“The birthday of the world”

September 20, 2017

Yigal Guetta, an ultra-orthodox Jewish member of the Israeli parliament (the Knesset), has angered colleagues in his Shas Party after saying that he had attended his Israeli nephew’s gay wedding. There are enormous differences in social attitudes between ultra-orthodox and other Jews.

 

CONTENTS

1. “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Celebrate Rosh Hashana” (By Bari Weiss, New York Times op-ed, Sept. 20, 2017)
2. “I am a secular Jew – and there’s no contradiction in that” (By Daniel Susskind, Jewish Chronicle, Sept. 20, 2017)
3. “The Myth of ultra-Orthodox Jews as the Last Survivors of ‘Original’ Judaism” (By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz, Sept. 17, 2017)
4. “Israeli Orthodox Lawmaker in Trouble Over Gay Nephew’s Wedding” (By Isabel Kershner, New York Times, Sept. 14, 2017)
5. “London Police On High Alert In Jewish Communities Ahead Of High Holy Days” (By Yocheved Laufer, Jerusalem Post, Sept. 20, 2017)
6. “What Anti-Semitism in America Looks Like From Israel” (By Shmuel Rosner, New York Times op-ed, Sept. 15, 2017)

 

“YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE JEWISH TO CELEBRATE ROSH HASHANA”

[Note by Tom Gross]

This dispatch concerns Jewish matters. Most of the subscribers to this list are not Jewish, but I hope they will also find these pieces interesting. Three of the pieces are tied to coincide with the Jewish New Year, the year 5778, which started yesterday evening.

I attach six pieces below.

In the first piece, titled “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Celebrate Rosh Hashana”, Bari Weiss, an editor on the comment section of the New York Times, writes:

“I hate New Year’s Eve. For years, I tried to rally and convince myself that the hellscape of selfies and stilettos was fun. … For me the real new year is Rosh Hashana, which begins this Wednesday night [yesterday] at sundown… you don’t need to be a member of the tribe to appreciate the existential message of this holy day. If you crave an anti-new year New Year, consider adopting Rosh Hashana as your own.

“The morning of Jan. 1 is when the counting of calories recommences: We join Weight Watchers; we splurge on gym memberships. Rosh Hashana requires a deeper kind of counting. That process is called ‘heshbon hanefesh,” literally an “accounting of the soul.’ …”

***

In the second piece below, Daniel Susskind, a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, writes in the (London) Jewish Chronicle:

“It is that time of year when ‘secular Jews’ like me descend on synagogues… This idea, that you can feel very Jewish and not root that identity in a God, puzzles non-Jews and divides Jews. To those on the outside, the idea of a ‘secular Jew’ sounds like an oxymoron; to those inside, it is often dismissed, less generously, as confused nonsense. But for me, and I suspect a great many others, it exactly describes who we are…

“There is no contradiction here, between being a devout Jew and not having faith. The Holocaust was not only an attempt to kill a Jewish God, but also to destroy a Jewish civilization – our histories and memories, songs and stories, ways of thinking and living…

“My wife, who converted to Judaism and has her feet in two faiths, once said to me that when Christians go to Church, they go to be with God, but when Jews go to synagogue, they go to be with other Jews. At first I smiled, but now I realize that she is exactly right. As Jews, we are bound together by far more than faith alone…”

***

In the third piece, Anshel Pfeffer writes in the Israeli paper Haaretz on the continuing heated debate, sometimes resulting in violent clashes, between Israeli ultra-orthodox Jews and the police, over the attempt to preserve special privileges granted to Israel’s ultra-orthodox decades ago, including army exemptions, by claiming that over the centuries Jewish men studied in yeshiva night and day.

“That never happened,” he writes. “I’ve lost count in the last few weeks how many times representatives of Shas and United Torah Judaism have said in interviews [on Israeli TV and radio], ‘The yeshiva students give everything to study Torah. Just like their grandfathers did. And your grandfather too,’ answered in a moment of respectful silence from the interviewer, in memory of our devout and studious forefathers.

“Only they weren’t. The myth that somehow a century or so ago, all Jewish men were God-fearing Orthodox Jews spending their days and nights in the study-halls of yeshivas has no basis whatsoever in history…

“There has never been in Jewish history a period where the male populations of entire Jewish communities devoted their lives to Torah. They would have starved to death.”

