Posts Tagged ‘Anti-Semitism in Europe’

SAY NO TO FEAR

In April 2015, I wrote two posts on the issue “Should the Jews Leave Europe?” I based them on Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic. Given the Trump presidency’s legitimization of the alt-right, the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and a similar rally here in San Francisco tomorrow (which will close most of the Presidio National Park), some American Jews ponder if we should leave the U.S. Not me.

Anti-Semitism is not new to America. It surged in the 1920s and ’30s with an economy that challenged many white Christians while fascism and Nazism developed in Europe. America became more open to Jews in the ’60s. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War altered perceptions of Jews. We became tough guys (we’d already produced plenty of combat veterans and gangsters). I experienced amazing respect from non-Jews when I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston.

Today, American Jews are integrated to the point of potential disappearance within the open arms of assimilation. But Jewish memory is 3,700 years long and filled with tragedy. Some young Jews may short-circuit that memory and feel distanced from the Holocaust, but their parents and grandparents understand that Jews in the Diaspora may always be perched on the razor’s edge.

Now, many American Jews have grown nervous. Read the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report,” and you know why some Jews think about fleeing. Israel accepts anyone with a Jewish grandparent or any convert. Across the border, Canada beckons. It’s a democracy, and most Canadians—including French speakers—speak English. Some Jews have left the U.S. but far fewer in relative numbers than European Jews, who face a much darker situation. America, however, is not 1930s Germany.

Still, some voices at my synagogue express only fear. Although not planning to leave (that I know of) they ask, Can a Holocaust happen here? That any American feels the need to ask that question should trouble the nation. I don’t believe we’ll face a Holocaust, but I can’t guarantee that.

To Jews—and the great majority of Americans opposed to white-supremacists in all their variations—I offer a simple message: This is our country, too. We’ve bled for America. We’ve sweated for America. We’ve made a positive impact on the nation in far greater proportion than our numbers. (Jews—religious, cultural and/or secular—constitute roughly only two percent of the population.)

Should we keep tabs on the situation? Absolutely. Should we be reduced to trembling? Absolutely not! Instead, we must inform government on all levels of our concerns, pressure politicians when we must, support organizations that bring to light the truth of white supremacists’ aberrant ideas and make clear that they will be denied the victories they hope to obtain—sowing fear and provoking violence to gain media coverage.

I hear messages about what a terrible week it has been, how sleep eludes so many. Yes, we are challenged. But we are not weak. In the face of publicly expressed hatred, Americans of all ethnicities are uniting as we haven’t in decades. Together, we’ll not only secure the gates against the barbarians, we’ll expose them and drive them back into their holes.

So, let’s be watchful but keep our heads. Let’s also remember the words of President Franklin Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

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JEWS BY CHOICE

The legendary comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The Groucho persona was highly individual. But isolation offers little to the soul. In that regard, some people join one particular “club” that accepts—but doesn’t seek—members.

Last week, a young man named Collin went before a three-person beit din—a Jewish religious court. As his mentor, I was part of that beit din. Colin answered questions regarding his desire and readiness to convert. Then he immersed himself three times in the mikva (ritual pool). He emerged as a Jew.

For over a year, Collin studied Judaism at my San Francisco synagogue, Sherith Israel. He was all in—enthusiastic and committed. He took our introduction to Judaism class. He learned to read Hebrew. He attended Shabbat services and Torah study. Two Torah study groups. We chatted over coffee every other week before Friday-night services. We discussed his challenges and progress, and a wide variety of topics from kosher eating to Israel to Jewish life (my own) in New York. He became part of “the guys’” coffee group. (A young woman who recently converted joins us occasionally.)

Why would a young man—why would anyone—cast his lot with the Jewish people? Make no mistake. Judaism is a “club” I want to belong to. I’ve found great meaning and stability in living Jewishly. But let’s face it. We Jews have had a difficult history in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Anti-Semitism didn’t disappear after the Holocaust. It has simmered and periodically flared up in Europe, and come to a boil in the Middle East.

Moreover, while Jews welcomes converts, we don’t proselytize. (We stopped when Rome made that a capital offense in the late fourth century.) Still, some people explore Judaism at Sherith Israel and elsewhere. A few engage intellectually. Many are non-Jews with Jewish partners. Of those, some pursue conversion. Others don’t but wish to build and maintain Jewish homes and families.

Then there are people like Collin, who is single. They discover that the Jewish soul matches their own. Many say they’ve always felt Jewish. Maybe it’s the breadth and depth of our traditions. Maybe it’s the fact that questioning is not only allowed but encouraged. And that within Reform Judaism, each individual explores observance in his or her own way.

The Tanhuma—a collection of stories and wisdom—states: “Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert.” After all, the Israelites witnessed God’s power through incredible displays of thunder and lightning, as well as the shaking of the mountain. The convert did not, yet still accepts God’s commandments.

With Passover beginning this evening, it’s worth noting again that the Jewish people has survived many tragedies—slavery in Egypt being the first. Existential threats still exist. Yet some people outside our tradition find Judaism deeply meaningful. Their choices teach us born Jews a lesson. As Larry Raphael, Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, says, “In America we are all Jews by choice.” A free society offers us the option to drop out—even if doing so is somewhat illusory. Jews who come from outside our tradition demonstrate the value of choosing Judaism. And the courage involved in making that choice.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re celebrating Pesach: Chag sameach!

The blog will take a holiday next week (April 29).

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EUROPE AND THE SLIPPERY SLOPE

American politics often seizes up atop the slippery slope. When common sense dictates compromise, Democrats and Republicans refuse to take a first small step. They reason that a tiny compromise will lead to larger compromises eroding their core principles. Europe, too, faces a slippery slope in regard to refugees fleeing the Middle East and South Asia.

