Last Sunday, tens of thousands flocked to Manhattan’s Foley Square. The bright sun and idle wind made for a pleasant stroll. The crowd was peaceful and well-behaved. The mood was upbeat. Partisan politics was relatively minimal. Marchers who were not Jewish themselves stood proud as allies.
So many good people, so recently awakened to the anti-Semitic threat, so eager to do something. It’s a pity that their leaders – the UJA, JCRC, ADL, AJC, and the New York Board of Rabbis – provided a vapid, anodyne, milquetoast demonstration about nothing in solidarity with no one.
What was billed as a reaction to rising deadly attacks against visibly Jewish targets ended up as a protest against only the twin scourges of hate and fear. The end result was a march with more signs condemning racism and Islamophobia than bearing the obvious, simple message: Stop Stabbing Jews!
It would have been nice had the fine organizations comprising the most powerful brands in mainstream American Jewry actually been committed to addressing the dangerous rise in anti-Semitism. But apparently standing strong against anti-Semitic ideology is not who America’s mainstream Jewish leadership is and it’s not what they set out to do.
A solidarity march truly intended to show that America’s entire Jewish community stands behind the attacks on charedim in Crown Heights, Jersey City, Monsey, and elsewhere, would have reached out to and coordinated with the communities attacked. This march did not. The organizers neglected the very communities with whom they claimed to show solidarity. Coincidence? Oversight? Incompetence? From some of the finest (and most highly-paid) organizational professionals in America today?
Receiving no special invitation, a few charedi and Orthodox organizations nonetheless signed on as co-sponsors, providing potential cover to a deeply flawed event. But by the morning of the march, sponsorship included Jewish organizations that are explicitly anti-charedi and loudly anti-Israel and even clear violate the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism – J Street, Truah, and Yaffed all leap off the page. And why shouldn’t these organizations have joined? All that they were asked to oppose was “hate” and “fear.”
To the event’s organizers, an anti-Semitism march focused on Jews would have been controversial, confrontational, and divisive. Attendance would have been way down. Jews whining about a few murdered or battered chassidim is hardly the feel-good driver of an alliance against hate. It’s too parochial, too inwardly focused, too selfish, too Jewish.
The tragedy is not that the organizers were wrong about how a truly Jewish march would have been perceived; it’s that they were right. Contemporary anti-Semitism is far closer to traditional religious hatred of the Jews than it is to the racial hatred of Nazi Germany. It allows – encourages – conversion and escape. What many of the marchers were protesting was that, having willingly cast aside much of their Jewishness, they still have to fear being attacked for the few vestiges to which they have chosen to cling.
Today’s Jew haters target Jews expressing their Jewishness: Orthodox Jews wearing traditional garb or yarmulkes; students joining Hillel, expressing support for Israel, or even attending an Israeli cultural event; anyone entering a Temple, a JCC, or an identifiably Jewish institution. For the most part, all but the most virulent of today’s Jew haters mix happily with Jews who avoid (or better yet, condemn) Judaism, Jewish tradition, the Jewish state, and Jewish community institutions. To many of the marchers, only the last of these is truly intolerable.
Far too many of the Jews who came out Sunday rallied against hate and fear because any Jew who rails against the specific evil of anti-Semitism is expressing too much Jewishness for comfort. Too many came out to tell the anti-Semites that their own brand of Jewishness is universal, inclusive, good, progressive – not like the Jewishness of “those” Jews, with their peyos and tzitzis flapping in the wind or their weapons raised in defense of Israel.
Far too many of the “good” Jews marching could show solidarity with “those” Jews only while holding them at arms length. The organizers know their members. They organized this march to help their own people feel better. By all appearances, they succeeded.
As to the visibly charedi Jews who’ve actually been attacked? Well… no one should hate them, either. It doesn’t really take much courage to oppose slashing worshippers with a machete or shooting up a supermarket.
Sunday’s march provided a fitting metaphor for contemporary American Judaism writ large: Jews who live fully Jewish lives find themselves increasingly under attack while Jews who have faded safely into Blue America’s progressive ether can enjoy a pleasant if mildly chilly walk before returning home, content in the knowledge that they had “done something.”