***

In the fifth piece, the Jerusalem Post notes that while providing heightened police presence to protect Jewish communities celebrating the Jewish new year, in a first, London’s police have sent a “L’Shana Tova” (Jewish new year greeting) message to the city’s Jews.

***

There are two additional pieces. (The authors of four of the six pieces below -- Bari Weiss, Anshel Pfeffer, Isabel Kershner and Shmuel Rosner -- are subscribers to this list and friends of mine.)

 

ARTICLES

“THE BIRTHDAY OF HUMANITY”

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Celebrate Rosh Hashana
By Bari Weiss
New York Times (comment section)
September 20, 2017

I hate New Year’s Eve. For years, I tried to rally and convince myself that the hellscape of selfies and stilettos was fun. More recently I’ve wised up and fled the city to my grandparents in Florida, where I play bartender and we’re all in bed by 10 p.m.

I’ve thought a lot about why I allow Dec. 31 to terrorize me. Partly it’s the passage of time. Partly it’s the forced merriment and the inevitable disappointment. Partly it’s the reminder of my mortality, and that of those I love.

But fundamentally, it’s also the fact that the whole enterprise feels unnatural to me, like a mulligan for the real new year. For me, that is Rosh Hashana, which begins this Wednesday night at sundown.

There’s no question that I am biased toward the Hebrew calendar over the Gregorian one. I am also convinced that you don’t need to be a member of the tribe to appreciate the existential message of this holy day. If you crave an anti-new year New Year, consider adopting Rosh Hashana as your own.

Start off with the easy stuff. This is Judaism: There is food. Apples and honey symbolize our wishes for a sweet new year. The challah, typically long and braided, is round to remind us of the cycle of life. Many of us eat “new fruits” – New York City groceries stock up on lychees and star fruits and pomegranates in anticipation – to, yes, celebrate the newness of the year. There’s also my personal favorite, the fish head, a culinary pun, since Rosh Hashana literally means the head of the year. (Some Jews even eat the head of a lamb; let’s just say that custom never made it to Pittsburgh, where I grew up.) O.K., so the menu is slightly more humble than caviar and Dom Pérignon. But Christopher Hitchens was right about Champagne anyway.

Second, there’s the season. December feels like the year’s nadir. Everything about September – the season change, the sweater weather, the new school year – feels like a new beginning, though a wise friend pointed out to me that September is actually the time when everything in nature begins the process of dying. That the Jewish year begins at a time of decay is an audacious assertion of hope, a reminder of the possibility of renewal.

And renew we have. This year we’ll ring in the year 5778 – as in 5,778 years since the mythical creation of Adam and Eve, the birthday of humanity. As Louis C. K. pointed out in a recent bit, “The Christians won everything.” Exhibit A: “What year is it according to the entire human race?” Rosh Hashana is a reminder that there is a radically different way of keeping time.

We mark the start of the secular new year by huddling around a TV to watch a disco ball plummet while we blow on plastic kazoos. That bleating sounds rather pathetic next to the primal wail that issues from the ram’s horn, or shofar, that we blow to begin Rosh Hashana. The shofar is meant to awaken us from our figurative slumber – a startling reminder that we are often sleepwalking through our lives. I have heard the shofar blown in so many different synagogues before Jews of wildly different levels of religious of observance. Rarely have I seen an adult without tears in their eyes upon hearing that ancient sound, a prayer beyond words. Jew or gentile, who among us doesn’t need this kind of spiritual alarm?

The morning of Jan. 1 is when the counting of calories recommences: We join Weight Watchers; we splurge on gym memberships. Rosh Hashana requires a deeper kind of counting. That process is called “heshbon hanefesh,” literally an “accounting of the soul.”

The stocktaking requires serious reflection on the past year, which is why Rosh Hashana is also referred to as Yom Hazikaron, or the Day of Remembrance. The remembering is not just a private act: We are required to ask for forgiveness for those we have hurt during the past year. Some rely on mass emails, but we are meant to be as specific as possible, to make the apologies personal and precise. It’s like the ninth step of A.A. But every year.

The idea here is that you can’t just ask God for forgiveness; you aren’t saved by belief. God can’t make a broken relationship whole. For that, you need to meet another person face to face. This is the essence of Judaism – a religion focused on this life, rather than the next, on this world rather than the world to come.

