Talk about a bomb shell, even if that is not necessarily the nicest metaphor to employ in a story about terror threats. The vast majority of threats made against Jewish Community Centers around the nation, not to mention the bomb threats phoned in regrading two flights on Delta Airlines, were, it now seems clear, made by a 19 year old Jewish American-Israeli dual citizen. That breaking revelation comes on the heels of news related to a similar, if smaller, story regarding swastikas spray-painted on a home in Schenectady, NY. The vandal is thought to be none other than the Jewish home-owner himself.
If this weren’t so deadly serious, I would just shake my head and move on. But it is serious, and we can’t simply look away, as much as some may want to – whether out of shame, embarrassment, fear, or simply out of exhaustion.
We can’t look away, because there is real anti-Semitism in our world, and “crying wolf” makes it all the harder to take that fact seriously. After all, if people lied about it this time, others will remember that lie next time, even if the next threat is real. And no, it’s not good enough to say, “Well, in these cases it was ‘crazy people’ who fabricated the anti-Semitic threats, but when responsible leaders and organizations alert us to real threats, we have to pay as much attention as ever.”
It’s not good enough because so many of those very same leaders and organizations were the first to jump on the “rising tide of anti-Semitism band wagon” in the past months. I am not interested in questioning their motives for having done so, but it is precisely because I share their legitimate concerns for real anti-Semitism, that I would invite all those who have been wringing their hands since last fall, to ask themselves/ourselves what happened here, and how we can do better in the future, assuming that is even the goal.
“Assuming that is even the goal? Brad, are you telling us that it’s not totally clear that slowing our urge to hit the panic button is not everybody’s goal?” Yes, that is exactly what I am saying, and it is the part of this story which I find most troubling.
We Jews, or at least far too many of us, find it hard to take “yes” for an answer. We cannot imagine that, given our lives here in America – our successes, achievements and the overwhelming embrace of us as proud Jews – we should probably be at least a little less panicky and a bit more cautious regarding sudden bursts of anti-Semitism.
If you factor out the recent rash of phone threats, for example, the supposed doubling of such acts in the past year, turns out to be totally false. There may have been some increase, and there is no question regarding the importance of figuring out the cemetery attacks, but the panic from both the left and the right, the mobilizing of that fear, and people’s willingness to accept the worst possible explanations – those are serious issues which demand at least as much collective Jewish introspection as they do collective Jewish mobilization against anti-Semitism.
Now, I get it. It would be so much more convenient, for some, if the threats had come from the increasing hordes of white supremacists, which the left not only presumes, but imagines are in lock-step (goose-step?) alignment with President Trump and his closest advisors. Or perhaps, for those on the right, if the threats had come from an organized group of Muslims, confirming the false and ugly claim that “they” all hate “us” (Jews, Americans, etc) anyway. It would be so much easier for people animated by over-the-top fear mongering regarding whomever they hate most, if these threats had come from one of those groups.
It would have confirmed all that they fear, and being right about who they fear is what defines who they are, in so many cases. But of course, that is not how it went down. It seems that in the vast majority of these cases, one of “us” was the perpetrator. And that may be the most threatening, and most important, reality to which we need to adjust – the shift away from being the perennial victims, not to mention the willingness to look both without and within when we are being victimized.
Again, I am not naïve. Jews do get victimized in this world, and even in America, simply because they are Jewish. That is repugnant, and it must be fought, but it is not the norm – not in the US anyway – and as hard as it might be, especially after millennia of actually being the perennial victims, we need to adjust to this new normal. And to be clear, I am not suggesting that because we are generally no longer the victims, we have generally become perpetrators, as many real anti-Semites and Israel-haters too often contend.
I am talking about moving beyond the victim-perpetrator model. I am talking about moving toward a model which is more aspirational than it is defensive, that mobilizes people around the dreams they have, more than around fighting the nightmares they have, and that doesn’t pit communal self-defense against communal introspection. I am talking about appreciating that, by and large, we are living the dream, and need to guard against constantly looking for boogey men, simply because they used to be more present, and defining ourselves by who hates us, rather than by what we love, even though it is often so much easier to do it that way.
Abraham Maslow (or Mark Twain who is often credited with this line) was right when he said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”. The reverse is also true – if you always think of yourself as a nail, it is tempting to see everyone else as a hammer. Today’s events remind us that the world is filled with both hammers and nails, but who is which, is less obvious than we often let ourselves believe.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.