The Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun.
Jew-hatred is not a new thing. But the question is not what our enemies will do. It is what we will do, how we will live and how we will advance the Jewish future.
In the Bible, we are called “a people that dwells alone.” Our sages tell us that this is not our weakness, but our strength. We are to be a light unto the nations. This particularity—our insistence on preserving our separate identity—is often misunderstood and resented.
That resentment corrodes those who indulge in it. Nations that turn against the Jews fall apart. Listen to Mark Twain:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one-quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
That secret is the Tanach. It is a tree of life for those who cling to it. It is the tradition. That is why we build a Jewish community and cling to it.
What about the future? The first thing to remember is that while non-Jews have murdered many millions of Jews over millennia, even more have been lost to assimilation. This continues to hold true and will continue to hold true in the future.
Rashi suggests that four-fifths of the Hebrew slaves stayed behind in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. While the Second Temple stood, there were perhaps 8 million Jews in the world. Some 2,000 years later, there are only about 15 million. On the eve of the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., the world population was around 300 million; today, it is 7.9 billion. In 2,000 years, we have gone from almost 2.7% of the world’s population to less than one-fifth of one percent of that, meaning less than 0.19%.
Is that shrinkage due only to Hitler, Chmielnicki, Torquemada and other murderers who have slaughtered Jews over millennia? No, it is not.
Certainly, we have not recovered demographically from the Holocaust. We were 18 million before the Shoah. Some 80 years later, even with the rebirth and development of the State of Israel, we are still only 15 million. That’s a sobering thought. Pause to reflect on the vanished world of Jewry in Eastern Europe.
But remember, in the short time since the Holocaust, the world population has nearly quadrupled. The Jewish population has not. This is because we Jews are very good at fading and drifting away from Am Yisrael. We are very good at disappearing on our own. Philosopher and Holocaust refugee Emil Fackenheim taught that, after Auschwitz, there is a 614th commandment: “Jews are forbidden to give Hitler posthumous victories.”
Without intending to do so, American Jews give Hitler these victories more and more with each generation. We excel at assimilation.
I will not dwell on the numbers. Although the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States is thriving, the Diaspora is shrinking. That is mostly because the non-observant, like most of those I grew up with, are assimilating at an accelerating pace.
The Jewish future in the Diaspora will be a smaller future demographically. Those who remain Jews will either make aliyah or thrive because they work to build up their communities—their shuls, their yeshivahs, their schools and organizations, their children’s camps, their trips to visit and learn in Eretz Yisrael. This last component, ensuring that Israel is part of our lives, is and will become ever more important.
What of America? This is a great empire. It is the Goldene Medina to which our grandparents came for opportunity and safety. They built a Golden Age here. America remains great, and much of that greatness has been contributed by Jews. We can—we must—be proud of our contributions here. Is this Golden Age ending? Perhaps. If so, it is a harbinger of the decline and deterioration of this great republic as well.
Let us hope that is not happening. Let us work, both within our Jewish community and in society at large, to prevent it. Let us get involved in politics and public life. Let us demand support and respect for the Jewish people. Let us fight for our rights. Let us demand and defend the rule of law.
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh. All Jews are responsible for each other.
Let us never say of any anti-Jewish attack anywhere in this great land—“Oh, that’s one of those Hasidim” or “I’m not like them.” That is hilul Hashem, an abomination. We must always strive and act for unity.
Let us never be distracted by partisan hatred. Division has always led to our destruction. Before the Maccabees could fight the Seleucids, they had to fight the Hellenizers. When the Romans destroyed our Temple, their work was aided by the violent quarreling between Jews. Some of the worst persecutors in the Spanish Inquisition were conversos, former Jews.
This is an age-old and painful story. It continues. Too often right-wing Jews cannot see Jew-haters in their own camp, and too often left-wing Jews cannot see them in theirs. Jew-haters abound on all sides. No political party has a monopoly on it. Jew-hatred is shapeshifting. It is all things to all people. It can be used by right-wingers. It can be used by left-wingers. Don’t let yourself be used. Before you were a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, you were a Jew. And you will be buried someday as a Jew, not as a Democrat or a Republican, not as a liberal or a conservative. We must stand together. Always.
And we must be bold. No one respects weakness. Here is what Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in 1911:
We constantly and very loudly apologize. … Instead of turning our backs to the accusers, as there is nothing to apologize for, and nobody to apologize to, we swear again and again that it is not our fault. … Isn’t it long overdue to respond to all these and all future accusations, reproaches, suspicions, slanders and denunciations by simply folding our arms and loudly, clearly, coldly and calmly answering with the only argument that is understandable and accessible to this public: “Go to hell!”?
Who are we to make excuses to them; who are they to interrogate us? What is the purpose of this mock trial over the entire people where the sentence is known in advance? Our habit of constantly and zealously answering to any rabble has already done us a lot of harm and will do much more. … We do not have to apologize for anything. We are a people as all other peoples. …
We do not have to account to anybody, we are not to sit for anybody’s examination and nobody is old enough to call on us to answer. We came before them and will leave after them. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change and we do not want to.
If you want to stand for anything, you must first stand up for your own people, for Am Yisrael. Think about it. And teach your children.
David N. Wecht is a Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
This article was adapted from a talk Justice Wecht delivered on Feb. 22 to students at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, Pa.