As Israel battles Hamas U.S. Jews are experiencing an alarming rise in antisemitism. On college campuses, students have been shocked by the hatred that has been unleashed, some are afraid to wear Jewish stars. A local rabbi who has been active in human rights campaigns over the years told me, “I don’t know who my friends are any more.” Here in Orange County, Jewish leaders have been battling with progressive activists in the Democratic party who have been promoting anti-Israel resolutions.
American Jews feel a sense of unease, but there is also good news. Compare the response of U.S. Jews in the Holocaust to today. Despite reports of death camps in Europe the Jewish establishment led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise refused to protest. They feared that demanding President Roosevelt act to protect European Jews would spark antisemitism in the U.S. Finally in 1943, four years after the war’s onset, 400 bearded orthodox rabbis marched on Washington, D.C. a few days before Yom Kippur. Establishment Jewish leaders convinced President Roosevelt not to meet the delegation, telling him “these rabbis are irrelevant.” Today, Jews are not being silent. Two weeks ago, there was a wall-to-wall coalition of 300,000 Jews standing proud in the National Mall, telling the world that American Jewry supports Israel.
In the grassroots there is a great Jewish awakening, akin to the burst of Jewish pride after the Six-Day War. A survey of Chabad rabbis reports an explosion of Jewish commitment. Jews are coming out of the woodwork, synagogues are seeing a rise in attendance. According to Merkaz Stam, a tefillin seller in New York, sales are up by 60%.
Hanukkah will be the test for U.S. Jews anguishing over a rise of antisemitism. Is this the time to hunker down or is this the moment to show Jewish pride?
Hanukkah will be the test for U.S. Jews anguishing over a rise of antisemitism. Is this the time to hunker down or is this the moment to show Jewish pride? The city council of Moncton, New Brunswick, banned the Menorah because of the war in Gaza. Public uproar prompted them to recall that decision. The local rabbi, Yitzchok Yagod, reports that many Jews not involved in the community woke up and protested. In Williamsburg, Virginia, the 2nd Sundays Art Festival canceled the menorah lighting. In response, Mendy Heber, the local Chabad rabbi, plans on increasing activities.
In the ’70s, when Chabad began to put up menorahs in public places, many liberal Jewish groups reacted with angst. They cajoled, criticized and eventually began to sue. “It’s a violation of church and state, Menorahs belong at home not at City Hall,” they claimed. The real clash, however, was not over church and state. That was a ruse for something deeper—whether we should subdue our Jewish identity in the public, or as Chabad argued, act with Jewish pride. As the great Professor Arthur Hertzberg, who headed the American Jewish Congress that battled Chabad in court over Menorahs, told me before his passing, “We believed you should be a Jew at home and a citizen on the street.“ The Rebbe [the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson], he added “believed that if we would be Jews on the street we will be a better Jews at home. The Rebbe was right and we were wrong.”
The same holds true today. The answer to antisemitism is not to remove your mezuzah and hide your chai. It’s to stand strong and proud. Yes, some have withdrawn behind locked doors and armed guards. Chabad rejects this agenda. This should be the moment for the Jewish community to stand up with a positive message of self-esteem. Instead of reducing Menorah lightings, we need to make more. Thousands of celebrations will be held., in shopping malls, city halls and sports stadiums.
A few days ago, the first Menorah was erected in Gaza. Soldiers pushed aside the rubble in the former Hamas stronghold in Bet Lahiya and lifted up the Menorah for all to see. Chabad is putting up another 30 Menorahs in Gaza, to ensure that soldiers spread all over can participate in the holiday celebrations. In addition, tens of thousands of kits will be handed out to soldiers on the front lines.
If they have the courage to light a Menorah in Gaza, it behooves us to show our solidarity with them. Join a celebration, be it at the National Menorah opposite the White House, or one of the thousands of others in cities and towns all over the country. Light your Menorah in doorways and windows. Jewish pride is the greatest response to antisemitism.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, author of “The Secret of Chabad” and the upcoming “Undaunted: The story Rabbi Yosef Yitchchak Schneerson.”