OpinionAntisemitism

Why have American Jews remained nonviolent?

The Jews have always been exceptions to history, but this is a particularly odd exception.

A 1578 illustration of the defeat of Haman's forces at the end of the Purim story. Source: Emory University via Wikimedia Commons
A 1578 illustration of the defeat of Haman's forces at the end of the Purim story. Source: Emory University via Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

The just-passed holiday of Purim was subdued for many due to Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas, the trauma of Oct. 7 and the massive rise in antisemitism driven by the pro-Hamas fifth column in many countries. Indeed, several friends told me they avoided Purim celebrations out of fear.

This presents us with a paradox: Antisemitism is now actively impeding Jewish life while Jews observe a holiday that celebrates triumph over antisemitism.

This is all the more ironic given the climax of the Purim story: After Queen Esther reveals herself to King Ahasuerus and convinces him of Haman’s evil, the king does not just foil Haman’s genocidal plot and have him and his sons executed. As the Scroll of Esther reads: “The king authorized the Jews in each and every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, kill and annihilate every armed group of any nation or province that might attack them along with their wives and children.”

Thus, on the day when “the enemies of the Jews had expected to overpower them, the situation was reversed: the Jews overpowered those who hated them. … The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them; they did to those who hated them as they pleased.”

This aspect of the Purim story is rarely emphasized today, especially in the Diaspora. Instead, the resolute courage of Queen Esther and the skill with which Mordechai maneuvers the complex politics of the Persian empire are emphasized.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is interesting that, especially at this time, the Jews’ use of violence to overcome their enemies is elided.

Indeed, if there ever was a time when the Jews of the Diaspora might turn to violence, it would appear to be now. Genocidal mobs are polluting American cities. Harassment of Jews is rife and so is outright physical assault. The higher education system has been revealed as systemically antisemitic. Vandalism and threats are innumerable. At least one man has been murdered.

Moreover, this is hardly the first time this has happened. During several of Israel’s recent wars, escalating outbreaks of antisemitic violence took place. While the responsible authorities may be well-meaning, their methods are clearly not working. Yet they show no signs of employing more punitive measures.

In such a situation, one imagines that retaliatory violence would be inevitable. Indeed, many American minorities have rioted or formed armed self-defense groups for much less. Yet there is little sign that the Jews will do so.

This is particularly odd because Diaspora Jews can see quite clearly that violence works. For example, one of the reasons the authorities have not acted decisively to quell antisemitic violence, especially in places with large Muslim and leftist populations such as New York and London, is fear. That is, antisemitic violence has intimidated even non-Jewish authorities into impotence.

As a result, the antisemites are getting away with it. One might think that, for example, a student who assaults a Jew on campus would be immediately expelled, arrested, tried and jailed. As far as I know, this has not happened a single time. The impunity is near-universal.

More than anything else, however, Diaspora Jews have seen that the violence of Israel’s enemies has been met with appeasement and/or indifference. The Oct. 7 massacre was not just excused but celebrated by many and the world’s attention is now largely directed towards engineering Hamas’s survival despite its horrific crimes against humanity.

It appears, then, that the world does not only allow violence to work but actively seeks to ensure that it works.

Given all this, it is striking that Diaspora Jews have not engaged in retaliation. No mosques have been vandalized or burned. No imams have been assassinated. No leftist gatherings have received bomb threats or been disrupted in any way. No mobs of Jews have been marching through major cities. No Jewish communities have rioted. There has certainly been substantial pushback against antisemitism, but it has been entirely legal, political and resolutely nonviolent.

This is certainly a good thing, given that the atrocities committed by antisemites are hardly something to be admired or emulated. Nonetheless, when compared to other communities in similar circumstances, it is anomalous.

There are, of course, some plausible explanations for it.

One is numbers. There simply aren’t that many Jews in the United States. As a result, they can rarely achieve the numerical mass that drives riots and other acts of violence. They also lack the dense, thickly populated communities into which they can “melt” in order to avoid the authorities.

Another factor is class-based. American Jews are overwhelmingly middle-class and share that class’s law-abiding culture. To deliberately violate the law, especially in a violent way, is largely unthinkable to them.

American Jews are also well aware of the fact that they will be subjected to a double standard. Muslims and leftists can get away with things that Jews can’t. Faced with Jewish violence, the authorities will surely leap at the chance for moral equivalence and punish the perpetrators with a vehemence they would never employ against antisemites.

To go very dark, there is also the fact that violence inherently means punishment. Some of the Jews who commit acts of violence will go to jail and for a Jew prison is essentially a death sentence. America’s wretched prison system is dominated by antisemitic forces—including neo-Nazi groups—and no Jew can be sure to stay alive among them for long. This is not the case for the antisemites. The deterrence factor of this is enormous.

There is also the issue of culture. Over generations in the Diaspora, Jews were for all intents and purposes powerless. As a result, a culture of learned helplessness developed in which violent resistance of any kind was viewed as at best futile. At worst, it would just “make things worse.” Passivity was, in many ways, raised into a moral virtue. The Jew did not fight back because, unlike his enemies, he actually believed in the principles of justice and mercy, and thus would not stoop to such barbarism.

None of these explanations, however, feel quite adequate. The truth is that I do not know why American Jews have not turned to violence.

This is not because I have any particular taste for it. In my own small way, I’ve seen and experienced enough violence to know that it’s generally horrible stuff and best avoided. Nonetheless, self-defense is a human right. There seems no reason why the Jewish community could not adopt a strategy of active self-defense that stays within the bounds of the law while effectively protecting Jewish lives and property. One imagines that this would be the most logical strategy to adopt under current circumstances. Indeed, over the last few months, I have received many queries from Jews who want to join a self-defense organization, but I have nowhere to send them.

In the end, I am puzzled only because this passivity has no parallel. Usually, when a community—any community—is faced with such an assault, violence is the inevitable result. Yet Diaspora Jews appear to be an exception to history.

Of course, Jews have always been something like an exception to history. Perhaps our refusal to become barbarous even in the face of the most horrendous barbarism is commendable. Perhaps we truly do believe that we should not stoop to the same depths as our enemies. Perhaps we do indict them in our determination to fulfill the principles that, for them, are mere hypocrisy. Perhaps this is to our credit.

In the end, it may not matter, because American Jews, for better or for worse, appear to have chosen the path of peace. It may be the right path and perhaps the more effective path in the long run. Those who turn to violence do tend to destroy themselves. Perhaps it is best to avoid their mistake.

But self-defense does not by definition entail the kind of barbarism displayed by American antisemites. In fact, it hews the middle way between engaging in barbarism and granting impunity to barbarism. As such, self-defense is a profoundly civilized thing: It says no to the barbarians. Any civilization that fails to do this cannot survive. I wonder, then, if the path American Jews have chosen will be sufficient to save them.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Topics
Comments
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates