February 24, 2020

Anti-Semitism Can’t Extinguish Our Eternal Flame

“Around the world — even in America — Jewish students are being mistreated on college campuses: Jew-haters are provided student activity funding and special safeguards, while Zionist clubs are banished from campus. Jewish students are afraid to speak their minds in the classroom, while the crazy carnival of intersectional activists — with no Jews allowed — are provided safe spaces,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the Tikvah Fund, at the start of this year’s Jewish Leadership Conference in New York on Nov. 10.

“Yet stand up for truth and civility we will.”

Last year’s conference delved deeply into philosophical questions. This year was equally stirring, but began with a clear-headed if pessimistic reality, moved into a perceptive optimism, and ended with a spiritual pronouncement that’s hard to ignore.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke forcefully about the re-emergence of anti-Semitism — “a poisonous disease, not based on reason or facts.” It is now thriving — “an indisputable change in the 21st century” — with openly anti-Semitic professors facing no repercussions, the nefarious ideology of intersectionality and BDS (boycott investments sanctions) campaigns. “Words of hate lead to deeds of hate,” Hoenlein said.

“Why do you think they can attack with impunity?” he asked. “The vast majority of anti-Semitism is not even reported.” Social media is a major part of the problem. “It took months to spread the Big Lie. Now it takes nanoseconds.”

But Hoenlein focused the most blame on the apathy of the Jewish community. “We need to re-create the Soviet Jewry movement. We need to build walls of public condemnation, so that every anti-Semitic act or comment is disgraced, denounced, diminished.

“Words of hate lead to deeds of hate.” — Malcolm Hoenlein 

“The Holocaust was built by hate but paved with indifference,” Hoenlein said. “Everyone today must find their role: We will be judged by future generations by how we act today.”

The vibe changed dramatically with the next speaker, Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. If you look past the internal and external conflicts, Hazony said: “Israel is a rock of stability, even compared with most Western nations.” Israel continues to grow in every dimension he said, from exports to the number of Jewish children.

“What does Israel have?” Hazony asked. “A conservative democracy, based on the principles of the Prophets.” He also cited the revival of Hebrew, the requirement of military service — a nation-state of the Jewish people. “Israel looks to its past to move into its future,” Hazony said. “The Torah provides us with a system of values.”

Now, he said, Christian leaders from around the world come to Israel to learn from Israelis about the Old Testament, saying, “Our communities need it.” 

“For the first time, Jews can offer a model for a way of living,” Hazony said. 

One can quibble with Hazony’s use of the word conservative. Israel’s treatment of women, minorities, homosexuality, etc., is very much a liberal value. It is precisely liberals and centrists who need to hear all of this. But until liberals fully disconnect from illiberal leftism, conservative intellectuals may as well take true liberalism under their sway. 

Because there is no quibble with Hazony’s ultimate message: “Despite everything, Israel has indeed become a light unto nations.”

And then, after a full day of thought-provoking analysis, we were treated to what can only be described as a spiritual respite: Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, offered us “Jews: The Case for God.”

“An eternal fire shall burn at the altar; it shall never be extinguished,” it is written in Leviticus, he said. 

“That eternal fire,” Soloveichik added, “is the Jewish defiance of time. It is the miracle of our survival and endurance through hatred and exile. Our story is the greatest argument for the case of God.

“We were chosen — different. But in our particularity we have shown the universality of the human condition,” Soloveichik said. “We are a nation apart — exceptional, eternal. And as such, we have stopped world domination by fascists, Soviets, jihadists.”

It is time to honor the idea of Jewish uniqueness, he said — “the miraculous eternity of the Jew: the one nation that cannot die. The eternal fire of the Jew is undeniable. The only question is our courage.”

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.