Residents of an otherwise quiet neighborhood awoke last Saturday morning to a horror show outside their doors: swastikas, racial slurs and anti-Jewish graffiti sprayed on at least a dozen homes. The hate-fest had taken place overnight and included houses, cars, garage doors, mailboxes and driveways – more than ten-thousand dollars’ worth of damage. This was not in Denmark or Belgium or England or France. This was in Madison, Wisconsin.
That’s right. Madison, Wisconsin, right here in the good old U-S-of-A, a community of 300-thousand with a reputation for open-mindedness. As one of my colleagues there wrote to his congregation, “we are reminded that hatred and ignorance exist even in our progressive Midwest community.”
Maybe because Madison is considered so progressive, the local authorities have been loath to label this a hate crime. “It just looks like it’s malicious damage,” said Madison police officer David Dexheimer. This, in spite of the fact that that one of the houses targeted belongs to Jim Stein, president of the Jewish Federation of Madison, who was greeted with the phrase “F….Jews” spray painted on the garage right across the street from his home. “This reeks of anti-Semitism,” Stein correctly surmised, “and that’s an important wake-up call for the city of Madison.”
It would be so easy – wouldn’t it? – to treat this as a one-off, a prank by some local kids copying something they’ve seen on the internet. Easy. But wrong. It’s part of a pattern. A pattern of hatred against Jews that has spread across Europe and across the Atlantic. A pattern of hatred that includes murderous attacks in Paris and Copenhagen but also the desecration of a French Jewish cemetery with swastikas and the Shabbat closure of the Great Synagogue in Paris for the first time since World War Two.
In Denmark, Jews are so scared that they have shut down their radio station rather than operate with an army of armed guards to protect them. Copenhagen’s Caroline School – one of the oldest Jewish schools in the world – also has closed its doors.
Across Europe, Jews have been encouraged to stop dressing in any way that would draw attention to their, well, Jewishness, including wearing yarmulkes. Lest you think that’s a bit excessive, Jewish journalist Zvikah Klein’s video journal should tell you otherwise. Catch it on YouTube. Klein decided to wear a yarmulke for a day walking the streets of Paris and secretly filmed what happened. He was spat at, threatened, and called a dog. Maybe saddest of all, a little boy in one neighborhood turned to his mother, incredulous that anyone would wear a kippah in public and asked her, “What is he doing here, Mommy? Doesn’t he know he will be killed?”
A child in a major European city knows this about Jews – that they could be killed just for being Jews. That’s a lesson we had hoped children would never learn after World War Two.
But if a child knows this, why is it the leaders of the Western World do not?
Sympathy is fine. Marches for peace and tolerance are all well and good. But toward what end? To hear them talk about it, the killers could be anyone, and the victims could be random. Danish Prime Miniser Helle Thorning-Schmidt insisted that it was unclear what had motivated the killer of Dan Uzan, the Jewish guard who died preventing a massacre at the Copenhagen synagogue. In fact, the gunman was a Muslim who made no secret of his hatred for Jews. Only the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has had the courage to denounce what he called “the intolerable rise of anti-Semitism” in his country, which he warned is a “symptom of crisis in democracy.”
Valls has been a lone, brave voice.
Just two days ago, Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, spoke at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. He, too, warned that recent attacks on Jews threaten the democratic societies in which these Jews live. He warned as well that you have to name the problem or you cannot focus on solving it. “Some have been reluctant to identify the victims or to identify the perpetrators or even to call it anti-Semitism,” he said. “It should be obvious that this radical Islamic extremism is also deeply anti-Semitic.”
Since this program was sponsored by the White House, let’s hope that President Obama was paying attention. He, too, has been reluctant to call radical Islamic extremism exactly what it is. Both right after the murder of Jews in Paris and again more recently, the president had the opportunity. In an interview with Vox about recent violence – both in Europe and throughout the Middle East – this is what he said: “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks at a deli in Paris.”
That, simply put, is unacceptable. Tragically, frustratingly, unacceptable.
As Jonathan Tobin put it in Commentary this week:
“You can’t defeat an enemy that you refuse to call by his right name. That’s why ignoring Islamism and calling ISIS and the Paris killers mere ‘zealots’ or ‘extremists’ not only misses the point but also hampers the West’s ability to resist them. By the same token, the omission of any discussion of anti-Semitism about an event that was an unambiguous act of Jew hatred similarly undermines the effort to strike back at such atrocities.”
The thing is, it seems not that long ago that anti-Semites had been forced to crawl back under their rocks, because overt Jew hatred was simply not acceptable. I suppose it was a post-Holocaust phenomenon: you could not speak ill of those who had lost six million to the gas chambers and crematoria. Jews were being lauded for their gifts to the world. The whole thesis of Thomas Kahill’s 1988 book “The Gifts of the Jews,” was that we and our Biblical tradition gave the world the gifts of “future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice.” The book was a huge success.
