June 17, 2019

Let my people stay

It’s spring, and fear is busting out all over.

In the past three weeks, I’ve been to two events memorializing the Holocaust. The speakers alternated between the necessity of remembering the Nazi genocide even as its last surviving victims die, and confronting the current rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

The message was, in short: “Remember they tried to kill us, and — don’t forget — they’re trying to kill us.”

In the interim, I read Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy investigation in The Atlantic, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” Just as I got to Goldberg’s answer — which is, basically, hell yes! — out came New York Times columnist David Brooks’ dirge-like column on the rise of anti-Semitism, along with the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) annual survey of anti-Semitism in America, which reported a 21 percent increase.  And as I write this, the Web is throbbing with warnings that the Obama administration’s negotiations over Iranian nuclear development will hand the Jew-hating mullahs all they need to wipe Israel off the map.

So, anyway, Happy Passover!

Actually, I’m thinking a lot about Passover these days. I’m wondering if not a few of our neuroses stem from the story we retell each year at our seder table. It is, at its climax, about the necessity of running away. Pharoah enslaves the Jews. God intervenes. And, in a moment of high drama, the Jews make a run for it.

We flee so fast, we don’t even wait for our bread to rise. And that, it seems, has become our M.O. The matzah we grabbed on the way out of Egypt became the 20th-century suitcase we carried onto the trains out of Hitler’s Europe, became the EU passport Israelis keep ready in their drawers, became the pied à terre French Jews have waiting for them in Tel Aviv.

Our stories and our history have taught us to sleep with our shoes on. But now, in 2015, is it time to rethink our reactions?  Is it possible that this year is different from all other years?

Let’s start with this: Never before in our history have Jews been as free, as beloved, as wealthy and as powerful as we are in the United States. And never before in our history have Jews been as well defended and as powerful as a sovereign nation among nations as they are in Israel. These two facts alone should give us a fundamentally different feeling about our situation in the world today.

With such power and freedom comes the ability to confront challenges, rather than fear them.

Take Europe. I can understand why Goldberg’s go-to question would be whether it’s time to flee — flight is in our DNA — but a bolder, better question would be this: What do European Jews need to do to stay?

The situation is bad — I’m not second-guessing the desire of any Jew to leave. But the tools at our disposal to counteract the hate directed at Jews from parts of the Muslim community and the far left and right are far greater than in years past. The actual attacks are coming from a relatively small subset of people. Jewish communities there and abroad can target these groups in various ways — with education via the Internet, by working with local governments and by working with religious leaders abroad. I know some of this is already taking place, but have we really exhausted the possibilities?

For instance, instead of just supporting the various Jewish defense organizations, we should also be supporting those Muslims speaking out against the status quo and the extremists within their own communities. They are growing in number and in influence, and, with support, they can help change a dynamic that is not yet set in stone.

We have tools we never had before for reaching people’s heart and minds — the Internet especially, via social media and more traditional media, in general. We have the talent and expertise to use them — hell, Jews invented some of them. We have the support of governments, here, in Europe and in Israel. “Pharoah” is on our side, even if some of his minions are riled up. And in the most powerful country in the world, we have a deep well of philo-Semitism—yes, love of Jews. The ADL ought not be allowed to release statistics on the 750 or so incidents of anti-Semitism each year without also reminding us that according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, Judaism received the “warmest, most positive” rating of all religions from a majority of Americans surveyed.

We have to learn, hard as it is, to take the good with the bad. To overcome our narrative of flight, which made sense in ancient Egypt, and in Hitler’s Europe, but not so much in today’s European Union or United States.  We have earned our pessimism, sure, but we haven’t earned despair.

Happy Passover.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.