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Jews needed to show pride by marching. Now can they show smarts?

The march across the Brooklyn Bridge was a necessary response to a surge in anti-Semitic crimes. But rallies and social-media gestures alone won’t fix the problem.

A group from Cleveland walks across the Brooklyn Bridge at the “No Hate. No Fear.” rally in New York City that drew 25,000 people, Jan. 5, 2020. Credit: Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
A group from Cleveland walks across the Brooklyn Bridge at the “No Hate. No Fear.” rally in New York City that drew 25,000 people, Jan. 5, 2020. Credit: Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

After a year in which there was a surge of violent anti-Semitic attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews in the greater New York area, the rest of the Jewish community, which had often ignored assaults on their brethren, finally acted. The march and ensuring rally over the Brooklyn Bridge—sponsored by a host of mainstream organizations and attended by more than 25,000 people—was a remarkable gesture of Jewish unity.

It may have been late in coming and only happened until the violence appeared to be spiraling out of control with the shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City and then the Hanukkah stabbing attack in a rabbi’s home in Monsey, N.Y. But when it comes to Jews expressing pride in their identity and publicly standing up to hate, better late than never.

The same goes for a variety of gestures taken by those who share the concerns of the throngs who showed up for the march. That’s true even if it was just a matter of changing their Facebook profile picture to indicate their solidarity with Jews who have been attacked, coupled with a willingness to defy the anti-Semites.

But this is not the time for Jews to pat themselves on the back for attending or sympathizing with the demonstration. As encouraging as the walk and rally were, the event also laid bare the ongoing divisions within the Jewish community at the heart of the problem. Just as important, it’s far from clear whether the organized community that took the lead in making the march happen is willing or able to confront all varieties of anti-Semitism, rather than just acting in a manner that validates some of their leading donors’ political prejudices.

The first thing to celebrate about the march is that it was an assertion of Jewish pride.

For far too many members of the community, the instinctual reaction to anti-Semitism is to seek not to draw attention to their identity, lest they be singled out for hate themselves. That’s why even gestures that seem like an exercise in virtue signaling, like those that are done on Facebook, shouldn’t be deprecated. At a time when Jews fear to wear identifying clothing or jewelry so as to not be targeted by anti-Semitic thugs—as is the case for sensible Jews in many Western European cities—the spectacle of a mass of people participating in such an event is important.

While fear and self-preservation may be the prudent response in Europe, the notion of Americans giving in to that impulse remains unacceptable, especially in a city with as sizable and important a Jewish population as in New York.

It was also important because it showed that the organized community is willing to recognize that anti-Semitism isn’t just a right-wing phenomenon in the United States.

The fact that large numbers of Jews who come from the non-Orthodox denominations and the secular world who normally have little to do with the Orthodox—let alone the Chassidim who have been targeted—was also a priceless gesture towards Jewish unity.

The fight against anti-Semitism isn’t a liberal or conservative issue, or one that should divide Democrats and Republicans. It’s an issue on which the community should stand united.

But it did not escape notice that only a handful of haredi Jews were at the march, thus perhaps giving the lie to pretensions of Jewish unity. Most of the ultra-Orthodox have shown little interest in joining forces with the rest of the Jewish community on any issue.

Only days before, some 90,000 members of the Orthodox community had filled MetLife Stadium in New Jersey with another 20,000 in Barclay’s Arena in Brooklyn to mark the Siyum HaShas, the completion of a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of studying the Talmud. That is a great endeavor, but when compared to the turnout for the march against anti-Semitism, it also shows the lack of interest on the part of the ultra-Orthodox in efforts to join with the rest of the Jewish world.

Equally concerning is that despite the turnout for the march, there is little sign among liberal Jewry that it’s prepared to think seriously about how to deal with the growing support for anti-Semitism among members of minority communities.

Groups that have little trouble drawing lines between President Trump and white-supremacist groups that he has repeatedly condemned seem to prefer to treat those blacks who attack Jews as being isolated figures who are solely the products of mental illness. Such people are a tiny minority. But you’d have to have your head planted firmly in the sand to ignore the toleration of and even support for anti-Jewish hate in some sectors of the African-American community.

Given the rush to politicize and weaponize anti-Semitism as a stick with which to unfairly beat Trump, the reluctance of so many Jewish leaders to call those who legitimize or tolerate anti-Semites, like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), activist Linda Sarsour and Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, is unfortunate.

If the effort is to have any real meaning, then it must be accompanied by a willingness on the part of Jewish groups to be honest with their minority counterparts about the cost its acquiescence to theories of intersectionality, which serves as justification for hateful attacks on Israel and Jews. The same is true for those, like the Reform movement, who give a pass to figures like Al Sharpton, who has with a history of Jew-baiting, or any other hatemonger. Alliances with the black community are necessary and are to be valued. But acceptance of anti-Semitic figures is a choice that Jews and blacks must reject.

For all of the cheers that the march got and deserved, there is still plenty of work to do if this effort to promote Jewish unity and a coherent response to anti-Semitism is to be more than a one-off, feel-good gesture.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

 

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