‘And No One Will Make Them Afraid’
When Jews are under violent attack for building a home in this land, it repudiates the American promise.
If you’re a regular reader of the Sunday edition, you know that I’ve focused my analysis and commentary on America’s Christian community. I’m a Christian, a lifelong Evangelical, and it’s the community and culture I know best. But today, I’m going to venture—with some trepidation—into deeply sensitive territory involving a different faith. I’m going to talk about anti-Semitism and our universal need for true home.
This is a really big country, and when you grow up in a small town in Kentucky and then attend a very conservative Christian college, you’re just not going to encounter many Jews. In fact, my ignorance was responsible for one of my (several) embarrassing moments at Harvard Law School.
During the first week of classes our criminal law professor invited the entire class to his house for Sunday brunch. I was nervous, intimidated by my classmates, and still wondering if I belonged.
The professor served lox and bagels. I’d never had lox and bagels. I’d never seen lox and bagels. So, with some trepidation, I watched how other people ate the meal, and copied them. The moment I put it in my mouth, I liked it. And I said the first thing that came to my mind, “Mmm, this sushi is good.” (I’d never had sushi before, either). Several classmates in earshot almost spit out their food they started laughing so hard.
“Sushi? This is smoked salmon.”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t seem cooked.”
“Yeah, it’s smoked.”
At that moment, a student I just met—his last name (if I remember correctly) was either “Rosen” or “Rosenburg”—asked me, “You don’t know many Jews, do you?”
My response? “No! Do you?”
Needless to say, I’ve grown up since then. I’ve expanded my horizons. I was one of only a few non-Jewish lawyers at the Manhattan law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, where I worked during my first year of marriage. I met Benjamin Netanyahu in its halls; he was friends with one of the partners. At my last legal job before I jumped ship to the world of journalism, I even was a small part of a legal team that represented Israel’s interests at the International Criminal Court, defending its freedom of action under the international law of armed conflict.
Throughout the almost 30 years since that embarrassing moment, I’ve accumulated a host of very dear Jewish friends, and you cannot have close Jewish friends and not be urgently alarmed at the spike in vicious and deadly anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Too many times in the past year alone, I’ve texted or DM’d a friend (including public figures under anti-Semitic threat), “I’m so sorry. Did you know the victims? Do you feel safe? What are you doing for your personal security?”
I have another set of good friends at my former employer, National Review. The editors are good-hearted people who are—like most of us—trying hard to make sense of difficult times. And so I was surprised one evening to note that good friends of mine were furious at one another, lobbing tweets and pieces back and forth over a story in National Review by a news writer named Zachary Evans, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces.
After a deadly shooting in a kosher market in Jersey City and a horrifying machete attack on a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, Evans attempted to explain the “simmering local conflicts” and “pre-existing disputes” between ultra-Orthodox Jews and local residents.
The emphasis of the piece, however, was on the relatively routine way in which close-knit communities build a life together. He explained that the ultra-Orthodox community builds townhouses close together, so they can “live within walking distance of one another and that there are enough Jews in the area to form a prayer congregation.”
Evans also explained how ultra-Orthodox communities can enhance local political power through bloc voting and writes that “many of the men either don’t work or make low salaries, choosing instead to devote their time to studying religious texts.” The story includes this explosive paragraph:
“Many in the community look at the Hasidim as locusts, who go from community to community . . . just stripping all the resources out of it,” said a Jewish, but not ultra-Orthodox, resident of upstate New York. The resident, who vociferously objects to ultra-Orthodox development and asked not to be named for fear of retribution by the ultra-Orthodox community, added that “nobody here doesn’t like them because they’re Jews. People don’t like them because of what they do. Rural, hardworking people also want to live our lives too.”
Wait. Locusts? Now, obviously, those are not Zachary Evans’s words. He does not agree with the sentiment—he’s reporting its existence. And while many people were outraged to see that sentiment in the pages of National Review, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his editors are not anti-Semites. But it’s extraordinarily jarring to read those words. We overuse the term “dehumanizing” in modern discourse, but a person comparing people to insects is the very definition of dehumanizing. And over what? Zoning disputes? Local elections? Job choices?
Moreover, there’s another key sentence in the article: “There is no indication that [the Jersey City and Monsey attackers] attacked Jewish targets for reasons related to outmigration from New York City to the surrounding region.” So why the extensive focus on the thing that doesn’t seem material to the attacks?
In fact, to the extent that we know the attackers’ motivations, their hatreds ran very, very deep. The Monsey attacker searched the question “Why did Hitler hate the Jews?” One of the Jersey City attackers followed “Black Hebrew Israelite theology,” a fringe belief that, as Evans writes, holds that “African Americans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites and that Jews are essentially pretenders to the faith.”
