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American Jews Should Become a Little More Israeli

Instead of playing defense, we should learn how to stand up for ourselves better

by
Diana Fersko
April 02, 2024

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This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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On Dec. 4, I attended a special session at the United Nations called “Hear Our Voices—Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Oct. 7 Attack.” The session was intended to bring awareness to Hamas’ use of rape and sexual violence against Jewish women and girls and to shame the institutions who remained unconscionably silent in condemning this violence.

I thought I had a reasonable understanding of what the session would be like. I didn’t. I thought, having studied the Shoah at length, that I was well versed in descriptions of violence against Jews. I wasn’t. Instead, at this U.N. session, I heard about acts of brutality against Jewish women that were beyond the scope of my mind, ghastly and depraved acts that were 100% new to me.

At one point, the organizers showed a video. Immediately, instinctively, I looked down. Yes, I was there to hear testimony, but I wasn’t ready to see a video. I just couldn’t watch whatever it was going to be, so I lowered my head and covered my eyes. But at one point during the video, I glanced up, in front of me were two of my dear friends, both Israeli women. Rather than burying their heads as I had done, they were not only watching the video, they both had their phones out, recording the video—presumably so that others could watch as well.

That was one of the many moments since Oct. 7 when I realized that American Jews, myself included, have a long way to go in understanding what it is going to take to stand up for ourselves. I had tried to hide from the horror, but my Israeli friends knew better. They understood that to stand up for ourselves, we would have to go to horribly uncomfortable places. They understood more deeply and more quickly than Jewish Americans about the denialism, the traumatic invalidation, and the blatant antisemitism that was on its way to Jewish people around the globe.

I’m a rabbi. I’m the author of a book on antisemitism. I was raised in an active Jewish home. So, I thought I knew how to speak up for myself and for the Jewish people. But that moment at the U.N. taught me that even I didn’t know how to do those things well enough. It was one of many moments since Oct. 7 when I decided to really fight antisemitism in the United States, I needed to try to become a little bit Israeli. Maybe you should, too.

My Israelification began months before the U.N. session. Like many American Jews, on Oct. 8, I found myself emotionally paralyzed. I was frozen, in shock and disbelief. I could not believe that Hamas had penetrated the border. I could not believe that they had murdered over 1,200 civilians. I could not believe the barbarism or the kidnapping. I could not believe I was witnessing a pogrom. I couldn’t really move except to cry. I sat there, stunned, barely able to make a sound. But while I was processing, the Israelis in my community were acting. My phone filled with WhatsApp notifications. Ding: Someone’s nephew needed a Kevlar vest. Ding: Can you house a reservist on his way back to Israel? Ding: Does anyone have access to large quantities of boots? All day long from Oct. 8 until today, Israelis have shown me the way.

It’s not that American Jews haven’t been standing up for ourselves. We have. Since Oct. 7, I’ve traveled to Jewish communities across the country and the outrage and action has been inspiring. Letter-writing, sign-holding, traveling to Israel, traveling to Washington, giving donations to certain institutions and withholding donations from others, attending school board meetings and curriculum discussions, battling on social media—the Jewish American community is activated in a way I’ve never seen. So yes, Jewish Americans are in this fight.

But still, this process of Israeli drift has pushed me to consider just how much Jewish Americans might have to change our mindset in order to fight this evil.

Here’s what I mean. In a widely circulated commercial about antisemitism, a suburban Jewish mother and daughter leave their house only to see a swastika with the words “No Jews” spray-painted on their garage. The mother and daughter get in their car and leave, and their presumably non-Jewish neighbor ends up painting over the vandalism by the time they come home. The mother gets out of her car and exchanges a knowing nod of appreciation with her neighbor. I understood the commercial to be about inspiring allyship. Thank you, non-Jewish neighbor for recognizing that something was wrong and taking action to stop it. Thank you for being a good and decent person. Thank you for being an upstander and a friend. We need much much, more of this, I thought.

So I was surprised when my friend, who is Israeli, had a completely different take on the commercial. Not only didn’t the story resonate with him, it seemed a little bit off. “Not what I want to see,” he muttered. “She doesn’t know how to use a paintbrush? She can’t take care of herself? She’s going to sit and wait and hope someone else steps in. She should show her daughter the swastika and they should paint it over together.” Where I saw others supporting Jews as a positive message, he saw that American Jews don’t yet get the message that aggressively standing up for ourselves, perhaps more often than not by ourselves, is a necessary step in fighting antisemitism.

I think I understand his feelings, because American Jews are playing defense a lot lately. I should know, going around the country in these past few months I’ve also addressed non-Jewish audiences—some of which are quite hostile toward me. When I speak to that type of audience, I hear myself participating in a kind of defensive dance, a strange ritual of self-humiliation where I try to disprove the conspiracy theory of antisemitism.

Not all Jews are rich, I tell people. I explain that about 20% of Jewish New Yorkers live below the poverty line. On the one hand I’m trying to show that the conspiracy theory about us is factually incorrect. But on the other, what if most Jews were rich? Would that mean that we actually were controlling the world? That the conspiracy theory of antisemitism was true?

Not all Jews are white, I tell people. I explain that about 70% of Jews in Israel certainly aren’t from European descent. On the one hand, I’m trying to explain to people that Jews have lived around the globe for centuries and that we are beautifully diverse. But on the other hand, what if we were all light-skinned? Would that make Jews guilty of racism or oppression? Would that “prove” the conspiracy theory? Or at least validate it?

And worst of all, we are genocide survivors, I tell people. I explain that 6 million Jews were murdered in living memory, including 1 million children. On the one hand, I’m trying to teach Jewish history. I am fighting for facts. A significant percentage of millennials believe that 2 million or 3 million Jews were murdered in the Shoah rather than 6 million. It’s my obligation to fight against these falsehoods. But on the other hand, am I also begging people not to hate us by reminding them we are victims?

Jewish Americans around the country are doing a similarly defensive dance: defending a war, defending a state, defending Zionism, defending Jewish existence in universities, on boards, in justice work, and in civil society. Defending the existence of Jews itself.

All this defense leads me to a core philosophical question: What would it look like if American Jews decided to play philosophical offense? The conspiracy theories of antisemitism aren’t true; rather they are a series of boundaryless lies. But we will also never be able to prove they are wholly false because they are not driven by rationale or reason. So, what if instead of defensively saying what we aren’t, we took a different approach and we chose to assertively say what we are?

It might look something like this: Jews are experts in civil disagreement—we have thousands of years of lived experience and documented evidence of how to argue with respect and how to engage in meaningful debate. We can help to heal the brokenness of public discourse with this knowledge. Jews possess ancient wisdom about justice. Amos, Micah, Isaiah—these are the voices to which we could be turning. Jews know about the value of work-life balance, the dangers of over-reliance on technology, the importance of face-to-face connection—God explained these things to us through the gift of Shabbat long ago. Jews have lived experiences to share that could help others understand current events—about immigration, refugeeism, persecution, and survivorship. Jews love to dance around the Torah, to braid bread, and to ask questions. We have so much to offer, to teach, and to share. Maybe we should start telling people about these things and countless others rather than defending ourselves against a cruel and unyielding conspiracy theory.

Diana Fersko is the Senior Rabbi of The Village Temple in downtown Manhattan.

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