The unburdening is cathartic. To see it enacted more literally, on Rosh Hashana afternoon, stop by your local river. There you’ll see Jews performing the ritual of “tashlich,” in which we empty our pockets of crumbs and throw them into the water – a symbol of emptying our souls of sin.

Another name for Rosh Hashana is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and the metaphor, repeated in prayer after prayer, could not be clearer. God is the judge and jury. We are all, every one of us, on death row. And God alone decides whether or not we get written in the Book of Life.

The liturgists who wrote many of the prayers we recite talk of trembling before God – and for me, around the age of 10, when my Hebrew finally got good enough to understand what we were saying, that verb couldn’t have been more apt. If I wasn’t sincere enough, if I didn’t sufficiently ask for forgiveness, if I didn’t genuinely change my ways, I believed I wouldn’t live to see the next year.

I no longer believe that I’m going to be struck down by a punishing God. But as I’ve gotten older and more aware of the fragility of life, the metaphor has only become more urgent, even as the question of who is really doing the writing in that Book remains unanswered. Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s former national poet, helped me reimagine it: “I want to be written again/in the Book of Life,” he writes, “to be written every single day/till the writing hand hurts.”

Amen.

 

“I AM A SECULAR JEW - AND THERE’S NO CONTRADICTION IN THAT”

“I am a secular Jew - and there’s no contradiction in that”
By Daniel Susskind
(London) Jewish Chronicle
September 20, 2017

It is that time of year when ‘secular Jews’ like me descend on synagogues, filling the backbenches and over-flowing into neighbouring rented buildings. We stand out with our pristine prayer-books and our bright-white uncreased tallit, struggling to tell the difference between our Musaf and Maariv, stumbling to our feet to mumble incorrectly at the wrong moments. But we will be there, as Jewish as everyone else.

This idea, that you can feel very Jewish and not root that identity in a God, puzzles non-Jews and divides Jews. To those on the outside, the idea of a ‘secular Jew’ sounds like an oxymoron; to those inside, it is often dismissed, less generously, as confused nonsense. But for me, and I suspect a great many others, it exactly describes who we are.

There is a line in an interview with Primo Levi where he says, “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God”. Levi had survived that camp, and his testimony would make him one of the great modern writers. That remark captured the sense in which, for so many Jews, the Holocaust had murdered their faith, along with their family and friends.

I consider myself part of that group, deeply agnostic, and unable to reconcile any serious sense of faith with what happened in the first half of the 20th century (though my scepticism has roots elsewhere, too.) And yet, at the same time, I try to live a secular Jewish life – partly because of what happened in the past. To me, there is Auschwitz, and so we must make sure that there are always Jews.

There is no contradiction here, between being a devout Jew and not having faith. The Holocaust was not only an attempt to kill a Jewish God, but also to destroy a Jewish civilisation – our histories and memories, songs and stories, ways of thinking and living.

The Nazis never asked our ancestors how observant they were before they murdered them; only whether their parents or grandparents were Jews, whether they could claim to be part of our four-thousand-year-old story that they wanted to bring to an end. They knew that much more mattered than faith alone.

I know that when I take my first High Holiday steps into the synagogue in the coming weeks, I should expect the same familiar glare from the observant old-guard, the front-benched regulars, who no doubt think of me and my fellow-travellers as irreligious riff-raff, distracting them from one of the most important days of their year.

But to secular Jews, I say – do not be deterred. Think of this article as a secular call to prayer. Take some Jewish stories along with your siddur, carry a biography of a Jewish hero and put it proudly on the bench in front of you, take a piece of Hebrew and try to make sense of it, take a secular Jewish philosopher and try to interpret it. Go to synagogue, not necessarily in search of religious revelation but for secular contemplation, and know that is okay.

My wife, who converted to Judaism and has her feet in two faiths, once said to me that when Christians go to Church, they go to be with God, but when Jews go to synagogue, they go to be with other Jews. At first I smiled, but now I realise that she is exactly right. As Jews, we are bound together by far more than faith alone.

And as you walk home, in the coming weeks, perhaps after a prayerless day in synagogue, be happy because you have contributed, in your own way, to that ongoing Jewish story, of which we are all part.

