Our people are notorious for disagreeing with one another. There’s the old joke about a desert island with two Jews on it and two shuls — one for each and the other he wouldn't dare set foot in.
After a record year of documented reports of antisemitic acts, the topic of Jewish disunity just isn’t so funny to me anymore. I’m increasingly convinced it poses an existential threat to the future of the Jewish people.
We are understandably weary from what we have seen this past year. Acts of antisemitism of some kind — violence, harassment, vandalism — are now literally reported on a daily basis. Jews are getting attacked on subways or sucker punched in the streets. Jewish graves have been spray painted with swastikas. Children are witnessing brazen hatred; many Jewish college kids face antisemitic intimidation and have seen the mezuzahs ripped off their doorways.
This was the year it all got really, really serious.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. But Jews have seen this episode before. First, random acts of antisemitism. Then it quickly escalates. Then it becomes normalized and unavoidable until it’s a full-blown crisis.
But now, it’s coming at a time of deepening fragmentation and discord among American Jews. It has been estimated that there are almost 10,000 Jewish nonprofit organizations in the U.S. We have multiple overlapping and competing sub-groups: community organizations, charities, religious denominations, advocacy groups, lobbyists, professional groups. There’s a Jewish Democratic Caucus, a Republican Jewish Coalition, Zionist groups, anti-Zionist groups, and so on and so on.
There’s fierce competition for Jewish voters, members and donors. Certain recent political contests have only exacerbated the rift. Unduly harsh and hurtful rhetoric has left many people angry and scarred.
Some Jews openly question another’s Jewishness, a surefire way to antagonize a fellow Jew: who’s more Jewish, who’s not Jewish enough, who’s turned their backs on our ancestors, who desecrates the Sabbath, who’s a self-hating Jew.
And, of course, Israel is a constant lightning rod among American Jews. The rhetoric is often out of control. From hawk to dove, many Jews not only think they’re right, but regard others with contrary views as if they were mortal enemies.
We’re even prone to ugly internal squabbles within our own families. We all know of examples where a family member was ostracized because of his/her marital choices, or their political affiliation, or religious observances (or lack of them) or even their vaccination status.
We are in need of healing — starting with the language we use to describe other Jews with whom we disagree. Too many of us don’t moderate our words, but instead ratchet them up. Some think nothing of hurling the ugliest of insults against other Jews, particularly our leaders, often accusing them of being contemptible human beings. To some, they are the walking embodiment of evil, whether it’s Jonathon Greenblatt or Bibi Netanyahu. We are quick to totally overlook any possible good these guys and others have done or the sacrifices they have made for the Jewish people.
We are, to a fault, a very tough crowd — particularly to each other.
Our haters, of course, could care less about our internal squabbles, and actually benefit from our disunity. Hitler didn’t distinguish between a Jew’s religious affiliation — or lack of it — and he certainly wasn’t impressed by a Jew’s loyalty to Germany or any other country.
So my New Year's wish — perhaps just a fantasy — is that we can recognize that our disunity is not a minor problem, but actually the biggest threat we face. We will always have disagreements. That has been in our DNA since we wandered the Sinai. But we’ve got to recognize that fellow Jews are still family. They are not the enemy.
So I’ll continue to hope and pray, however naively, that we may put aside the harsh words and remember that there are immediate external threats that must bring us closer.
Next month the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity will honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As we do each year, we will not only recall Dr. King’s dream of a hatred-free America, but also his deep bond with the Jewish people. We will recite his prophetic admonition:
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
It was astute advice to a broken nation 60 years ago. America Jews would be wise to heed that warning for themselves today.