Must We Be Scared?

Antisemitism may ultimately be a hatred which so defies explanation that it can never be fully defeated
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

On Simhat Torah evening, my sons and I shul-hopped down the frum juggernaut that is Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. We stopped in a few synagogues for hakafot, or more accurately to check out the candy scene, and we peeked through the window of multiple other smaller shtibls and minyanim that inhabit storefronts. It was a marvelous carnival of observant Judaism, and — together with the streaming crowds of people walking back and forth throughout the evening — it told a powerful story of a confident Judaism in the public square of a major American city.

It was also a window into the security status of American synagogues. The major flagship synagogues were more than a little fortress-like, with a major security apparatus right outside the front door. This usually meant a mix of (armed) professional guards together with volunteers from the synagogue, who were there ostensibly there to alleviate the anxiety of shul-goers, maybe to help identify members, and perhaps to acculturate the professional security personnel into the dynamics of the holiday and its particularities. This meant in some places enforcing a prohibition on open containers, to control the consumption of alcohol inside the building to those 21 and over; at one synagogue, the gate was permanently locked and had to be opened every time someone else new came in.

No one says much out loud anymore about any of these protocols, even those who might be bristling quietly; it felt a little like the fatigued passivity with which we all comply with the TSA and its arcane, bureaucratized regulations that are now just part of the ritual of travel.

But down the block, or across the street, the minyanim and shtibls had no such security. Some had doors propped open to the street, apparently prioritizing the effort to invite new revelers more than the instinct to monitor who might be coming in. Still others kept the doors closed but had opened up their window shades, so that passersby might be drawn into the singing, dancing, and spreads of kugels and kichels.

In some cases, there were more people, and celebrating in a livelier scene, in these smaller and less-resourced shuls than there were in the fortresses; their services were equally demarcated as Jewish spaces not just in the character of the attendees but in their splashy signage.

And I wondered, morbidly — because that is what one does now as a Jew in America, and maybe a Jew everywhere always — couldn’t the next would-be terrorist to take on the American synagogue just cross the street, walk past the big buildings, and do just as much damage in the unguarded spaces? And then: does the increasing securitization of the American synagogue perhaps tell as much a story of resources and infrastructure, with all its attendant inequalities, as anything else?

Meantime, the crowds of revelers continued through the street, clad in kippot and hats and scarves, pushing strollers, carrying children. Tzitzit out, open containers. No one looked scared; it would have been hard to feel scared. More: it would have been incoherent to imagine being scared. This is not how a scared community conducts itself.

The day after Simhat Torah the AJC released its antisemitism study, claiming that one-third of their respondents have hidden the conspicuous signs of their Judaism at one time or another. And again, a curiosity: the majority of American Jews, overwhelmingly, are never “conspicuously Jewish” in their clothing, but the Pico-Robertson Simhat Torah crowd is the most conspicuously Jewish most of the time, and probably the group least likely to hide their Jewishness. So who are we talking about? What are we scared of, and where, and when?

Actual fear, borne of the bullets of synagogue shooters in Pittsburgh and Poway — and for some of us, indistinguishably, Paris — has revived the fear industry for American Judaism, and it is booming. I am terrified of it, maybe as much as I am of the events and conditions that have precipitated its return.

The truth is, I don’t know how synagogues and Jewish institutions are really going to ultimately be fully safe from these threats. There’s the fortress model, of course, for the affluent synagogues and big buildings; some federations and national organizations have Israeli security, double doors, and bulletproof glass.

A few years ago our synagogue started a volunteer security detail, in partnership with CSS — a nonprofit that offers services and training to Jewish institutions, with the plausible narrative that even lightly trained volunteers standing outside a synagogue or organization would create a major deterrent against those who would do us harm. More than that, it seems clear that the commitment to security as a shared institutional priority can create a stronger, positively diffused, and shared culture of awareness (a la the MTA’s “see something, say something”) that can be really valuable to creating responsible and safe communities.

I don’t think anyone thinks we are *fully* protected by our volunteers, our friends, to whom I am grateful for taking these shifts, rain or shine, but I suppose every little bit helps. I am quite certain, as an American, that I am adamantly uninterested in the Israeli model of open doors but plenty of people inside with weapons (and training). That model seems to me a tragic and necessary accommodation to a society defined by prolonged war, not a prescription for responding to these infrequent acts of terror. Moreover, I cannot subscribe to the idea that the answer is more guns, and more acculturation of our children and our religious institutions to the presence of guns.

Meantime, there are others who have been sounding the alarm about the ways in which an amped-up police presence, or its equivalent, endangers Jews of color in Jewish spaces. At minimum, it is pretty clear that the culture of welcoming risks taking a pretty big hit, just as the Jewish community was converging on ideas like “audacious hospitality and radical inclusion” as means of addressing the diminishment in our synagogue attendance in membership rolls.

