Thursday, January 30, 2020

Reflections on the Seventh-Fifth Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

I was very moved last Monday to take note of the seventy-fifty anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945. As all my readers must surely know by now, the Shoah is the backdrop against which I’ve lived out both my professional and spiritual lives for as long as I can remember. And although I could make some sort of semi-rational argument for not feeling personally involved to that degree—my own people, after all, came to these shores long before the First World War—that is not at all how things have played out. Nor is it at all difficult for me to explain why the Shoah looms so large in my thinking: surely no one who professes belief in a just, caring, God can just wave Auschwitz away as a mere aberration in a millennia-long narrative featuring God as the ever-watchful Guardian of Israel who neither slumbereth nor sleepeth. That thought, of course, comes directly from the Bible—from the 121st psalm, to be exact—and has been recited by so many rabbis (including myself) at so many funerals so as almost to sound more like a truism to be embraced than a challenge to be faced. And yet that is precisely not how it works—or has ever worked—for me: in those few words lies the weight that has been pressing down my shoulders from above for my entire adult life.

The summer after I defended my doctoral dissertation but before I began work in earnest on preparing my thesis for publication, I attempted to write a book of post-Holocaust theology. In retrospect, it feels like just so much youthful hubris to have allowed myself blithely to wander into a maze which even rabbis scores of years older than myself had failed successfully to negotiate. On the other hand, surely one of the great gifts of youth is the willingness to run a race merely because it exists and wholly without reference to other people’s successes or failures at running it! Nor was this just a gauntlet I wanted to take up as a way of measuring myself against others, but rather a real challenge that I needed to address for my own internal reasons and not simply to see if I could do better than others in addressing them.

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, the Jewish communities of my great-grandparents’ towns in Poland and Belarus were totally annihilated during the war, the only survivors at all being not “real” survivors at all but merely people like my great-grandparents and grandparents who left decades earlier. So perhaps it was that detail—combined, I admit, with the seminal experience of surreptitiously reading Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman’s The Black Book of Soviet Jewry: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the German Nazi Death Camps Established on Occupied Polish Soil During the War 1941–1945 as a boy of eleven or twelve, the single experience that, at least in retrospect, I think probably affected my adolescence more profoundly than any other—it was the contemplation of the fate of the Jews our “our” towns in Europe that created the context for me to feel called personally to attempt to create a plausible version of Jewish theology that specifically led through, not around, the gates of the camps.

I cast around for a long time trying to find a way in. I read all the standard books of post-Shoah theology and found most of them all to be wanting in some specific way. (And some I found wanting in every way.) The best of them, I noted, were predicated on the supposition that the Holocaust was basically a cosmic riddle in need of a solution. If God knew about Auschwitz as people were being murdered there in such unimaginable numbers, then either it either was or was not beyond the scope of divine power to save them. If it was within the scope of God’s might to save them, then either they were not saved for a real, cogent reason or they were left unrescued for no particular reason at all. But because both of the above apodoses—the “then” clauses—are fully inconsonant with traditional Jewish belief, most of the authors I read ended up proposing that the Jewish people in the post-war era simply make their peace with living on the horns of the terrible dilemma that requires supposing either that God could have saved the millions but didn’t (which effectively negates the notion of divine mercy enduring forever), or that God would have saved the millions but couldn’t (which negates the notion of divine omnipotence), or that God would have saved the millions and could have but was simply unaware that they needed saving (which effectively denies the notion of divine omniscience). There was, I admit, a certain wistful cogency to this line of reasoning. But the thought that Jews in the post-Shoah era are condemned by their own history—by our own history—to live forever balanced on the horns of an unresolvable dilemma did not sound like something I could imagine myself teaching others or, to speak frankly, embracing as my own theological stance either.

I needed to take a different tack, therefore, one that would sidestep the Shoah-as-a-cosmic-puzzle motif entirely. For a while, I considered my options. And then, when I felt I had no real choice but to rise to my own challenge, I began to write about the Shoah as the shadow cast on the earth by the demonic realm.

When most moderns think about demons, they think about Halloween-style imps with pitchforks and devilish horns. But that is just the paper-thin veneer that somehow manages to obscure millennia of speculation about a demonic realm and the dangers too close proximity to its boundaries can pose to unwary travelers. It’s hard to think of another area of Jewish culture that has more totally been forgotten, however. The ignoramus who wrote that “Judaism does not have a demonology, or any set of doctrines about demons” in the Wikipedia article on demonology, for example, could not possibly have been more wrong. But he or she is in good company!

