What Oct. 7 has taught American Jews

(RNS) — On the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, which was both Shabbat and Simchat Torah, the world awakened to the Hamas attacks on Israel — the wanton murders of Israelis and the taking of hostages.

In terms of the sheer loss of life, and the ensuing trauma, it was the worst day in Jewish history since the end of the Shoah. 

It has now been a month since that “black Sabbath.”

Oct. 7 was a control-alt-delete for the Jewish soul. How can we now begin to imagine “post-Oct. 7” American Judaism?

American Jews now realize, perhaps more than ever before, that they are part of a people.

There is a perennial debate: Are the Jews a religious group, an ethnic group, a national group or a culture?

The answer, now as always, is: all of the above.

People have asked me: “Do you have any family members who have been affected by what is happening?” My answer is: “All of them. They are all my family members. Every single one of them.”

I have often said the Jewish people are a small people, but we are a large family — and this crisis has driven that home — perhaps in ways many previously unconnected Jews could never have imagined. This crisis has cut through the entire “religious/not religious” dichotomy of Jewish life. It turns out to not be all that important. You don’t have to light Shabbat candles to feel empathy for Israel and her people.

American Jews now realize, perhaps more than ever before, that they need to recalibrate the balance between universalism (caring for all people) and particularism (prioritizing the Jewish people).

There is that famous “mantra” from Mishnah Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

There has been a sudden shifting in the moral and emotional weight of those two couplets.

Yes, American Jews still believe in “if I am only for myself … ” They still believe in universal social justice commitments. But, something happened over the last month. American Jews turned to their allies on the progressive left. What did they find? All too often, apathy, tone deafness or outright hostility.

Sigh. This is a lesson many Jews had learned decades ago. I certainly did, when I left the Left after the Yom Kippur War.

Today, a new generation of American Jewish activists is wondering: What do those progressive alliances mean to us? What do those alliances mean to our partners?

American Jews now realize, perhaps more than ever before, that Jew-hatred is a “clear and present danger.”

Notice that I did not use the term “antisemitism.”

I am putting that term to rest, at least temporarily. It is too antiseptic — besides the fact that it was invented by an antisemite, Wilhelm Marr, to describe his ideology and to give it a polite scientific aura.

No. Let’s just call it “Jew-hatred.”

In recent years, the most violent versions of American Jew-hatred have come from the right: the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the 2018 attack on Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh; the 2019 attack on a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California.

Other attacks did not neatly fit into a right-wing/left-wing dichotomy: the 2019 attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City and the 2019 Hanukkah attack on a rabbi in Monsey, New York.

But, in the weeks after the Hamas attacks on Israel, the Anti-Defamation League reported a nearly 400% increase in incidents of Jew-hatred in the United States — both verbal and violent.

American Jews have encountered a weaponization of anti-Israel sentiment. Some of it has come from right-wing elements, who are always eager to latch onto whatever form of Jew-hatred they can find.

But, what has shocked many people is that much of it is coming from certain corners of the progressive left. It has proved that the further right you go, and the further left you go, the meeting place is Jew-hatred.

In the words of Jonathan Chait in New York magazine:

It is often the case that a movement’s treatment of Jews serves as a broader indicator of its health. It’s not an accident that the Republican Party has become more attractive to anti-Semites as it has grown more paranoid and authoritarian. What the far left revealed about its disposition toward Jews is not just a warning for the Jews but a warning for all progressives who care about democracy and humanity.

The pro-Hamas left is not merely indicating an indifference toward Jews. It is revealing the illiberal left’s inherent cruelty, repression and inhumanity.

Let us be clear about the plain meaning of the oft-chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there will be only Palestine — no Israel. 

This means there will be no Jewish state and, presumably, no Jews. There is a short list of the ways Jews can leave Israel: by ship, by plane and (my hands shake as I type these words) by body bags.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a slogan that would turn Jews into refugees and victims again.

Israel’s enemies — Hamas and its apologists and supporters — have no liberal wish list for the Jewish state. 

They do not want a better Israel, a more democratic Israel, a more inclusive Israel, even and especially a more “Palestinian friendly” Israel. They do not want a smaller Israel, which has made room for a Palestinian state.

They want no Israel.

Some dare call this what it is — Jew-hatred.

Ironically, I write these words on Nov. 8 — on the eve of the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass that heralded the beginning of the Holocaust.

Been there, done that. No thanks.

American Jews, more than ever before, are thinking critically about the meaning of higher education.

If you have children in college, there is a high probability they will come home for Thanksgiving parroting such concepts as post-modernism, deconstructionism, colonialist theory and the “narrative.”

Particularly if they are Jews, there is also the high probability that they stood by, embarrassed into silence, as their classmates and professors embraced the actions of Hamas, or justified those actions, or excused those actions, or relativized those actions, or piled accusations onto Israel in a grisly game of “whataboutism.”

For Jews in particular, this was a body blow. For centuries, Jews have put their faith in the values of the university — in higher education, rationality and intellectual curiosity. We allowed those values to eclipse the timeless Jewish values of Jewish text study. Once, there were Temples in Jerusalem. In modern times, we saw universities as our new temples. That was the Jewish ticket into the world.

And today? To put it in Brooklynese: “We wuz robbed!”

We paid our kids’ tuition and for what?

The problem is not that our kids have come home espousing various political ideologies. That is what young people do.

No. The universities have failed their students — intellectually and morally — in the name of various intellectual fads. In the name of a specious dualism that teaches the binaries of powerful/powerless and colonizer/colonized, the universities have failed to name the evil of Hamas for what it is. This has fostered hostile environments for Jews — in ways that would never be tolerated for other groups.

“Micro-aggressions?” Try macro-aggressions. Jewish students have been physically threatened. They were barricaded at Cooper Union, received death threats at Cornell University, where they were also told to avoid the kosher dining hall.

Years ago, I read Max Weinreich’s classic study “Hitler’s Professors.” I returned to it this past week, turning its pages with trembling hands. It chronicles the massive support for Nazis among the German intellectual class.

Many asked: How could that have happened?

Now, we know.

When you realize a Cornell professor said the Hamas pogrom “exhilarated” him, it becomes clear this moral and intellectual rot is deep in the system.

I predict this will cause American Jews not to abandon higher education (hardly!), but to increasingly question the values of the university.

Now, let’s breathe for a moment, and ask ourselves a question.

Will the current crisis produce an American Jewish adrenaline jump?

Perhaps. It happened once before.

In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish education improved — especially informal and immersive experiences. There was an explosion of Jewish culture, especially literature. There was a growth of Jewish activism, including the campaign to rescue the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jewish studies on college campuses proliferated. 

Why did this post-1967 American Judaism unfold? Because American Jews realized how close Israel had come to catastrophe. That realization served as a spiritual shofar blast.

Even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “I did not know how deeply Jewish I was.”

Many American Jews are now echoing his words. They did not know how deeply Jewish they were.

The Hebrew word for crisis is “mashber.” It contains the root, shavar, which means broken. A crisis is when something is broken.

But, here is an amazing paradox. The word “mashber” is also the word for “birthing stool,” upon which women in the ancient world would crouch in order to give birth. From this, we learn that while a crisis implies brokenness — a crisis is also, potentially, a moment of birth.

In these wretched, dark days for the Jewish people, we confront the brokenness, the mashber.

It will take a massive effort to engage in tikkun, repair.

I am willing to bet on us, the American Jewish community, and our ability to do so.

Previous ArticleNext Article