January 18, 2020

The Symbols Behind the Hate

A participant wears a kippah during a "wear a kippah" gathering to protest against anti-Semitism in front of the Jewish Community House on April 25, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

I’m getting dizzy. A string of anti-Semitic attacks is putting all of us on edge. I’m on information overload — the horrible facts, statistics, “thoughts and prayers,” condemnations, defiant responses, etc. What can I add to the conversation?

Perhaps just one thing: some reflections on symbolism. 

I guess I’m obsessed with symbols. I want to believe that life is more than what we see, that there’s some mystery and meaning behind the dry facts, even dry facts about terrifying hate crimes.

Let’s start with the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.

There’s something disturbingly symbolic about attacking Jews as they pray in solemn observance. They’re sitting ducks. And an attack on their house of worship symbolizes that Jews everywhere ought not feel safe in the one place they’re supposed to be able to congregate.

And then there was the kosher market shooting in Jersey City, N.J., where two Jews — a mother of three who was co-owner of the store, and a rabbinical student — were killed on Dec. 10. The student was a shopping duck. The symbolism was hard to ignore because the message was clear: Jews won’t even be safe in a market.

Next, there’s the sidewalk. It seems that every week, Jews are attacked on New York sidewalks. They’re walking ducks. Everyone ranging from corporate executives to the homeless walks on the sidewalk but the symbolism is obvious: Yes, the sidewalks are for everyone except religious Jews, who ought to stay home.

That is, until they’re targeted at home, as were the victims in the Dec. 28 machete attack in Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg’s home in Monsey, N.Y. If a Jew can’t even be safe in his or her home, there’s only one symbolic conclusion: The Jew — his or her mind, body and soul — ought not to exist at all.

All hate crimes are abhorrent but there’s something particularly cowardly about attacking the pious.

And what about Jews themselves? What’s our symbol? Well, there are many. But in the case of the Orthodox Jews in distinguishable Jewish attire on the sidewalk who get sucker-punched in the back of their heads, I see only one symbol: unguarded piety.

All hate crimes are abhorrent but there’s something particularly cowardly about attacking the pious, whether Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka or a Jew on the way to afternoon prayers in Crown Heights, N.Y. Some Jews in Monsey reportedly have armed themselves with assault rifles but all I see is the sheer cowardice of their attackers.

New York’s response has been to ramp up police presence in Jewish neighborhoods. This, too, is symbolic in two ways: First, the fact that, like in France or Israel, Jews need police presence to ensure their safety is a crucial turning point in our history in the United States.

Second — and this is important —  increased police presence, even if it’s to protect Jews, could be construed by some as symbolic of possible police harassment of others. One friend posted on Facebook this week about a conundrum of identity versus morality: As a Jew, he was clearly grateful about police presence but as a social justice warrior, he was concerned that the police would racially profile black people in the neighborhoods where Jews had been beaten up, slapped and stabbed.

My final column of 2019 was dedicated to Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. My first column of 2020 was spurred by Congregation Netzach Yisroel in Monsey. Whether spelled “Nessah” or “Netzach,” the word means “eternal.”

The prophet Samuel understood symbolism. He wrote, “Netzach Yisroel Lo Yishaker” (1 Samuel 15:29), meaning, “The eternity of Israel will not lie.”

No, we won’t lie down. 

And we won’t stop sitting in a synagogue. 

Or shopping in a kosher market. 

Or walking on the sidewalk.

Or celebrating Judaism at home. 

In fact, a few hours after the attack in his home, Rottenberg led dozens in thunderous prayer and song as a way to “close” Shabbat. Why? Because he believed the incident was “an open miracle,” given how much worse it could have been. 

Clarity rooted in gratitude. There’s nothing more eternal than that.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.