At my own synagogue, I just get a friendly nod from my friends and acquaintances keeping watch out front, a nice “good shabbos;” when I was in Los Angeles, I happily tolerated the search of my tallis bag as though I was going into a stadium or an airport. But I look the part, for better or worse, and I really want to go in the building, so I tolerate an inconvenience that’s not really an inconvenience.

I’ve found in running an organization that in spite of whatever story you tell about yourself, it is the literal gatekeepers — the folks at the front desk, the people who answer the phone, the security guards — who have the most impact on the culture of welcoming. I couldn’t help feeling in Los Angeles, as a visitor, that the security apparatuses told the regrettable story that the people inside were shielding themselves from the people outside. I cannot fully wrap my head around the calculations involved in balancing what we gain from certain forms of security and what we lose.

More importantly though, I wonder what a Jewish community might do to combat serious antisemitic threats if it were actually scared of them. I am pretty sure that nothing that the American Jewish community has been doing would fit in that category. I would think a genuinely frightened community would shrink its public profile; it would tamp down its internecine conflicts in public, especially those that related specifically to antisemitism; it would organize itself (and not just in selective coalitions); it would treat intra-communal bridge-building as a value, and not a banality.

Frightened Jews in Jewish history, in some cases, started packing and moving. Others, especially after the Shoah, devoted their attentions to consolidating political and military power in order to prevent or fight against the next threat. I see my community antagonizing each other’s theories of the problem based on partisan loyalties and hastily publishing books, turning our synagogues into bunkers, talking in surveys about being scared.

Meantime, NONE of the social, economic, cultural, or political place of Jews in America — prominent and powerful — has meaningfully changed. Jews remain collectively OK — if shaken — even as Jews in institutions, or in particular communal settings, feel individually threatened.

So, how do these responses make any sense? How are they not deeply disingenuous? I am old enough to remember when liberals and progressives fought against the hegemonic narrative of the right wing in the Jewish community, about the endurance and preeminence of fighting antisemitism as the most significant Jewish communal priority. It was less than 10 years ago!

I remember identifying with this liberal criticism that Judaism was not about victimhood; that “fighting antisemitism” was ultimately a narcissistic, non-falsifiable industry that exonerated us of the responsibility and agency that came with actual affluence and power, the stuff of American Jewish arrival. I’m not surprised that right-wing Jews are talking nonstop about antisemitism, in some cases fabricating the extent to which Democratic politicians are antisemitic, and collapsing the categories of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. This is consistent with a particular worldview. But I am floored that the progressive Jewish left has become so fixated with antisemitism, as an instrument to its alliances. I find it to be no less than a capitulation.

I keep returning to Hannah Arendt’s prophetic essay “Jewish Politics,” from 1942. At the time of its writing, Arendt still identified as a Zionist, and was a recent refugee from Europe and a new arrival in America. The essay is a short, wrathful screed against the Jewish leaders of her day, in the form of an indictment for their failure, in her eyes, to organize a Jewish army to fight against the Nazis.

I don’t know enough European Jewish history to know if her grievance was legitimate, but I do recognize that our commonplace contemporary Jewish institutional and communal responses seem downright trivial as means of organizing. There’s a lot of outrage; we have selective securitization of Jewish institutions, mostly based on whether they are well-resourced enough to afford it; there’s a lot of public organizing, instead of private mobilizing; Jewish institutions are doubling down on their worst enemies — OTHER JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS — instead of trying to figure out that they share with their rivals the common threat of actual antisemites.

Jews in America do not need a military brigade, for goodness sake, but we need dramatically better politics, and we need to locate the conversation about fears into environments that enable us to respond to them rather than merely to perform them. It is difficult to read the American Jewish response to antisemitism — most of it, at least — as anything other than a power grab, at precisely a moment when the dominant voice of “the community” is contested. The legacy institutions are only too happy for their raison d’etre of the middle of the 20th century to return to relevancy; the progressive left is leveraging its interpretation of antisemitism as a means of attaining newfound power.

That antisemitism is actually serving to devastate any notion of actual collective action by Jews of different political persuasions is the worst imaginable critique of any of the extant responses.

One of my favorite quotes: Joseph Heller’s “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t chasing you.” I am all for vigilance. There have always been isolated threats against Jews by dangerous individuals and groups, and we now live at the intersection of antisemitic threats, a politically ascendant white nationalism, and an epidemic of gun violence. Security and security awareness are good.

We also have always faced either dormant or latent existential threats against the Jewish people, which persist today in this or that blithe announcement by an Iranian cleric, and in the casual ways in which the dismantling of Israel is imagined as a real political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; we owe it to ourselves and to our ancestors never to make light of those either.

