposed to Zionism, should be above the fray and exempt from the wrath of the pro-Palestinian mobs.   The fight is over Zionism, is it not?

The unprecedented physical attacks on American Jews, in which the assailants yell both anti-Zionist and antisemitic slogans at equal volume are a convincing rebuttal to that argument.  The expressions of hatred coming from both the masses of pro-Palestinian marchers and from street-roving packs are “Death to Israel” and “Kill the Jews,” not “Kill the Israelis.”  People who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict know that the lexicon of Palestinian terrorism speaks of murdering Jews, not Israelis.   Zionist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, throughout all these attacks across America, politics make no difference; if you are recognized as a Jew, you are a target.

Unless this menace somehow passes quickly, this new reality is a game-changer for America’s Jews.  Not to be cynical, but to be realistic, the number of Muslims in the United States, now at about 3.5 million, is growing.  And with this growth comes greater support for Palestinian interests.  They are increasingly finding ways to promote Palestinian nationalism and publicly challenging the legitimacy of Zionism at an unprecedented level, not only in the street but also in the halls of Congress, on university campuses, in corporate board rooms, and in the media.  Their activities are well funded. 

But more importantly, they are going about this with a passion that is reminiscent only of the support Jews in America gave to Israel during the Six-Day War or during the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.  Tens of thousands of Muslims and their supporters participated in all the recent pro-Gaza demonstrations held in American cities.  In contrast, pro-Israel rallies drew but a few thousand demonstrators, in some cases only hundreds.  This relatively poor showing reflects the findings of the just-released Pew report on American Jews, specifically an overall weakening of Jewish organizational life and the waning commitment of younger American Jews to the State of Israel.

America’s Jews have reached a crossroads that points in four directions.  First, some may go off to smaller cities or towns in search of anonymity, places where they relinquish all ties with organized Jewish life and can feel safe, far from any potential confrontation over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Without the need for Jewish camaraderie or institutions, a vast United States stands ready to accommodate them. 

A second path requires significantly beefing up security at the grassroots level in Jewish communities throughout the United States.  Recognizing that police patrols cannot be everywhere at once, more local Jewish communities would train volunteer residents to form neighborhood defense teams that would work in cooperation with Jewish organizations, governmental authorities, and local law enforcement to guard Jewish residential areas and institutions.  Examples of this are New York’s Community Security Service and Magen Am in Los Angeles.

A third road leads to Israel.  This, of course, is the most daring route.  This would resemble the increased immigration to Israel by Jews from France in response to that government’s inability to quell a similar rise in violent antisemitism.  

Finally, a fourth road really goes nowhere. It involves sticking it out and hoping for the best, hoping that it will pass.  It is the one likely to be chosen by most American Jews.  Why?  Because the water isn’t boiling… yet.

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