My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.* And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.
I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”
Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945. In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.
My grandfather would tell the story (over and over) of how he and my grandmother, Pop and Bubby, huddled awake all night guarding the hundreds of M1 rifles and handguns Dad had deposited in their small apartment. They waited for a knock on the door that meant they were busted, or men had come to carry the illicit armory out to the Brooklyn shipyards.
Pop was born in Jerusalem in 1899. His great-grandfather trekked with his two sons and wife, and a donkey, from Poland to Jerusalem in the early 1800s. In other words, Zionism ran like a hot current through my Dad’s blood.
Did he have dual loyalties, to America and Israel? Without a doubt.
Was he less patriotic than any other American soldier who served in WWII? Absolutely not.
Was he wrong about his fear about America and the Jews? For sure.
Or at least, he has been wrong so far.
Now the tide of the zeitgeist (I use the word for its, um, bitter flavor) may be turning, and he tragically may have been prophetic after all. In the past few months, something has changed in America.
Yes, most of us are alarmed about the new tolerance for – even encouragement of – flagrant anti-Semitism – in the “normal” media and even in Congress. Yes, we know what is happening on campuses and in Europe. Yes, the majority of Jews embrace secular atheism and express contempt for any religious belief, a generation before they may disappear as Jews altogether.
But there is a much greater danger. I am hearing Jews express hatred for other Jews like never before. There has always been simmering resentment and finger-pointing among us. Ask Moses about his stiff-necked rebels in Sinai. But now I hear Jews speak about other Jews as if they’d be glad to see them destroyed, or at least silenced. Even Jews who are otherwise glad to be Jewish reserve their worst animus for their landsmen.
I heard one affiliated and proud Jew call a whole other sect of Jews “vermin.” I heard another Jew repeating gleefully and spitefully the news that some Orthodox Jews are not inoculating their children, even accusing (falsely) someone I know well, a respected educator, simply because they are Orthodox. Agreed, not inoculating your children is a sign of suffocating insularity and ignorance, not least ignorance of Jewish law which demands you protect the health of your children and the community. It’s a stupid and deplorable sin.
But the accuser’s energy staggered me. I literally took a step back. His bias was no better than any other anti-Semite’s – or indeed any other hater’s. He painted all Orthodox Jews with his broad brush of bias, because of the actions of a few – albeit dangerous – members of the group. It was clear he felt he had proven the failure of all Orthodox Judaism to live up to civil standards. The contagion – the malicious influenza – of his prejudice is much worse than the measles.
The other day, a couple I love told me that when they announced their child was getting married to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, two rabbis of other brands of Judaism separately said, “Mazel tov – or should I offer condolences?” Three years ago, when I gave my pitch for Jewish unity to him, a rabbi said, “Agreed. If only the Orthodox would …” For sure, it’s a two-way street, and he had plenty of reason to be sore at rulings by Orthodoxy about the practices of other Jews, but who’s going to stop lobbing bombs over the fence first?
A long-time friend will no longer speak to me because I support Israel and I support America’s support for Israel. He thinks (wrongly) that by definition I must be rooting against his team in partisan politics.
“No one will fight for a community that is divided among itself.” So writes Adam Garfinkle in “The Collapse: Is this the end of American Jewry’s Golden Age?” Although I don’t agree with all that he says, he is sounding an alarm. We’ve been here before. We Jews gotta clean our own house as we gird for this coming battle against anti-Semitism. Ben Hecht, arguably the most prolific, successful, and influential Hollywood scriptwriter, mounted a national campaign to convince FDR and the State Department to rescue Jews being exterminated by Hitler. He was turned away, partly because many prominent Jews and leaders of Jewish organizations were afraid that “Judaizing the war effort” would unleash anti-Semitism at home. We see how disunity in the face of the storm worked out.
The sages tell us that when Jews express widespread hatred for each other, transcendent danger looms. They said the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE because Jews talked evilly about other Jews. At this moment, there are too few Jews in the world – maybe 14.5 million, or less than one-fifth of one percent of the world population – for us to fight with and hate on each other. On Passover, we recall that in every generation, “they” rise up against us to try to destroy us. I pray we don’t become “they” to each other. I pray we don’t participate as accomplices in this prophesy by ploughing the field for the evil harvest intended by our real enemies.
Instead, let’s embrace – or at least stop talking trash about – all of our siblings and cousins and other more distant, even alien, Jewish comrades, however they dress or undress, whatever they believe or don’t believe. Our enemies surely don’t make such fine distinctions among us. In the spirit of klal Yisroel, let’s beat them to the punch and remember that we are a single people.
San Mateo, CA – Pesach 5779