I find alarming the growing distrust of some basic, consolidated measure of Jewish power, of sovereignty, and of a Jewish military. I am wary of the misuses of that power, often terrified. But one reason my Zionism will always linger with me is because of the prosaic, if sad, understanding that in our human, post-20th century world, there has to be a basic moral legitimacy to an Israel Defense Forces. “Existence without the tools of the statehood is a matter of mortal danger,” says Amos Oz.

But just because they are chasing you does not mean you have to become paranoid, either. There is the business of description, to paraphrase David Hartman z”l, and then there’s the theology of response. Our responses — and the identities we mount in response to the conditions of the world — become the stories we tell about ourselves, the mirror of our values to the world. A people defined by its stories, narrated and preserved over time, has to be awfully careful about what stories it tells about its complicated present.

Shaul Magid has this great insight about the covenant — that to be a Jew who fixates on existential threats is to actively deny the covenant, and the divine promise of Jewish continuity. Verify, if you will, but trust. You see, there are two types of fear in the Torah: the authentic fear, or awe, or trembling, that human beings have and are meant to have in the presence of God, the kind that makes God appear in dreams and the dreamers quake afterwards, the kind that inclines God to let the people descend from Sinai, because the presence of God is so overwhelming, the kind that God begs the people to have as the means of acquiring the trust that they will ultimately be protected.

Sometimes we call it awe, but at times it is definitely fear, and it is useful. It draws a clear distinction between what it means to fear God and what it means to fear other humans. Because then there’s the bad kind of fear, brought about by misinformation — like that of no-goodnik, messenger-spies sent to the Promised Land — who instill fear in the hearts of the Israelites of other peoples, when they distrust the divine promises that TELL THEM that they have nothing to fear. Fear of other people that moves us from the simple vigilance of basic self-preservation, and into a self-protectionist orientation toward others and the world, is a doctrine of conservatism.

The legend of Rabbi Akiva is amazing. In the midst of the persecution, when the study of Torah is prohibited, Rabbi Akiva continues apace. His interlocutor, the theatrically constructed accommodationist Pappos, warns him of the consequences! Akiva, in turn, warns Pappos that when we stop studying Torah because we are scared, then we stop being who we are. A rabbi told me this year that the only thing people wanted to talk about at synagogue board meetings was ballistic glass. We become fish, out of the water.

Meanwhile, that business of fear is booming in those industries of the American Jewish community’s response to antisemitism, as we mark this first year yahrtzeit of the worst antisemitic attack in American history — be they publishing, anxiety, security, outrage, fundraising, or partisanship — and the turmoil has become intolerable.

We Jews may choose, or must choose, not to live in a bunker, even if it costs us. This is not just because of the Torah; it is because America remains singularly special, because we have obligations to people — including other Jews, and other non-Jews — more vulnerable than we, whom the bunker obscures and denies. Our hysteria sucks up all the oxygen.

Honestly some of the Jewish public conversation about antisemitism is just embarrassing. Every incident — a slur, a graffito, a grave desecration — is identical in the outrage it produces; we get inundated, thanks to our relentless availability to media opportunism and the speed of the news cycle. One new organization advertised a “worst anti-Semite contest” last week. Not only was the list just a catalogue of Democrats, it had a prize of Amazon gift cards. Amazon gift cards! The capitalism of fear, nakedly on display.

The key distinction we must sustain is between being scared, and making an ideology out of being scared. As I’ve written elsewhere, the fears of others are not falsifiable, and trying to do so betrays the refusal to see oneself as part of any shared enterprise with them. I get that people are scared.

Maybe I am a bit constitutionally different, in that I am not scared as much in Jewish institutions, or for the Jewish people in America; maybe it is because I expect that being Jewish comes with some measure of fear and anticipation, or maybe I have just been a beneficiary of enormous privilege in my upbringing and my life experiences. But I do not question why Jews might be scared today, and the steps we may take to protect ourselves.

Still, that’s not the same at centering fear in Jewish communal, organizational, or theological life. Remember, fear alone — and vigilance as its doctrinal response, rather than as an instrument — can continue to reinforce itself. We become lonely, we become suspicious, we fail to see opportunity, we fail to take responsibility for changing the conditions, outside our camps, that might make us ultimately safer.

This distinction, I think, is what underlies the words of the Psalmist, that even when we walk in the shadow of death, our intimacy with God should remind us not to be scared; or in Rebbe Nahman’s rendering, “not fearing” is the essential principle, even along the narrowest of bridges.

We are not meant to think that the shadow of death is not scary. We are not meant to think, especially us acrophobics, that the bridge isn’t terrifying. But we dare not turn certain sentiments — those that reflect our experiences of the world, the ones we cannot fully control — into beliefs that define how we interpret the world, and what we can do about it.

The great paradox of antisemitism is that it may ultimately be a hatred which so defies easy explanation that it can never be fully defeated, and that it is such that we are not allowed to succumb to it shaping who we are.

This is why I refuse to be scared. There is too much to do.

Originally posted on Medium

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