(Daniel Susskind is a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.)

 

“NO BASIS IN HISTORY”

The Myth of ultra-Orthodox Jews as the Last Survivors of ‘Original’ Judaism
By Anshel Pfeffer
Haaretz (opinion pages)
September 17, 2017

Israel’s haredi politicians defend their draft exemption by referencing millennia of Jewish men who studied in yeshiva night and day. That never happened.

No one would seriously accuse Israeli interviewers of lacking in aggressiveness. Especially when confronted with an ultra-Orthodox [Haredi] politician explaining why the young men of his community have to be exempted from compulsory national service.

But Haredi MKs do have one advantage in these situations – ignorance. Not their own, of course.

I’ve lost count in the last few weeks how many times representatives of Shas and United Torah Judaism have said in an interview, “The yeshiva students give everything to study Torah. Just like their grandfathers did. And your grandfather too,” answered in a moment of respectful silence from the interviewer, in memory of our devout and studious forefathers.

Only they weren’t. The myth that somehow a century or so ago, all Jewish men were God-fearing Orthodox Jews spending their days and nights in the study-halls of yeshivas has no basis whatsoever in history.

True, going back a couple of centuries, to the days before emancipation and the emergence of large numbers of Jews who were secular or members of non-Orthodox communities, the overwhelming majority could indeed be loosely defined as Orthodox, or at least somehow affiliated with the stream of Judaism that evolved from prushim – the Pharisees of the late Second Temple period, who emphasized worship through synagogue, prayer and an adherence to the Oral Law encapsulated in the Talmud and its tributaries. But even then, only a tiny handful of young men actually spent their days in study.

Nostalgic pictures of boys in side-curls and elderly caftaned men carrying volumes of Talmud down snowy streets in some shtetl aside, most Jews during any period of history weren’t particularly devout or pious. Most were simply too busy trying to survive, making a living in agriculture or trade.

There were yeshivas, usually small local affairs and in a few periods, also a handful of large famous ones to which students came from afar, but those studying there were always a tiny elite of privileged young men: sons of rabbis, particularly gifted iluyim with some form of stipend or scions of wealthy families.

There has never been in Jewish history a period where the male populations of entire Jewish communities devoted their lives to Torah. They would have starved to death.

And besides the majority weren’t interested, and the rabbis and community leaders never thought they needed more than a small group of students who be the next generation of rabbis and keep Jewish literacy alive. It’s true that most Jews could read and write, though the absence of illiteracy among Jews is another myth. But most had some kind of cheder-style primary education, and could at least pray in Hebrew.

Limmud Torah, the study of Jewish religious texts, is a commandment which had no clear definition and can be fulfilled by reciting a few words once a day. Anything beyond that was aspirational.

The hallowed universal principle of everyone being obliged to study Torah day and night for as long as possible is a modern concept, which only truly came in to being four decades ago when Agudath Yisrael, the forerunner of today’s United Torah Judaism, joined the first Begin government as coalition partners and sufficient government funds to subsidize tens, and by now hundreds of thousands of Torah students, became an integral part of Israel’s state budget. Which is also when the number of yeshiva students receiving the exemption from military service began to grow exponentially.

The original exemption, granted by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 for a few hundred students had been at the request of the Haredi rabbis to “rebuild” the yeshivas of Eastern Europe, decimated in the Holocaust. That has been achieved long ago tenfold – there are more men (and women of course) studying Torah today than at any point in history.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. We live in a period where in the western world, many young people do not have to rush off and make a living until well in to their twenties and have the time and leisure to study. But there is nothing similar between the way Israeli politics and economy have allowed so many yeshiva students to study their Talmud for years and some mythical Jewish past. And there is nothing in Jewish law which would exempt them from compulsory military service – actually, there are religious commandments declaring the exact opposite.

Instead of admitting how fortunate they are to live in the modern State of Israel, the only place in the world and in history to subsidise wholesale Torah-study, the Haredi leadership insists they are merely recreating what our grandfathers had and should therefore be theirs by rights.

They cannot admit that because the invention of “our grandfathers who all studied Talmud all day” is part of an even greater myth – that the Haredi way of life of increasingly shutting off entire communities from the outside world and enforcing ever-more stringent ritual strictures, is original Judaism.

