What does the upcoming holiday of Shavuot teach at a time when American Jews are under attack from the right and the left?
From the right we have the white supremacists who murdered Jews in cold blood in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. We have demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, who wore Nazi uniforms and declared, “Jews will not replace us” (as if we were trying).
From the left we have freshman Congresspeople from Minnesota and Michigan who make blatantly anti-Semitic statements, yet their colleagues in Congress cannot condemn them outright. The best they can do is to pass a watered down resolution, classifying anti-Jewish animus alongside so many other phobias (Islamophobia, homophobia, etc.) so as to be all but meaningless.
Whether from naivete or condescension, Speaker of the House Pelosi assures us that one of these Congresspeople really didn’t know what she was doing, being from another culture (Somalia) and all. Yet Rep. Omar grew up in American culture from the age of 12. She is now 37.
Make no mistake. This rising anti-Semitism runs deeper than misstatements by Pelosi on the left or President Trump on the right. It is wishful thinking to attribute this ugly rise of anti-Semitism to an individual or individual statements, as if the anti-Semitism would go away if only Trump and Pelosi — or even Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — would just speak more carefully. The rising anti-Semitism is a worldwide phenomenon, from France to Iran, from the US to South Africa. Anti-Semitism is afloat around the world more visibly than at any time since the Holocaust.
Even in the US, there are neighborhoods in the East which resent and attempt to repel Jews from moving in.
While there may be many reasons for this ugly development, it is difficult to stare reality in the face. One reality is nationalist populism from the right, especially in Europe. But the main reality is anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. Like it or not, Israel is seen as speaking for the Jewish people worldwide. If Israel can be characterized as inhumane, this feeds the narrative that Jews are, too.
Even if the primary mover behind this anti-Semitic movement — Boycott, Divest and Sanction — does not succeed in generating actual boycotts of Israel, BDS has been eminently successful as an idea.
• It has demonized the democratically elected prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.
• It has ignored the presence of expert Israeli medical or technological personnel on the scene of virtually every natural disaster around the world, extending aid to humanity, Jewish or not.
• It has reversed the cultural reality of Israel, whose technological prowess has contributed to the medical, hydrological and agricultural welfare of humanity way beyond its numbers.
• It has reversed the political-Palestinian reality of Israel, which, whatever Israel’s errors in concept or military application, has had to act in the context of one, underlying, obdurate, persistent reality: the local Arab refusal to countenance an independent Jewish corporate reality in Palestine.
Rather, Jews in Palestine have heard from Palestinian or Arab leadership:
“No” to Jewish farms (1880s-1917); “no” to the Balfour Declaration (1917); “no” to a Jewish Arab-Jewish governing council under the British Mandate (1922-1948); “no” to the UN partition plan (1947); “no” to an independent Jewish state (1949-1967, which included not one square mile of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or East Jerusalem); then three “no’s”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations (Arab League in Khartoum, Sept. 1, 1967).
Then, more “no’s”:
“No” to an independent Palestinian state alongside an independent Jewish state (Camp David talks, 2000 and Olmert-Abbas talks, 2008) — not to mention the Arab violence against Jews in Palestine in 1920, 1936-1939; 1947-1949; 1950s-1956; 1967; against Jews along the Suez Canal, 1970; against Jews in northern Israel, 2006; against Jews in southern Israel, 2008-2009, 2012, 2014; and all the terrorist attacks in between, up to this year.
The two “yes’s” — from Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 — found Israel ready to lay down arms and welcome peace treaties, however coldly carried out.
So where does this leave us on the eve of Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago?
This seminal event can generate either entitlement or responsibility. Either the Torah bestows privileges or it beckons Jews to rise to its standards.
At a time when anti-Semitism occupies something of a middle ground — clearly more than just the animus of a few, clearly less than pervasive throughout the population — there remains ample opportunity for Jewish behavior to make a difference.
Jews are under scrutiny. The takeaway from Shavuot is not a sense of superiority or entitlement, but renewed commitment to living up to the ethical standards of the Torah in the public square.
The opportunity to make a difference is still with us. So is the necessity. Jews are under scrutiny.
Thanks to Rabbi Ron Y. Eisenman for many of the ideas in this column, such as the character of Jewish vulnerability today and the distinction between entitlement and responsibility; based on his talk in Cong. Ahavas Israel, Passaic, NJ, last Shabbos. Rabbi Eisenman is not responsible for the way I have elaborated on his ideas.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News