Not a Good Time to Be Jewish

(Not my usual curation but it is a voice in the wilderness in which we live. As long as we allow ourselves to be divided by our identity, the drumbeat sounded here will only grow louder. You read. You decide.)

Last week, I met a rabbi in Los Angeles. We talked about surfing where to get the best pizza in the city and her kids and politics. At the end of the evening, she was making plans with a colleague, and they extended an invitation. Would I want to go to the shooting range with them next weekend?

I thought about the rabbi with her guns a lot over this Shabbat, as Jews who had gathered for services at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, were taken hostage by a man named Malik Faisal Akram. After nearly 11 hours, thanks to earthly miracles of law enforcement and perhaps heavenly ones as well, they were freed unharmed. Akram, who had predicted his own death in his rantings captured on Facebook livestream, was dead. 

The bad guy was killed. The good guys were saved. It doesn’t often turn out that way. All the Jews I know—even the atheists—are thanking God. 

But why, despite my gratitude, do I feel so much rage? Why does it feel like there is so little comfort to be found? What has changed?

I did not feel this way in the horrific aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre—the most lethal in all of American Jewish history.

Back then, in October 2018, it felt like the whole country grasped that a wound to the Tree of Life was a wound to the Tree of Liberty itself. That the monstrous attack in my hometown was not simply an attack on Jews, but an attack on our collective home. And that what was at stake in standing up against the deranged, conspiratorial mindset that led a neo-Nazi to the synagogue that morning was nothing less than America itself. 

What I now see is this: In America captured by tribalism and dehumanization, in an America swept up by ideologies that pit us against one another in a zero-sum game, in an America enthralled with the poisonous idea that some groups matter more than others, not all Jews—and not all Jewish victims—are treated equally. What seems to matter most to media pundits and politicians is not the Jews themselves, but the identities of their attackers.

And it scares me.

The attack in Texas, the reaction to it, and the widespread willingness in our culture to judge violent acts based on their political utility, augurs a darkening reality for the six million Jews living in what the Founders insisted was a new Jerusalem. And for that new Jerusalem itself.

American Jews have always told ourselves that we were different because this country was different—that it was exceptional. That the equivocation about Jew-hate that we are now witnessing was normal in other places but never would be so here. (I think of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman who was beaten and thrown out of her Paris window by a man screaming “dirty Jew” and “Allahu Akbar.” But French courts and much of the press decided that no motive could be ascertained. Ultimately, charges were dropped against the perpetrator because he had smoked weed before the murder.)

But America will only remain exceptional if Americans fight for it. And very few people in positions of cultural and political power seem to have any will to wage that battle. They believe that we are not the land of freedom, the country that abolished slavery, but one where slavery persists in more subtle form. That our army is not a force for liberation, but oppression. That our courts are not fair and blind, but prejudiced. And that this country and our ally, Israel, are not democracies but bastions of racial supremacy.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day and I’m thinking of his understanding that the demand for equal treatment comes at no one’s expense because justice is not a zero-sum game. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this Nation,” he said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jews thrived in an America that had confidence in its goodness. Jews are not safe—no one is—in one which does not.

Five years ago, the rabbi’s invitation to the gun range would have shocked me. Now I think: I’m glad I saved her number.

B. Weiss

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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