Of course it isn’t. No one lives according to original Judaism. All Jews evolved, and in the Haredi case they are relatively recent evolution of the last two centuries in reaction to enlightenment, emancipation and secular Zionism. The Haredim need this myth because if they are not the original brand of Judaism, then why should anyone choose theirs over so many other ways of being Jewish, which are open about how they have adapted to the changes and challenges of time.

The government, the Knesset and the Supreme Court will never be able to force the rabbis to agree to allow their students to enlist in the army, because it would mean admitting that not all of them have to study Torah all the time. It would mean confirming that there are other ways of being Jewish, and that the mass exemption and subsidizing of hundreds of thousands of students is not the natural state of the Jews but an unprecedented and unsustainable situation.

But there is no need for them to agree either.

Like all other hollow and unsustainable myths, the myth of Haredi authenticity is also destined to collapse in on itself. More and more young Haredim are beginning to figure out for themselves that the real way of following in their forefathers’ footsteps is to do what humans have always done: To evolve.

 

ISRAELI ORTHODOX LAWMAKER IN TROUBLE OVER GAY NEPHEW’S WEDDING

Israeli Orthodox Lawmaker in Trouble Over Gay Nephew’s Wedding
By Isabel Kershner
New York Times (news pages)
September 14, 2017

JERUSALEM – The Israeli lawmaker had gone on the radio to promote a new single by his daughter, a singer, and to show a more liberal and hipper face of his party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas.

But after the lawmaker, Yigal Guetta, revealed in the radio interview that he had attended the wedding of a gay nephew, his chatty appeal to a broader audience of potential Shas voters appeared to backfire. Rabbis and party activists revolted and demanded that he resign.

Under pressure from the critics, Mr. Guetta, 51, told Aryeh Deri, the party leader, this week that he was resigning, and Mr. Deri agreed. But many Israelis have since expressed outrage that the rabbis and the party would put strict adherence to Jewish law and prejudice above family unity.

Mr. Guetta is now in negotiations with the Shas Party’s council of sages who are said to be less upset about his attendance at the wedding than his disclosure of that information in the radio interview.

A compromise appears to be emerging in which Mr. Guetta would apologize for giving the interview, though not for attending the wedding, and would retain his place in the party and his seat in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

To formally resign he would have to write to the Knesset chairman, a step he has not taken yet.

Mr. Guetta did not answer his cellphone or respond to text messages on Thursday, and the Shas Party was not commenting on the episode publicly. But Shas officials said privately that they hoped the compromise would happen and put an end to the story.

The wedding took place two years ago, before Mr. Guetta had entered Parliament.

Same-sex marriage is not officially recognized in Israel, nor is any mechanism of civil marriage, with the strictly Orthodox-controlled state rabbinate maintaining a monopoly on Jewish weddings. But some Israelis bypass the restrictions by holding ceremonies of their choice and formalizing their civil union with lawyers, or by marrying abroad.

Gays are welcomed in the Israeli military and are open about their sexual orientation in politics and other spheres. Tel Aviv, in particular, has a reputation as a gay-friendly destination and Israel has often promoted its tolerance toward the L.G.B.T. community as a beacon of pluralism and tolerance compared with some of its enemies, like Iran.

Two biblical verses, Leviticus 18 and 20, prohibit sexual relations between men, describing them as an abomination punishable by death. But rabbis have long debated the correct approach to homosexuality, and more liberal streams of Judaism, arguing that ancient laws need to allow room for new understandings, have embraced gay members and perform gay weddings.

But some sectors of Israeli society, including the ultra-Orthodox, view homosexuality as sinful. One Shas lawmaker, Shlomo Benizri, once blamed a minor earthquake that was felt across Israel on “homosexual activity practiced in the country.”

So it came as a bit of a bombshell when Mr. Guetta told Army Radio on Aug. 29, “Here’s a scoop, hold on tight.” He went on to relate that he had declined his gay nephew’s request for a blessing under the chuppa, or marriage canopy, but continued, “We all went to the wedding, me, my wife and all my children.” He told his children their attendance was mandatory, he said, though he also emphasized to them that such a wedding was forbidden under Jewish law.