The gifts of the Jews is really the starting point for this week’s Torah portion. God commands the Israelites to bring gifts מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ “from every person whose heart is so moved.” The gifts here were of a practical nature – the skins and threads and wood and yarns and linens that would be used to create and adorn the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. But they also were of a personal nature – the talents and the heartfelt dedication of the people who would create this Mishkan out of whatever they had with them or around them. וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” says God. And they did.
Since then, we have always felt that God has a place in our community. Whether we are encamped in the wilderness, dispersed among the other peoples of the earth, or on the sovereign land of Israel – two thousand years ago or today – we believe that God is with us, that God has traveled with us, that God has suffered with us, that God has been gracious to us.
There’s a place for God to dwell among us. But is there a place for us to dwell with others?
We thought that would be the Land of Israel, our ancestral home, which extremists of the Muslim world are now trying to take away. We thought that would be safety in other countries. Until the targeted killings here and in Europe.
As we approach our festivals of Purim and Passover, we are reminded that the existential threats to Jewry go back centuries – even millennia. But if the world’s leaders are going to do something about it now – and we demand that they do – then they must name the danger very, very clearly.
I mentioned a few minutes ago the high-profile White House confab this week. The name was “Countering Violent Extremism” – because the administration still cannot bring itself to name Islamic terrorism for what it is. The White House, by the way, says there’s a very good reason for that. As Scott Shane explained it in the New York Times, the administration believes that “labeling noxious beliefs and mass murder as ‘Islamic’ would play right into the hands of terrorists who claim that the United States is at war with Islam itself.” In other words, because we have the common sense to label Islamic terror what it is, we must therefore be equating it with all Muslims. It’s total nonsense, of course, and cowardice as well. But there it is.
So today in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg took up the challenge. You don’t want to use the word Islamic? Fine. Call it Jihad. Revolutionary jihad. “There’s a global crisis right now,” writes Goldberg, “and it’s severe, widespread and specific to a particular faith community in a way that no other form of violent extremism is at this moment in history . . . by denying the serious religious roots of jihadist terrorism and dismissing it as some mindless, nihilistic or power-hungry thuggery, [the president] obscures some of the genuine issues at play in this crisis.”
It may be true, writes Goldberg, that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject the actions of groups like ISIS, al-Qaida and Boko Haram. But it’s also true that Muslims deal in different ways – as we all do – with the challenges of a world that is moving very quickly around them. And some of them are resorting to violent jihad against, not just Jews, but modernity and liberty and the things that we consider basic human values – like freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
Two days ago in The Forward, renowned historian Deborah Lipstadt published a powerful essay about fighting Islamist extremism, by whatever name we call it. She puts forth seven axioms we must take away from the attacks in Copenhagen. You should look up the entire essay. But here, in brief, are the highlights for me:
First, name the problem. If you can’t name it, you can’t solve it. This isn’t generic violent extremism, it’s Muslim Extremism. It is directly connected to Islam, though not to all Muslims. As such, moderate Muslims must be in the battle alongside of us.
Second, identify and acknowledge the patterns. These attacks may not all be coordinated or organized by al-Qaida and ISIS. But as Lipstadt writes, “The individuals behind them have been radicalized by a stream of Islam that abhors Western democracy and all it stands for.”
Third, do not accept equivocation and excuses. “Yes, but, if only Israel hadn’t done this” or “Yes but if only they hadn’t insulted the Prophet” must not be used as a license to murder.
Fourth: Acknowledge that this is not just a war on Jews but on Western democratic liberal values. Again quoting Deborah Lipstadt: “We are waging a war against extremists who are inherently opposed to everything we value about the society in which we live. They want us to live in fear. Doing so grants them a victory and, as the Danes at the café learned, doesn’t protect us from future violence.”
So maybe this is our 21st century Jewish gift to the world: the courage to name the terror and face it. From the response in the streets, maybe people outside our Jewish communities are starting to catch on. I don’t mean the generic, top-down, weak-kneed efforts in Washington and abroad. I mean the grass-roots responses.
In London this week, a group of Jews, Muslim and Christians marched together for tolerance, understanding, and non-violence. In Oslo, Norway, a group of Muslims will form what they call a ‘ring of peace’ around a synagogue tomorrow. They’re spreading the word on social networking sites, and over a thousand people have committed to come. As one of the young organizers said, “We have taken this initiative not just as fellow human beings but also as Muslims, to show that Muslims are opposed to the hatred Jews have to face.”
These efforts may be small. But they are important. They are coming from the communities, from the people, directly affected by Islamic jihadist violence, in some of the cities that are most vulnerable. They are coming from people who are not afraid to name the problem as the first step to fighting it. They are coming from people who are not afraid to literally block the way of those who are driven to violence and murder by their interpretation of their faith tradition. If they are leading the way, let us hope that the political leadership of the West will have the courage to follow.
If there’s anything we take from our faith tradition, is that we must stand up to the bullies and the haters. Israel has always been willing to defend itself alone. But it should not have to – not when jihadist terror threatens us all.
Let us pray that, just we created a sanctuary for God to dwell among us, the human heart becomes a sanctuary for God do dwell within us all. Ken Yehi Ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin