Our silence is no longer an option

Our silence is no longer an option

Last week, a newspaper in upstate New York, the Buffalo News, published (unapologetically as of this writing) a disgustingly antisemitic editorial cartoon pointedly blaming all Jews for the civilian deaths in Gaza. By doing so, the cartoon underscored both the seriousness of the Jew-hatred that is spiraling out of control in our world and the reason for it. It also underscored the need for us in the Diaspora to turn things around before it is too late.

Spiraling out of control may be too mild a description. A report released by UN Watch in December noted that in 2023 the U.N. General Assembly voted 21 times to censure countries for actions delegates considered violations of some kind. Most countries cited each received only one censure. Russia was censured — but only twice — for its multiple war crimes in Ukraine.

Israel, though, was censured 14 times in 2023 — bizarrely, even for an oil slick that had an impact on Lebanon 17 years ago, in 2006, during its war that year with Hezbollah. That Israel was censured twice as many times as all the other condemned states combined is but one example of how antisemitism is running wild in today’s world.

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza may have been the catalyst that unleashed the global explosion of Jew-hatred, but we are all its target, as that disgusting editorial cartoon so graphically documented. Unless we take effective action to reverse this growing Jew-hating trend, what we are facing now is a looming threat to Jewish survival.

We see that threat even here in the United States, especially in the opinions held by a majority of U.S. voters aged 18 to 24, the so-called Gen Z’ers, or the Plurals as some label them. This is the age group from which our next generation of political leaders will emerge. Gen Z’ers may not have any power to set policy today, but they will tomorrow. A 25-year-old can serve in the House. A 30-year-old can be a senator. A 35-year-old can be president. Their opinions are a matter of great concern.

According to a survey released in late December by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies/Lou Harris poll, 67 percent of Gen Z’ers believe that “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors.” We are all oppressors in their eyes, not just Israel.

Fifty-one percent believe that Israel “should be ended and given to Hamas and the Palestinians,” while 53 percent see nothing wrong in people calling for a new Holocaust to rid the world of us. Many may not support such calls, but they have no problem with others promoting the idea.

That may be because they may see killing Jews as a way of balancing the scales since 60 percent of them believe that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and that what Hamas did on October 7 was justified because of the way Israel treats all Palestinians.

The survey also found that 81 percent of Americans ages 25 and over still support Israel over Hamas and that the majority of these respondents do not share the opinions of the Gen Z’ers, but this offers no solace because the Gen Z’ers will soon be eligible to make policy.

We need to begin turning such attitudes around — among everyone who holds such beliefs — before it is too late.

Antisemitism was always lingering beneath the surface, but the antisemitism we are seeing today is out in the open, it is widespread, and — we need to be honest about this — it is being fueled by the public’s perception of how Israel deals with all things Palestinian.

This perception, wrongheaded though it truly is in so many respects, including that there never have been partners for peace among any Palestinian faction, has only been confirmed in the public mind by the tactics Israel is using in its war against Hamas.

Jews, as individuals and small groups, rarely make the headlines, but “the state of the Jews” is in the headlines almost every day. Unless we acknowledge to ourselves that the policies of and the tactics used by Israel’s right-wing extremist government play a huge role in promoting Jew hatred, we cannot even begin to tackle that hatred effectively.

Certainly, the media’s all-too-often twisted reporting on anything related to Israel plays an equally huge role in shaping public opinion. We must find more effective ways of battling media bias; that is true, but we also must tackle what underpins that bias: Israel’s policies and tactics.

Getting seriously involved in Israel’s political life is something we have never wanted to do before. Because we live outside Israel, we do not believe it is our right to impose our views on Israel’s internal affairs, except when Israeli policy directly involves us in some way, as it does with the Who is a Jew and Who is a Rabbi issues. We will criticize Israeli leaders and actions at times, of course, but these criticisms are just words, and words are not enough.

This reluctance to get seriously involved is a luxury we can no longer afford. It has to stop.

The people running Israel today do not reflect Jewish values, even if they insist that they do. They understand nothing when it comes to Jewish values — values that we Jews learned the hard way, beginning in Egypt and running throughout our history from then on.

For example, we are the people who, for nearly 3,000 years, have been shoved from one place to the next. As a Jewish wag once said, that is why we “always keep our bags packed.” We know the pain and the suffering that come with that. God sent us into Egypt to learn those lessons. At Sinai, God assigned us the task of teaching those lessons by example to the world.

Yet Israel’s leaders of today seem inclined to do the opposite. Ministers in Israel’s government want to do to the people in Gaza, and even to the Arabs on the West Bank and some even to Israel’s Arab citizens, what so many have done to us throughout our long history.

Then there is the problematic way that the IDF is conducting this war. We have been arguing that the IDF does its best to protect civilian targets. The main reason there are so many civilian deaths and so much damage to civilian facilities, we keep saying, is that Hamas uses human shields and civilian facilities to plan and launch its attacks.

That is true, but this also is true, as it turns out: Approximately half of the 30,000 or so bombs the IDF has dropped on Gaza until now are so-called “dumb bombs,” the kind that are specifically designed to cause as much infrastructure damage as possible and that inevitably lead to many civilian deaths. The IDF admitted as much last week in responding to criticism of its December 24 bombing of the Al-Maghazi refugee camp in which at least 86 people were killed, including children. Many of the people in the camp had fled there from Northern Gaza because Israel had earlier said it was a “safe zone.”

The bombing of Al-Maghazi, the IDF said, caused “unintended harm.” Israel used dumb bombs when it should have dropped smart ones. “The type of munition did not match the nature of the attack, causing extensive collateral damage that could have been avoided,” an unnamed IDF source said

The world thinks that we — all Jews everywhere, not just in Israel — are the monsters, not Hamas. They lump us all together, and, in truth, we really should be lumped together. We may not live in the State of Israel, but we are all the People Israel. As the Talmud teaches us, “All Israel are responsible one for the other.” It follows that “all Israel” must bear responsibility for actions taken in our name.

We need the State of Israel to survive because I strongly believe we cannot survive yet another loss of a Jewish state, as occurred in 586 B.C.E., 66 C.E., and 136 C.E. Because our survival as the People Israel depends on the survival of the State of Israel, we must defend its right to defend itself.

That should not mean defending the indefensible, however. We need to change people’s perceptions about Jews generally and about Israel particularly, and we especially need to change the perceptions of the Gen Z’ers. We will not be able to do so, however, if we continue to act as if Israel’s politics are none of our business.

Let me be clear about this. Israel must defeat Hamas, and it must do so in a way that puts an end to Hamas for good. When this war is over, however, we here in the Diaspora need to get seriously involved with Israel’s political issues.

As I wrote in my column two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must go, and so must his extremist ministers. When the war is over, we in the Diaspora have no choice but to help make that happen.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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