(June 15, 2020 / JNS) It was shortly after World War II, and the Holocaust was just becoming known. As children, we were kept, as best the adults in the household could, from what had happened in Europe.
Like all children, we were especially fascinated by what was hidden. We managed to discover my grandmother’s Yiddish-language magazines. And as my 10-year-old brother translated, we gaped in horror at the pictures of atrocities perpetrated against European Jews.
I cannot remember my response at the time. But the images were never forgotten. One in particular was of a rabbi clutching a Torah and saying Kaddish over the bodies of dead Jews as German soldiers looked on with bemusement.
The significance of the Torah as the foundation of Jewish life needs no commentary. The image of the rabbi holding it in tight embrace, as a symbol of clinging to both life and faith, is unforgettable.
In Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews hid Torah scrolls from those who would destroy them.
The Holocaust did not happen overnight. It came in stages. The most significant, perhaps, was the calculated removal of Jews from what was called “juridical man”—the creation of the Jew outside the protection of law, as a non-legal entity and then as a non-human.
These thoughts have lain dormant for decades. But the other day, I was told that the local synagogues in our bucolic, exurban part of northern California are hiding their Torahs.
This is not Prague after the German invasion. This is America. Synagogues hiding Torahs?
Upon reflection, this is only the newest response to real and growing security concerns. First came a whole covert security apparatus for the High Holidays. Then came a layer of armed security along with it. Later came fences, lights and a security committee.
Maybe the changes were too incremental to be noticed, but the hiding of Torah scrolls in America is more than a statement. It is a crescendo. The problem is that many Jews are too deaf to hear it.
In recent months, Chassidic Jews in Brooklyn, N.Y., have repeatedly been assaulted on the streets. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initial reaction was to blame white supremacists. CCTV footage and victims’ accounts captured not the actions of white supremacists, but of young blacks and Latinos.
The Chassidim felt abandoned. Protections that would quickly be afforded other communities were not forthcoming for them.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and a funeral for a much-beloved rabbi. The police did show for that event—to impose social distancing. An irate de Blasio threatened to close synagogues and, for good measure, churches as well.
The mayor made good on his concern for social distancing, deploying the NYPD to raid a Talmud Torah where students wearing face masks were sitting six feet apart.
In symbolic form, the mayor was implying that we have to watch the Jews because they spread plagues.
The concern for social distancing evaporated with the protests over the brutal killing of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters, rioters and looters were suddenly exempt from the rules that weeks earlier had been imposed on Chassidim studying Talmud.
When the mayor’s daughter was arrested for demonstrating, de Blasio did not seem concerned about her exposure to COVID-19, though rushed to publicly kvell over her concern for social justice. De Blasio’s daughter somehow is immune from spreading disease. Jews studying Talmud are not.
Individual Jewish congregations and community organizations tripped over themselves to condemn the murder of Floyd and support Black Lives Matter, but somehow forgot to condemn BLM’s anti-Semitism that manifested itself in what is now being called a “pogrom” on the heavily Jewish Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“Protesters” attacked Jewish businesses and painted anti-Semitic slogans on synagogues. Cars drove through the neighborhood, its passengers yelling out “effing Jews.”
Almost a lone voice, it was Rabbi Aryeh Spero and the Conference of Jewish Affairs that issued a statement condemning the anti-Semitism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the attacks on Jewish institutions and shops:
“We at the Conference of Jewish Affairs are appalled and angered by the wanton destruction that rioters in the Los Angeles area have wrought on Jewish synagogues, institutions and shops in the significant Jewish area along Fairfax. Much of the destruction and defacement of these Jewish synagogues and stores is deliberate and targeted acts of anti-Semitism.”
These were details that other Jewish organizations, in the present crisis, have chosen to ignore.
Is it any wonder we have gone from covert security to hiding Torahs?
Unless individual congregations and Jewish organizations are as concerned about the anti-Semitism of the BLM movement as they are about the murder of George Floyd, the scourge of anti-Semitism will proliferate.
It won’t be Torah scrolls that will require hiding, but Jews.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.
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