Last week, I was walking with my daughter down Third Ave. holding her hand, when 20 feet away a man ripped a photograph of an Israeli abducted by Hamas off a lamppost. My grip tightened and I began to pull my daughter toward him. “Daddy, don’t,” she whispered. I didn’t. But had my daughter not been there, I would have confronted him.
Israel’s efforts to rescue the hostages and protect its people have sparked a conflagration of antisemitism. How ironic. Terrorists brutalize Israelis and Jews are the ones villainized as butchers and colonizers. On campus quads and at street rallies protesters accuse Israel of genocide when Hamas includes genocide in its charter.
And since Israel lies beyond their physical reach, the most violent activists assault the nearest Jew instead. The trend represents the inversion of a subterfuge long employed by antisemites on the left. To disguise and sanitize their hatred of Jews, they pillory Israel and Zionism. “We love Jews,” they claim; our problem is with Israel. But now their masks are off.
As Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, explains, antisemites “punch up” against those perceived as in control. Israel haters deem the Jewish state responsible for all Palestinian suffering. Jew haters allege that we manipulate the economy, media, and government.
And given our successes in many fields, we are perceived as privileged, beyond the reach of discrimination, and not needing the protection other minorities deserve. Never mind that according to Pew Research one in four U.S. Jews struggle to make ends meet, and one in three Holocaust survivors live in poverty. And since when is it a privilege to live in fear of physical violence?
One cannot deny a double standard where antisemitism is concerned. Most American Jews lean left socially if not politically, and fully support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives addressing microaggressions against other minorities. So why are those targeting Jews often met with silence? Perhaps some progressives fail to recognize their blind spot for antisemitism because suggestions of bias challenge their self-perception. Progressives claim to fight injustice. So the problem must be with the Jews themselves.
A few hours after my encounter on Third Ave., I flew to Israel, a country now difficult to recognize. The city streets are empty. Hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Dead Sea basin and Eilat, typically bustling with tourists, instead shelter evacuees from communities ravaged by Hamas.
The loss of Oct. 7 touches everyone. Thousands were murdered, injured or abducted, but millions are afraid, scrambling regularly for bomb shelters. Some Jews now fear their Arab-Israeli neighbors, who themselves are afraid.
And yet Israelis are resolute. “Together we will prevail,” billboards proclaim. Though polls show Israelis have little confidence in the government that failed to protect them, they have great faith in themselves. Citizens of every political stripe have aligned, setting aside the divisions that had riven the country around judicial reform. Volunteers from every sector of society have stepped forward to deliver aid wherever it is needed. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who once sought exemption from military service, are enlisting. And hundreds of thousands of reservists are ready to fight in the most dangerous of ground wars.
American Jews can learn from Israel’s resolve. Just as Israel refuses to be bullied by international pressure to stand down against Hamas, American Jews must not stand down against antisemites.
“There are different ways to defend the Jewish people,” one Israeli soldier explained. He and his comrades will undertake their perilous task rooting Hamas terrorists out of their strongholds while doing everything in their power to protect innocent Palestinian civilians.
Israelis will do their job taking care of everyone directly impacted by the tragedy of Oct. 7. But those of us in America have a role to play too: advocating for the swift return of the captives; calling out those who suggest moral equivalency between Hamas’ barbaric assault and Israel’s efforts to protect itself; and challenging anyone who asserts Hamas’ actions a legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation. Even those of us vehemently opposed to Israeli occupation must speak with conviction this truth: for Hamas ending the occupation means ending Israel.
I know many American Jews are anxious. But together we will prevail. We will withstand this wave of antisemitism because we will hold each other up. We will show up at synagogue and at communal events. There is strength in numbers. Those who would intimidate us or do us harm will see that to strike at one Jew is to strike at all Jews.
Davidson is the senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.
Joshua M. Davidson