Jewish Life Op-Ed Columns Opinion

What’s the best answer to antisemitic attacks? There’s more than one.

By Jonathan S. Tobin

(JNS) In the aftermath of the atrocious stabbing attack in Monsey, N.Y., the mainstream Jewish community seems to have woken up to its duty to speak out in defense of their fellow Jews. The muted response to a yearlong surge of antisemitic attacks on Chassidic Jews in the greater New York area on the part of leading Jewish groups and others from the non-Orthodox organized Jewish world has given way to appropriate expressions of anger, sympathy and solidarity. Indeed, when even the editorial page of The New York Times is urging residents of the city to “March Against Antisemitism,” then perhaps a turning point has been reached.

The jury is still out as to whether the interest of the organized Jewish world and elements of the media like the Times will be content with empty gestures and then move on. It remains to be seen whether antisemitism directed at people who don’t dress or pray in the same manner as most American Jews and which doesn’t advance their preferred partisan narrative about Jew-hatred (President Donald Trump can’t be credibly blamed for this) will be sustained over time. But for now, the increased sense of unity is to be applauded, even if it took terrible crimes like the shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City and now the Monsey Chanukah attack to make it happen.

But unfortunately, this attention has brought with it the same kind of divisiveness that is an integral part of how Americans react to all notorious violent crimes. Every mass shooting or incident is inevitably followed by advocacy for more gun-control measures, whether or not more such laws would have prevented the crime. At the same time – and with far less support from the mass media – backers of gun rights claim that the solution is putting more guns in the hands of good guys. Such discussions are, like so much else these days, so polarized that even calls for “thoughts and prayers” for victims are now mocked as attempts to divert the public from a serious discussion of the issues.

Sadly, the same dialogue of the deaf is playing out with respect to the surge of antisemitic attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. Advocates of Jewish self-defense are calling for those at risk to arm themselves, while opponents of the spread of firearms are horrified by the thought of a religious community turning to weapons to assure their security. They would prefer to rely on prayer, maintaining good relations with their neighbors, and cultivating the good will of friendly politicians and local law enforcement.

What’s more, some echo the Times, whose commendable call for a march against antisemitism was accompanied by a steadfast refusal to consider that the hatred simmering among attackers is connected to the vitriol against Jews that is being spread by leftist proponents of intersectional theories, as well as by hatemongers like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, with disproportionate influence in the African-American community.

Those who caution against turning this into tribal warfare are right. What has happened is not something supported by the vast majority of African-Americans; attempts to imply anything of the sort will only make the problem worse. Maintaining and expanding efforts to bring the black and Jewish communities together are essential to dealing with the violence, as well as the right thing to do.

But the same Times’ editorial that called upon citizens to march against antisemitism also urged that the stepped-up police patrols of Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn be eventually discontinued, lest they be perceived as a threat to blacks. The same sort of spirit of avoidance seems to animate those who decry antisemitism, though still organized (as was the case in Brooklyn) a solidarity rally at which a notorious antisemite like Linda Sarsour was welcomed.

Many on the left take it as a matter of faith that white supremacists are encouraged to attack Jews by dog whistling from Trump, even if he has repeatedly condemned antisemitism and is the greatest supporter of Israel ever to sit in the White House. No matter how isolated or radical right-wing extremists may be, it is assumed that he enabled those crimes. Yet the Times and others who echo their stand seek to avoid discussing the causes of the surge in hate crimes. They seem to treat the vast increase in such incidents as if they were merely the work of a few troubled individuals.

Gestures such as the planned march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, Jan. 5, are important. Yet if the people who are spreading antisemitism, such as Farrakhan and the peddlers of intersectional libels against Jews and Israel, aren’t directly condemned, then all these activities are doing is sending the moral equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” that so many disparage in other contexts. And pointing this out isn’t politicizing this problem; it’s calling attention to what must change if this threat is to be contained.

The smart response to these crimes isn’t limited to a single tactic. More security, including the sort of armed and trained volunteers who saved lives at a mass shooting in a Texas church this past weekend, is needed. But greater efforts to bridge the divide between blacks and Jews, and persuading politicians to do the right thing, are also important. And anyone who disparages the efficacy of prayer and Jewish religious study is also wrong, though the history of relying on sacred activities without also taking other sensible steps to promote the defense of the Jews is not encouraging.

The real lesson to be learned here is to stop treating any number of sensible measures as if they were mutually exclusive, and to avoid meaningless gestures that are disconnected from and seek to avoid discussing the root cause of these crimes. If American Jews can avoid those pitfalls, then perhaps this shift towards more solidarity with the ultra-Orthodox community that is at risk won’t be as fleeting as cynics may be inclined to believe.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS – Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.

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