The scandal has been brewing since. In a Sept. 6 post on his Facebook page, Mr. Guetta wrote: “I would like to clarify that a handful of people are trying to spread some twisted things in my name, as if I gave legitimacy to forbidden acts. This is a lie and a distortion.” He wrote that he had declared in the interview, and was declaring again, that such things – without naming them – were an “abomination” according to the Torah.

The uproar has engendered a debate among Shas supporters over whether strict adherence to the letter of Jewish law should supersede other traditional Jewish values, including the sanctity of the family. Many Shas voters are traditional Mizrahi, eastern Jews whose families came from Arab countries, and who are not as strictly Orthodox as their party leaders. They have voted Shas over the years for social and economic reasons, believing that the party best represents the interests of the Mizrahi portion of Israel’s Jewish population against the old-guard Ashkenazi elite from Europe.

The religious culture embraced by Mizrahi Jews “opens its doors not only to a chosen few but also to the masses of people, each of whom seeks to be observant according to their own capabilities,” Roi Lachmanovich, a former strategic adviser and spokesman for Shas, wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Thursday. “The party turned its back on a huge sector of the public that does not at all wish to concede on the importance of family.”

Others pointed to what they called the hypocrisy of the Shas leadership, given that Mr. Deri, the party leader, and Mr. Benizri, who no longer sits in Parliament but who criticized Mr. Guetta, have both served prison terms for financial corruption.

“They were in prison and got out and all of a sudden they are OK?” Suzy Ben Zvi, Mr. Guetta’s sister and the mother of the groom, told Maariv. She said Mr. Guetta had arrived after the ceremony and stayed an hour, out of respect for the family.

“God will repay all the Shas saints for what they did to him,” Mrs. Ben Zvi continued. Describing her brother as a wise man who did something noble, she added, “The tradition of family is the holiest tradition in Judaism.”

 

LONDON POLICE ON HIGH ALERT IN JEWISH COMMUNITIES AHEAD OF HIGH HOLY DAYS

London Police On High Alert In Jewish Communities Ahead Of High Holy Days
By Yocheved Laufer
Jerusalem Post
September 20, 2017

* London police have a special “L’Shanah Tovah” message for the Jewish community.

London’s Metropolitan Police is on higher alert in the Jewish communities ahead of the High Holy Days, a Jewish volunteer community group posted on Wednesday.

Shomrim UK, a Jewish volunteer community safety patrol organization based in England, tweeted a letter they received by Metropolitan Police saying that London police will be working closely with the Jewish community in the coming weeks “to provide an extra level of visibility and vigilance.”

This comes after Metropolitan Police arrested two more suspects on Wednesday in the investigation of the September 15 terror attack at London’s Parsons Green train station, that Islamic State claimed responsibility for.

A home-made bomb on a packed rush-hour commuter train in London engulfed a carriage in flames, but apparently failed to fully explode, injuring 22 people in the attack.

However, the letter to Shomrim UK stated that this raise in security is “not in response to a raised threat.” The British police added that it is an opportunity to work closer with London’s Jewish community and to ensure a “happy and safe holy day period.”

 

WHAT ANTI-SEMITISM IN AMERICA LOOKS LIKE FROM ISRAEL

What Anti-Semitism in America Looks Like From Israel
By Shmuel Rosner
New York Times op-ed
September 15, 2017

TEL AVIV – The first meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a German chancellor took place in 1960 in New York. At this meeting, David Ben-Gurion of Israel explained to Konrad Adenauer of West Germany that there were three types of Jews in the world before Israel was established: the Jews who lived among Muslims, who adopted Muslim customs; the Jews of Europe, who never considered themselves a part of the society in which they lived; and the Jews of America, who live in a country of immigrants and so see themselves as Americans like all other Americans.

Ben-Gurion, who was born in modern-day Poland, understood European Jews. But he never really understood the Jews of the Arab world or the Jews of America. The truth is, even now many of us Israelis still don’t. And nowhere is this clearer than in how Israel responds to anti-Semitism in America today.

Generally, Jewish Israelis are not personally familiar with anti-Semitism. When they hear “anti-Semitism” they think about Jewish history – the Nazis’ Holocaust, the pogroms in czarist Russia – not our own experiences. At the same time, after looking at history, Jewish Israelis never fully believe that it’s possible for a non-Jewish country to be free of anti-Semitism. A 2016 poll found that 99 percent of Israelis believe that anti-Semitism is “very” or “somewhat common” around the world. Thus, for many Israelis the next disaster in the diaspora is just a matter of time.

