A Rabbinic Response to Escalation in Anti-Semitic Attacks

July 14th, 2014

by Rabbi Jonah Geffen, Rabbinic Director

Centuries ago, our Sages of Blessed Memory taught, “Direct your heart [in prayer] toward the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah Berakhot 4:5), and ever since, no matter the location, Jews have turned their hearts, their souls, their physical being towards the East, towards Jerusalem to pray.

Dispersed throughout the world, we all look in the same direction and are united. Though far away, our homeland feels close. And today, as unspeakable violence ravages the entirety of the Holy Land, so many of us have found our hearts directed towards Israel in constant prayer and concern. Though removed from the physical reality of daily rocket attacks, we sit glued to our news feeds and smartphone apps; feeling--as our sages intended--in some small way as if we are there.

And yet, sadly, shockingly, and more and more frequently over the past several months, a growing number of our Jewish sisters and brothers have found that the violence that seems so distant, is in fact immediate.

The recent uptick in violence between Israel and Gaza has no doubt thrown fuel on a smoldering fire. As if it were not enough to watch the rockets and bombs fly, to see so many cowering in fear in Israel; with ever increasing severity, Jewish people and Jewish institutions in Europe and around the world find themselves targets of brazen, shocking and heartbreaking attack. Barely a day goes by without a new story of Jews threatened, attacked, beaten, tazed. A chill is being felt across the Jewish world, as violent anti-Semitism rears its ugly head once again.

The Jewish people is a people of memory rather than history. As Dr. Erica Brown notes, “there is no real word in Hebrew for history, only for memory: zakhor… Memory implies something far more personal than history. It is the living presence of a people’s triumphs and despairs that we carry with us internally wherever we are, not a historic catalogue of activities listed in some other, distant, impersonal space.”

When we Jews read stories and see pictures of our brothers and sisters in Paris trapped inside a synagogue on Shabbat, pelted with rocks, surrounded by crowds with sticks and chairs and calling for Jewish blood, we are witness to something much more than simply historical acts in a distant place. Our collective memory of centuries of violence, oppression and genocide kicks in.

We, the global Jewish people, are unable to witness a firebomb hurled at one of our houses of worship without a visceral reaction. When we witness such virulent anti-Semitism, we not only feel as if we, ourselves, are in Paris--we are transported to Germany in 1938, to Spain during the Inquisition, to the villages of the Rheinland during the Crusades.

We at J Street stand with our Jewish family the world over, horrified by what we have witnessed most strikingly in Paris, but worldwide. We call upon world leaders, especially the leaders of the nations of Europe, to recognize the present spread of the disease of anti-Semitism and to work earnestly and swiftly to combat it in an enlightened way. We applaud our Jewish sisters and brothers for not sinking to respond to such attacks in kind, for holding their heads high and staying calm in the face of such a storm.

In his Nobel lecture, Elie Wiesel said, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” This is the Jewish way, it is our lot. Our memory is real and deep and all too often troubling. And yet we persevere, we reject despair and press on.

We pray for the safety of our fellow Jews throughout the world, that these anti-Semitic acts cease right away, and that peace comes to our people and all the people of the world bimheyra biyameynu--speedily in our days.