We’re all familiar with rickety boats crossing—or sinking in—the Mediterranean. Refugees come ashore in Greece and Italy then go on. Hungary, a way station to prosperous Germany, closed its border. Croatia, another way station, will no longer offer refuge. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said of refugees, “They will get food, water and medical help, and then they can move on… We have hearts, but we also have heads.”

Many Europeans are welcoming. Others fear the slippery slope. Let some refugees in and the inflow will become uncontrollable. Resources will dwindle. Moreover, as more Muslims gain a foothold in “Christian” Europe the Continent as we know it will cease to be.

How do you look into a child’s eyes and tell a family to return to a land of violence? For now, Europe doesn’t want to do that although it lacks a coordinated refugee strategy. Germany announced plans to host 800,000 refugees over the next year. The flow increased. Germany raised its target to one million. Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledges German wealth and organizational skills. She also recognizes the moral issue confronting Germany, which slaughtered six million Jews and millions of others.

So we can all feel good, right? I think not. I’d love to believe that generosity of spirit always leads to universal peace and love. I can’t. Europe has done a poor job of assimilating millions of Muslims already settled within its borders. The Germans hold their large population of Turks, many native-born, pretty much apart. In turn, Turkish Germans remain aloof. They welcome German jobs. They’re uncomfortable with liberal Western culture, including equal rights for women and people with a range of sexual orientations. Across Europe and in the U.K., Muslim communities often find themselves at odds with mainstream society because of differing religious and cultural norms.

Maybe I’m prejudiced—influenced by the plight of Europe’s Jews. Young friends in Sweden (see “Should Jews Leave Europe?”) believe they cannot bring up Jewish children in their homeland because of Muslim anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes. Parisian Jews visited my synagogue this summer. They want to come to America because Jewish life in France is perilous. French Muslims make it so. Several years ago, a film producer in London told me that the Jewish community is terribly frightened of Muslim hostility and influence. Yet it’s difficult for these Jews—educated and successful—to get into the U.S.

If Europe were as capable as the United States in assimilating people from different cultures, I’d encourage it to take in large numbers of refugees. Europe is not, and I can’t. Of course, the decision is Europe’s. But even now, European nations are taking a closer look at the challenges they face.

Still, even if Europe eventually closes off immigration, it will have ingested a significant number of Muslims. The conundrum—and it’s particularly upsetting at this time of year—is whether Europe can digest them.

I wish all who observe a peaceful, healthy and happy New Year. May you be sealed in the Book of Life.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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SHOULD JEWS LEAVE EUROPE? — PART ONE

In the April 2015 Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover article asks, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” Goldberg surveys anti-Semitism, particularly in the context of Europe’s Muslim population. His question is timely. The answer is challenging.

Part of Goldberg’s article analyzes Sweden’s southern city of Malmö with a population of 300,000, including 50,000 Muslims and fewer than 1,000 Jews. Anti-Jewish feeling runs high. Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, a Chabad emissary from Brooklyn and the city’s only rabbi is the one recognizable Jew in the city. Distinguished by his black hat, black coat and beard, he is constantly targeted for verbal abuse and worse. “I asked Kesselman whether he was scared to stay in Malmö. ‘Yes, of course I’m scared,’ he said.”

Malmö’s other Jews blend in. But do they experience anti-Semitism? And should they leave Europe? I asked two young Swedish Jews about their experiences and the conundrum they face.

Sara and Michael are young professionals. (I’ve changed their names and blurred details for their security.) Sara is Jewish by birth. Michael, an ethnic Scandinavian, converted to Judaism. They met in university. Sara’s family is “pretty traditional.” They went to synagogue for the High Holy Days, occasionally for Shabbat. They kept kosher. Michael’s family, like most Swedes, is secular. Growing up, he had no Jewish friends, but his grandfather was friendly with the leader of the local Jewish community in his suburb. As a teen, Michael loved Jewish comedians like Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling.

Sara knew that being Jewish was different and perhaps dangerous. People would call Jews names and write hateful graffiti. Still, she never experienced hostility. She did notice, however, that security was plentiful at the cheder—small religious school—she attended. Israel was—and still is—a sensitive subject. She does not involve herself with Israeli politics but maintains a warm, “family” feeling towards the country. She believes the general mood of Sweden to be anti-Israel. “They think the matter is black and white. There are so many other conflicts in the world; there’s too much attention paid to it.”

Today, some of Michael’s friends and acquaintances are academics—leftists who are anti-Israel. When he told a colleague he was going to visit Israel—he has traveled much of the world—he got a strong, “weird” reaction. “I think it’s okay to be Jewish in Sweden as long as you don’t say anything about Israel,” he says. At the same time, he believes that some, but far from all, Swedes tend to overlay anti-Israel sentiments with anti-Semitism.

As to Sweden’s growing Muslim population, Michael relates that the majority of Swedes support the current, open immigration policy. “From the moral perspective, it’s a good policy to help people fleeing from wars. But it may also affect another minority in a secondary way.” Sara notes that some Middle Eastern Muslims have been in Sweden for generations. The new wave of immigrants poses challenges. “Many politicians are talking about how to integrate immigrants regarding learning Swedish and getting jobs.”

The couple might have accepted their shaky status as Jews if not for a shooting outside a synagogue in nearby Copenhagen, Denmark (where Sara has a close relative) this past February. A gunman—identified as a Danish Muslim—murdered a Jewish security guard and wounded two police officers. Michael and Sara started serious discussions about whether they have a future in Sweden.

Next week, Sara and Michael offer a heart-wrenching analysis of their situation.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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