Jewish Israelis are also not acquainted with Jewish assertiveness outside of Israel. The story they know – the Zionist narrative – is of powerless Jews in the diaspora who became politically assertive only in the Jewish state. This is, to use Ben-Gurion’s formulation, the story of European Jews.

Because of Israel’s circumstances and assumptions, Israeli Jews haven’t developed the same sensitivity and ear for anti-Semitism that Jews elsewhere have. For example, this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 26-year-old son, Yair, posted a meme on Twitter that featured George Soros, a Jewish billionaire, dangling the earth on a fishing rod, a lizard-person and a hooknosed figure who resembles the worst kinds of anti-Semitic depictions. The younger Netanyahu hasn’t yet explained himself, but I have no doubt that he’s not an anti-Semite. His lapse was probably an extreme case of a tin-eared Israeli using the wrong tools to make a point about his father’s enemies.

This gap between Israel and the diaspora is also why Israel and its leaders have struggled to find an appropriate response to the fear that has engulfed much of the American Jewish community since the rise of Donald Trump, and even more so following the events in Charlottesville, Va., last month, when neo-Nazis marched down the street chanting anti-Semitic slogans. Many people – especially the prime minister’s usual opponents and detractors – criticized Mr. Netanyahu for being slow to condemn the neo-Nazis and for being insufficient in his denunciations.

In Israel’s defense, the response of American Jewish organizations, leaders and pundits to the neo-Nazi show of hatred in Charlottesville was confusing. Many Jews seemed to react to these events as if anti-Semitism – an existing but fringe sentiment within a country that generally has warm feelings toward its Jews – poses an immediate danger. But at the same time, by raising their voices to demand clearer condemnation, these Jewish leaders were acting assertive and self-confident. They hardly seem to be living in fear.

Since the only anti-Semitism Israelis understand is one of violence, blood and brutal intimidation, it is hard for many of them to appreciate the panic over a few hundred marchers and the ineloquent condemnation of the president. Since the only remedy for anti-Semitism they know is a Jewish state (and its Jewish army), it is hard for many of them to appreciate fears about anti-Semitism that are not followed by immigration to Israel.

But most of all, what should Israel do? Just consider some of the options:

Assist American Jews in some material way? They seem to be doing fine. In fact, they seem to feel confident enough to fight their own fight. Any attempt by Israel to intervene in this crisis would suggest that the Jews of America are not as integrated as they claim to be.

Join the chorus of condemnation? Israel doesn’t need to prove that it dislikes neo-Nazis. But as a country, it has other interests. First and foremost is its need for good relations with the American administration – the same administration that many American Jews blame for the crisis. Moreover, Israel has an aversion to leftist radicals like the ones who clashed with the white supremacists in Charlottesville because many of these radicals are associated with groups highly critical of Israel’s policies, who often support boycott of Israel – a stance that most Israelis believe is as anti-Semitic as the anti-Semitism of the right.

Refrain from responding? When Israel attempted that, many American Jewish leaders (and some Israelis) condemned its silence. “Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism,” wrote the Jewish novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, asking Israel to “wise up.”

The only thing that Israel can really offer in response to anti-Semitism is something tried and true: its existence. Israel can and must continue to be a Jewish safe haven, ready to accept Jews in distress from anywhere in the world. Israel’s law of return enables every Jew who feels the need to flee persecution to find a home in the Jewish state and become a citizen.

There is a sense of disappointment among many Jews in America at what they perceive as Israeli indifference to anti-Semitism in the United States, whether it appears at neo-Nazi demonstrations or in memes on Twitter. But in fact, this is just another case of Jews talking past one another. Israelis see frightened American Jews rejecting what they consider the only solution for anti-Semitism. American Jews see cocky Israelis clinging to a solution that doesn’t address what they consider most important: an America free of anti-Semitism.

The cure for this misunderstanding is knowledge that both communities lack. American Jews need to better understand that Israel’s stance on anti-Semitism in America reflects Israel’s circumstances. Israelis need to better understand the Jews of America and accept that for once, they shouldn’t offer the ready-made and oftentimes valuable solution of a safe haven, but rather extend their empathy to another great Jewish community waging its own battle.

 

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