Hillel

Marking Yom HaShoah in 2019

This is the text of the letter I sent out to the Babson College community today,
on the eve of Yom HaShoah:

Thursday is Yom HaShoah, the annual day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the defeat of the Nazis, it is a time for sober reflection about what the legacy of the Holocaust means to us who are now three and four generations removed from it.

In truth, all Jews today carry within them the legacy of the SHOAH (the Jewish term for the events called “the Holocaust”), although each carries it in a different way. Many Jews have branches on their family trees that simply break off. Others grew up with memories passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents about survival in the most miraculous, or most horrific, of circumstances. Others simply know the stories, and have a vague sense of responsibility because of the legacy of this painful history. It is part of us, forever.

Yom HaShoah seems especially resonant this year. Surveys of Americans tell us dispiriting news. Two-thirds of millenials (and 41% of all Americans) do not know what Auschwitz was; 22% of them never heard of the Holocaust (or aren’t sure if they have). The remaining survivors of the death camps are elderly today; in a few years, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Nazis and their enablers.

And the emerging trends of hate, violence, and white supremacy are on our minds this year. The murderous attack at the Chabad synagogue of Poway, California last week - six months after the massacre of Jews on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh - in the name of white nationalism conjures up great horror among us on this Yom HaShoah.

This week, the ADL released its annual study of antisemitism in America. In 2018, it recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents in the United States, including the bloodiest in American history (the assault in Pittsburgh). This number is the third-highest annual number that the ADL has ever recorded. This is why many Jews, young and old, are asking questions we've never asked in our lifetimes:  How safe are we here, really? 

What is there to say or do? I think the answer from Jewish tradition is twofold. There is a famous saying by the great sage Hillel from over 2,000 years ago (it would be a cliché if it weren’t so perfectly accurate):  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If I am not for myself”— this is why Jews take the legacy of the Shoah so personally. Jewish survival, and its transmission to the next generation, is an absolute obligation for us; the Shoah makes that message only more profound. This is part of what the State of Israel means to us: There is a refuge; a safe place (recalling that the whole world, including America, turned its backs on many victims of the Nazis); and, not insignificantly, a Jewish army to defend itself. The Shoah isn’t the reason Israel exists (its roots extend far earlier than the War), but it does explain the passion with which its supporters will defend it.

In other words, this response to the Shoah is: AM YISRAEL CHAIThe Jewish People lives. And every Jew has a responsibility to make it so. 

But if I am only for myself”— That “but” is crucial. The Shoah didn’t start with death camps; it began with the increasing dehumanization of Jews, and propaganda that gradually eroded rights and liberties to the point where we were turned into something less-than-fully-human. Denial of rights leads to oppression. And that leads to neighbors abandoning and attacking neighbors; which led to genocide. It was systematic, it was thoughtfully planned, and it was almost successful.

This idea, too, seems particularly profound in 2019. The massacres of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand remain a fresh wound. As does the assault on Christians in Sri Lanka. And the burning of three black churches in Louisiana last month. Just to cite the three most notorious, and most recent, examples of the current rise of hateful violence. 

In other words, the other commanding voice of the Shoah is to stand up against the dehumanization of anyone, anywhere. To say to every tyrant: “Not on our watch.” To know and understand our neighbors - and to defend and protect them.

That is what is at stake in the memory of the Shoah. That is what we mean when we say “Never Again.”

Saying No to the Neturei Karta of the Left

 ?הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.?וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָ

Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?  (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

When it comes to Hillel’s famous quote, selective memories prevail. The Jewish left has a tendency to forget the first clause—if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will. And the right tends to ignore the second—if we’re only concerned about our own needs, what happened to our essential human empathy? Hillel knew that living in tension with these two values was the jumping-off point for much of Jewish ethics.

This tension surfaced on Thursday evening, as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston voted to prohibit Council member-organizations from partnering with or co-sponsoring events with “self-identified Jewish organizations...that declare themselves to be anti-Zionist”. This is a good and proper decision.

Some people may not think so. Some inside-the-tent groups on the Jewish left opposed the measure, arguing that we need to expand the Council, to be inclusive of the widest possibly array of voices that are found in the Jewish community. That dilemma—one which progressive minded people are especially sensitive to—was widely felt at the JCRC meeting.