As I read Evans’s piece, I had a singular thought: He’s waving away the mountain and focusing on a pebble. He’s missing the ocean for the puddle. People do not launch machete attacks over zoning disputes. They don’t open fire in kosher supermarkets because their new neighbors don’t make good salaries. There might be “simmering local conflicts” over zoning (welcome to America; there are always “simmering local conflicts” over zoning), but none of that is truly relevant to deadly violence.
No, the unpleasant truth is that when populations of new and different people (especially religious or racial minorities) move to new and different towns, they all too often encounter vicious bigots. They don’t create vicious bigots. We understand this clearly in the race context. Spend five seconds searching on the web, and you can see truly shocking video from the 1970s of racist white crowds chanting vile insults in residential neighborhoods in New York. When their new neighborhoods integrated, they encountered vicious racists. They didn’t create vicious racists.
My own family had a terrible encounter with racism during the political rise of Donald Trump. As I wrote more critically of Trump and eventually declared that I would never vote for him, my youngest daughter was subject to a torrent of horrific, racist abuse.
Naomi is African-American, adopted from Ethiopia, and as many readers know, alt-right bigots sent us pictures of her then 7-year-old face photoshopped in gas chambers, with a smiling photoshopped Donald Trump poised to push the button to kill her. Bigots filled the comments section of my wife’s blog with horrific pictures and videos of dead and dying African-Americans. Threats spilled into the “real world.” Even now, my family feels periodically under siege, with threats to our house and home.
Now, why did that happen? Why was that race-hatred unleashed on my daughter? Was it because we opposed Donald Trump? At best that was mere pretext. Our opposition to the GOP nominee didn’t make anyone racist. Instead, our opposition to Trump was merely the immediate rationalization and justification of a much deeper and darker hatred. The pretext is so thin that it reveals the pure evil beneath.
But there was something else about Evans’s piece that struck me—it hit me right between the eyes. I’m not sure if this was his intent, but when he described the way that ultra-Orthodox build their houses close together, how they vote together to protect their interests, and how they devote their time to religious studies, one word came to my mind—home. That’s the story of a people building a home.
Indeed, it’s not only the most American of stories—of people welcome nowhere else coming to a land that promised them liberty, it’s a story of unique resonance to American Jews dating back to our nation’s founding. As New York Times editor and writer Bari Weiss relates in her outstanding and moving book, How To Fight Anti-Semitism, George Washington wrote to a Rhode Island Hebrew congregation all the way back in 1790 that American Jews “possess alike liberties of conscience and immunities of censorship.”
America is Israel’s closest ally. America is the home of the second-largest population of Jewish people in the world, behind only Israel. And now, in communities where Jews have lived and thrived for generations, they don’t know if they’re safe. They don’t know if they’ll be victimized by random, vicious attacks. Even worse, those attacks aren’t coming from a single movement that can be identified, isolated, and defeated. They come from radical left and radical right. They come from Americans black and white. The ancient hatreds have re-emerged to such an extent that I’ve heard more than one friend question whether this land can truly remain their home.
In fact, one of the central political, cultural, and spiritual challenges of our time is reassuring Americans increasingly divided by religion and still divided by race that this nation is, indeed, home.
That’s America’s 400-year challenge with an African-American population that endured 246 years of slavery, 99 years of widespread legal discrimination following Appomattox, and has lived only 56 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
That’s America’s challenge as increasing diversity is accompanied by increasing cultural clashes, and the omnipresent human will to power prefers victory and domination over pluralism and accommodation.
I never thought I’d see the day when dear friends plotted ways to be less “visibly Jewish” before walking onto a subway car, going to the grocery store, or just playing in the park. I never thought I’d see the day when random street attacks on Jews were so common that activists and journalists could create security camera compilations of Jews being beaten in the streets. This is a grave breach of the American promise. It’s a grave assault on America’s most fundamental values.
It also represents an important challenge to people of faith. We are so often trapped in our own interest groups and focused on our own challenge that we forget our neighbor’s much greater duress. Say what you want about the (very real) challenges to Christian religious liberty, and I’m sadly aware of the terrifying shootings in American churches, but I don’t talk to many Evangelicals who are afraid to walk the streets of their own hometowns.
As we continue forward in this great American experiment, it’s time for people of faith to remember one of the most poignant and powerful of biblical aspirations. Bari brought it back to my mind in her book, George Washington referenced it almost 50 times in his writings (including to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island), and it properly made it into the wildly popular Hamilton musical. The words are Micah’s and they represent a clarion call challenge for a nation that sometimes feels as if it’s coming apart—“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
One last thing ...
I’m not attaching a song this week but rather a short video clip that beautifully captures the marvelous, miraculous mystery of grace. Watch these words from Phan Thị Kim Phúc. “My enemies list became my prayer list.” She forgave the people who dropped a napalm bomb on her, and we live in an era when we struggle to forgive even such a small thing as an errant tweet.
Photograph of Satmar rebbe David Niederman attending a press conference with mayor Bill de Blasio to denounce the hate crime attack in Jersey City, December 12, 2019, by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.