Much has been written in recent days about a Boston BDS group’s online map of Jewish sites across Massachusetts. The “Mapping Project” ostensibly revealed the monstrous connections between Massachusetts institutions and the alleged evils of Zionism and Israel, which would have been bad enough, but it also gleefully included synagogues, Jewish sites and Jewish schools at best tangentially related to the Jewish state. The takeaway was clear: Jews equal Zionists. And since Zionism is evil, the Jews are evil. And now, says the map, you know where to find them.
As many noted, this was nothing less than painting a target on the backs of Massachusetts Jews. It was a synagogue shooter’s perfect resource. And indeed, given the rise in anti-Semitic violence across the country and in Boston as well—a rabbi was stabbed there last year by a Muslim anti-Semite—the implications of the map were obvious.
For myself, it was also deeply personal, as my own family lives in Boston, and their business has been the victim of anti-Semitic vandalism. Because they sell Israeli products, they could easily have been included on the map. When I first saw it, I sent the link to the Boston Police in hopes that some kind of legal action could be taken. I have received no reply, though I read nothing into this.
Fortunately, a large number of Massachusetts politicians and others have condemned the Mapping Project and stated clearly that the map, however it may cloak itself in anti-Israel language, is an obviously racist endeavor.
The real question, however, is how the Massachusetts Jewish community—and the American Jewish community in general—will react. Will it remain a local matter or be elevated, as it should be, to a national scandal? And what actions will the community take in response?
There are several obvious actions they could take: The “Mapping Project” and its collaborators like BDS Boston could be sued for damages by one of the targeted institutions. A civil-rights case could be brought, given that Jews are now—at long last—considered a “protected group” under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The community could demand that the authors of the map be arrested for incitement to violence. At the very least, they could ensure that the map is taken down. Certainly, something more could be done.
I doubt very much, however, that something will be done. There is an obvious reason for this: While American Jews and especially their leadership are definitely concerned about anti-Semitism, they are also blinded by ideology. They believe that they have no enemies on the left or in the Muslim-American community, and that the danger comes solely from far-right racists and white supremacists. The nationwide wave of anti-Semitic Muslim-American violence last year appears to have done nothing to change this, and if a pogrom cannot do so, one wonders what will.
But the real problem, I think, is an issue of priorities. Put simply, the American Jewish community is distracted by issues that are, in the end, irrelevant to their well-being. This is what allows them to continue their culture of denial.
Strangely enough, this was driven home for me by a relatively minor Twitter exchange I recently witnessed. Responding to a left-wing Jewish activist, one commenter noted of a progressive Jewish organization: “Their voter guide didn’t mention any Jewish issues. Nothing on rising anti-Semitism or hate crimes. Nothing on security for synagogues.”
The activist responded heatedly, “Ending poverty is a Jewish issue. Ending homelessness is a Jewish issue. Labor justice is a Jewish issue. … I’m sorry your Judaism focuses on security and police, not collective liberation and justice.”
This response was, I must say, typical of most of the Jews I grew up with in a very liberal Boston suburb and especially my family’s very progressive synagogue. Judaism, these progressive Jews believed and I assume still believe, is synonymous with liberalism, progressivism and the struggle for “social justice.” To them, progressive issues are “Jewish issues,” period. And these issues obsess them to the point that they regard even their own safety and security as irrelevant.
When I read that brief exchange, however, what struck me the most was how utterly, completely wrong the activist was: None of those things are Jewish issues. They may be important issues, and perhaps well worth advocating for, but they are universalist issues, without relevance to the most existential concerns of the Jewish community.
The truth, I believe, is that, in our current moment, there is only one Jewish issue: the empowerment of the Jewish people. Everything else must fall before it. Because if the Jewish people, in America and elsewhere, are not empowered, then they can do nothing. They cannot even secure their own bodies and their own existence. They certainly cannot advocate for those universal issues upon which they place so much importance. Indeed, they cannot even ensure that they will exist long enough to undertake such advocacy.
Altruism is nothing to be ashamed of, as Rabbi Hillel noted: “If I am for none but myself, what am I?” If American Jews are sympathetic to left-wing or progressive ideals, they should fight for them. But they should never forget that those ideals are, in the end, tangential. They must be, at best, secondary priorities. And American Jews must also understand that, by placing these ideals above the most absolute and essential ideal, the most absolute and essential struggle, they have allowed monsters to paint targets on their backs, and other monsters, perhaps, will act accordingly.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.
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