The JCRC vote became a necessity when one of the Council’s constituent organizations—Boston Workmen’s Circle—suggested that its occasional partnering with anti-Israel groups, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, might mean that they are not in compliance with JCRC’s membership requirements. This prompted a close look at what, precisely, membership in JCRC means.

The JCRC was founded in Boston in 1944 as a coalition of organizations to act as a unified voice for Jewish concerns. First and foremost among those concerns was combating antisemitism. But JCRC also became the leading Jewish voice in New England for progressive causes, such as the labor movement, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. And fighting for a secure, Jewish, democratic, and peaceful State of Israel—which was a progressive cause then, and, for many of us, remains so today.

Thursday’s discussion was absolutely civil and occasionally emotional. Workmen’s Circle, with its Yiddish-socialist early 20th century roots, was a founding member of the Boston JCRC. Its representative, urging the Council to reject the measure, argued that if some groups haven’t found a place at the Jewish “table”, we should “make a bigger table.”  As JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton pointed out, there was an appropriate sadness in the room—because it would be sad to lose organizations of good people, committed to righteous causes, over this issue.

Further, it’s terribly sad when Israel—which once was the great unifier of the Jewish people—becomes the thing that divides.

And it’s sadder still when the State of Israel behaves in such reprehensible ways (not only towards Palestinians, but also towards large swaths of American Jews) that some Jews feel that they have no choice but to abandon the Zionist enterprise altogether.

I felt all those things at the meeting—and I also felt a surging sense of pride to raise my card and vote in favor of the resolution.

Because, as Jeremy also pointed out, boundaries in fact mean something. They don’t merely exclude. They also define: what, precisely, do we stand for?

Granting legitimacy to anti-Zionist voices (which, noisy as they may be, are a microscopic constituency among American Jews) would be a disaster.

After all, among the greatest gifts that Zionism brought was the invigorated notion that the Jews are a people; that we are a cantankerous, often dysfunctional, but nonetheless-in-the-same-boat family wherever we are found.  The State of Israel became the greatest expression of this, and the ultimate experiment in putting Jewish ideas into action (a government, a university, a military, a culture, a society) in two thousand years.

Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace jettison all that. They made explicit last week what has been obvious for much longer, when they issued a defining statement affirming that they are opposed to Zionism in all its forms. Let’s be clear: this isn’t an academic exercise. If that point of view gains traction in the American mainstream, the direct result will be the killing of more Jews.

It’s difficult to make those boundaries. Progressive-minded people quite appropriately want to be inclusive of as many others as possible; indeed, we are often stronger together.

But there are boundaries. For instance, most Jews recognize that the group known as Neturei Karta—an arm of the ultra-extremist Satmar Hasidic sect—are beyond the pale of mainstream Jewry. They’re the ones who show up and picket community Israel celebrations, or who meet with the most implacable leaders of Israel’s enemy nations to offer their friendship and support. They call Zionism a demonic abomination (and worse) and insist that it delays, rather than hastens, the world’s redemption.

Well, last week the JVP made it official: they are the Neturei Karta of the left. They chose the side of the Jewish people’s enemies, abandoned the notion of Jewish peoplehood, and rejected any awe of being part of a generation for which our ancestors desperately yearned (and often died). Their argument completely misunderstands or ignores history, utterly abandons the work of the Zionist left, and in fact strengthens those who oppose any vision of a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

They inhabit that strange parallel universe where the fringiest extremes of the left and right bend around so far that they become ideologically rather close. It’s the sort of place where tiki-torch bearing MAGA extremists dovetail with the antisemitic extreme of elements of the Women’s March leaders, who somehow find it so difficult to disassociate from Farrakhan.

Voices like these are active opponents of the values inherent in the mainstream Jewish community, especially its civil rights elements—the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Labor Committee, etc. Not to mention the wonderful Zioness Movement—“unabashedly progressive, unquestionably Zionist.”

And then there’s Boston’s JCRC itself:  historically standing for decency, justice, human rights, and peace for all. “For all” includes us, too, you know. Our opposition to Trumpism in all of its grotesque forms does not mean we have to join together with other kinds of haters, including antisemites.

Hillel himself would have appreciated the irony.