As this week has unfolded, our professionals have been having many conversations with partners about anti-Semitism in this moment. Today’s post comes from our Deputy Director Nahma Nadich. I would also remind and urge you to join me, our partners in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh, this evening, August 18th, at 5pm at Temple Israel in Boston for a Gathering of Unity, Love and Strength.
Growing up in the turbulent sixties and early seventies, I was magnetically drawn to civic and political involvement in the social issues of the day. But the message I heard in the modern Orthodox day school I attended was a foreboding one: focus only on our own Jewish community and don’t concern yourself with anyone beyond it. As a teenager, I rejected and rebelled against what I saw as a parochial view; I found multiple public outlets for my political passions.
But looking back all these decades later, I now understand more about the fear and anxiety behind that caution. Having witnessed, and in many cases, survived the Holocaust themselves, and after experiencing unimaginable evil at the hand of non-Jewish perpetrators, my teachers had little interest in advocating for, or frankly even interacting with, anyone outside of their own circle. “Look what they did to us!” they’d say. They’d argue that we owed “them” nothing, and that we should just take care of our own. And they’d cite Rabbi Hillel’s famous teaching from Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
But of course, my teachers were quoting just the first part of this wise dictum that has endured throughout the ages. I always drew my inspiration not from that first line, but rather from the continuation of Hillel’s teaching–the call to universalism and to urgent action. “But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) Growing up as a Jew in New York, feeling safe and secure in my surroundings, I never felt vulnerable or afraid. In fact, I felt grateful that those experiences belonged to a bygone era for American Jews; that our community was not only secure in this country but with the resources to support and advocate for those who were now marginalized and oppressed.
At no point in my life have I questioned those assumptions more than I have this week. Like so many in our community, I have been shaken to the core by the images of Charlottesville–by the racist bile spewed by the angry mob, and by images of Nazi-identified white supremacists marching in the streets of this American city, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and echoing Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil.”
And yet, as I read descriptions and analyses from some progressive sources – even Jewish ones – I’m struck by how many of them focus exclusively on the heinous manifestations of racism, and how curiously silent they are on the explosive expressions of anti-Semitism. I’ve read eloquent calls to action, urging the Jewish community to stand in solidarity with communities of color and to fight racism in all its forms. But I’ve read far fewer acknowledgements that we too are hurting, that the Holocaust survivors in our community have been retraumatized, that younger Jews are feeling unmoored by new and unfamiliar feelings of vulnerability, and that recent events have surfaced an enduring and deep-seated hatred we thought had disappeared from this country. Suddenly, the idea of our having to be “for ourselves” no longer feels like an antiquated concept.
Clearly, being for ourselves does not have to mean what my teachers told me so many years ago. We do not have to turn our back on our neighbors, or cast a blind eye to their suffering. But unless we take care of ourselves, we cannot effectively be there for others. We must acknowledge the reality of anti-Semitism in America in 2017, and understand the pernicious ways in which it fuels racism, as argued so persuasively in this article by Eric Ward. We have to resist the naïve notion that we must–or even can–choose between which evil to combat. White Supremacy, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are all part of the same toxic ideological brew. All must be exposed and eradicated.
The wisdom of Hillel’s teaching lies in its totality, knowing that all three parts are intertwined and interdependent. Only when we honor and address our own needs, can we hope to engage in honest and authentic relationships with our brothers and sisters. Only when we acknowledge our own hurts, can we truly see the pain of others and offer healing. And only when we face the brokenness of the world which we share, can we act with the urgency that this moment demands of us.