Most of us know the chilling details about the recent attacks on American shuls. But what’s not getting nearly enough attention is the spate of attacks against individual Jews in places like the streets and subways of New York City. Increasingly, Jews are in fear of immediate physical danger simply for appearing Jewish. We’ve seen this film before, and we know how it ends. These stories have not gotten much attention in some quarters, and that’s unfortunate because we should all be taking notice.
Rav Avraham Y. Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, might say that since we diaspora Jews have ignored so many of the prescribed indicia of redemption (e.g., the return of Jews to the Land of Israel, the growth of Jewish religious observance, the land’s material prosperity and fecundity, etc.) that when the carrot doesn’t work, we invite the stick. Rav Soloveitchik might say this is God resuming the traditional dialog with the Jews via the American zeitgeist. Being Jewish, as he wrote, is to reject etiology and embrace teleology: history is hardly a sterile, mechanical process. It is, rather, a conversation between God and the Jewish people. Are we listening?
In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Avraham undertakes his most famous negotiation. He bargains for the city of Sodom and argues that it would be a terrible violation of divine justice for God to destroy the cities of the plain if there were even 50 righteous people living there. God agrees, but then Avraham realizes that he needs some wiggle room in the numbers. He presses his point until God accepts his proposition to spare the cities on account of a mere 10 righteous people living there. Avraham still overshot, of course, and the four cities were completely destroyed, but the image of arguing for what’s right—even with the Creator Himself!—is indelibly etched into the Jewish psyche, even our DNA.
This week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, opens with another fascinating exchange, this one between a recently widowed Avraham looking to bury his wife, and Efron the Hittite. Avraham needs a plot of land and, after exchanging some bland pleasantries, persuades Efron to accept full price instead of his gifting it to Avraham. This was to ensure that there would never be a question as to the rightful ownership of what is known today as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. In both cases, core elements of what it means to be Jewish are hashed out and recorded for posterity. And today, both are being relitigated and the silence of most Jews is deafening.
The grand bargain between America and American Jews is being renegotiated, but only one side is at the table setting new terms. The other side is ignoring every sign, ensuring endless caterwauling and lamentation when the ink dries. There will be think pieces and long, reflective articles written by impeccably credentialed writers that all the right-thinking people read. They will sound sober and deliberate and they will insist that, yes, things aren’t great, but the last few years have been but a hiccup in an otherwise smooth trajectory of improving conditions for American Jews.
I’d love to agree with that, but one challenge of living as a committed and traditionally observant Jew is that it’s hard to ignore our history, however much we might want to. Compared to the last 20 centuries of diaspora Judaism, Jewish life in America has been the best ride in the park. American Jews enjoy rights and privileges that Jews from Europe, Africa or the Middle East couldn’t even dare to dream of.
But things changed for us, and it’s been very recent and abrupt. To the conservatives among us, perhaps, it can be tempting to stop at facile explanations for the present state of things, but I think this risks ignoring other forces at play. The proliferation of social media, for example, has emboldened and encouraged elements on both sides of the spectrum who used to be shamed and chased into the shadows and fringes of polite society. Now they have audiences and devoted followings. These beget marches and rallies (and confrontations), further poisoning the atmosphere. There is a dialectic here that yields progressively strident and entrenched adherents on both sides. Historically, this has never redounded to the benefit of the Jewish community.
That brings us to today. I live in a thriving and vibrant traditional community, and most of us worry a lot about things like whether or not our children are equipped to live on college campuses, which are increasingly hostile to traditional Jewish values. Many of us see Jews being assaulted with impunity on the streets of Brooklyn and wonder how long before those attacks spread. If identifiably Jewish women and children in Brooklyn are fair game, where are Jews physically safe in this country? More synagogues are clearly being surveilled and targeted. Are local, state and federal law enforcement agencies doing all they can? While we’re at it, are we?
In case it isn’t clear, these are questions that betoken a profound shift in a community’s concerns and priorities. It’s hard to overstate just how dramatic this shift is. It used to be simple for American Jews: you go to college and start a career and you’d get to live better than 99% of Jews over the past 2 millennia. We could be as observant as we liked, build and support local and national Jewish communal institutions, and invest in Israel as much as we wanted. But every one of those pillars of Jewish life in America is under attack and being renegotiated by America, and especially by younger Americans who will go on to shape the culture of the coming decades.
Traditional Jewish values are anathema to the poses and posturing that passes for contemporary progressivism. To many on the left, Jews in Israel are colonialist interlopers, invaders of European extraction (a notion laughably refuted by even a child’s familiarity with Israeli demographics). To the fringes on the right, Jews aren’t quite white and so we don’t quite belong here either. To anyone familiar with Jewish history, this is all, well, very familiar. And those of us who’ve done the reading are nervous.
Yali Elkin has lived in Teaneck with his family since 2004. He is the CFO at a global manufacturing firm.