The Bible is full of demons who function as evil spirits sent from on high to tempt, to seduce, or to test the moral mettle of uncareful mortals. Some of their names are almost well known, while others are obscure. But Mavet, Lilith, Reshef, Azazel, and Dever—among many other unnamed sheidim of various sorts—are a real part of ancient Israelite heritage.  The Talmud is even more full of demons and malevolent sprites, but it is in kabbalistic literature that Jewish demonology reaches its fullest flower: entire works, some many hundreds of pages long, were composed to describe the world of demons, to speculate regarding the relationship of King Samael and Queen Lilith, and to muse about the plausible ways the demonic realm exists as the dark edge of all existence, as the shadow cast by life itself on the living, as the living embodiment of the evil inclination and the almost irresistible will to behave sinfully to which all but the greatest tzaddikim occasionally succumb. (Readers interested in learning more can profitably consult Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition, published in 1934 but still in print and still very readable and useful.)

So that was the vineyard in which I chose to labor. It allowed me to avoid the theology-as-unresolvable-paradox trap and instead to imagine the Nazi hordes as an army of unholy demons in the thrall of King Samael, as the embodiment not of German imperialist chauvinism or even of German anti-Semitism but of the dark forces of evil that only the moral force of those committed to the service of God can keep at bay…and that even so occasionally overwhelm their opponents just as the sea occasionally rises up over beach and sea wall to wreak havoc on those unfortunates who live too close to the sea always to escape its wrath. I imagined the Einsatzgruppen that travelled across Ukraine and other parts of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe with the sole mission of murdering the entire Jewish population in whatever town or village they found traces of Jewish life—I imagined the members of those killing squads not as men or even as beasts, but as part of a demonic horde that exists in the first place to destroy any who serve God and who promulgate God’s word in the world.

I worked for almost a year on that book and eventually finished it. But I never published it, never felt confident enough to show it around to publishers or, even, to too many colleagues or friends. Eventually, I took one chapter, the one about King Samael, and published it in the margins of the Sabbath and Festivals volume of Siddur Tzur Yisrael.  But I abandoned the rest of the project, uncertain of my own conclusions and yet unable seriously to come up with an alternate explanation of how men and women who in their “regular” lives were bakers, schoolteachers, and letter carriers could suddenly turn into the kind of people who could shoot babies in their mothers’ arms, who could murder entire villages of people, who could display a level of cold-hearted cruelty that cannot even be referenced as “bestial” since it is impossible to imagine actual animals displaying that level of callous brutality and heartless malice towards each other.

As I read about the symposium in Jerusalem that attracted so many international personalities and then about the parallel commemoration last week in Poland at Auschwitz itself, and I read the stories of survivors and their descendants in article after article on-line and in print—I was brought back to that project. I called the book then The Dark Lamp, a phrase used in the Zohar to denote energy that exists to obscure rather than to illuminate, to cast shadows rather than light. I even re-read a few chapters, curious to see how my prose would stand up after all these years. I haven’t ever shared the details of that project with anyone before. I’m not even sure that I’m doing the right thing by sharing them now. But I find myself more sure than ever that I was right, that the sole way to keep faith with traditional Jewish beliefs without feeling obliged to look away from the details surrounding the Nazi war against the Jews is to seek refuge in the realm of the demonic and to cultivate the sense that it surely must be as important to note that the forces of evil were eventually beaten back and defeated as it is that they surged forth in the first place, briefly—and unimaginably tragically—overwhelming the barriers erected in the first place to protect the world from their fury, from their rage. Should I publish my book now? I suppose I might! (But maybe not.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Smog Over Chile

Like all of my readers, I’m sure, I’ve been reading over these last weeks about the bushfires (what we in North America call “wildfires”) that are burning out of control across Australia. But it was one single detail that I came across earlier this week that somehow grabbed me and made me fully understand just how important what’s happening in Australia is now and surely will soon be for the rest of us. And that detail had to do with smog. Not the smog that is smothering Canberra and Sydney or that has turned the skies bright orange over New Zealand, a mere 1,300 miles away, but the smog that has turned the skies over Chile, a cool seven thousand miles to the east, dark gray with soot. And further to the east still is Argentina, where the sunset skies over Buenos Aires have turned bright red because of the pollution from Australia that has reached the eastern coast of South America. For some reason, that got my attention.

Mind you, the other statistics are horrendous enough without having to reference the air quality in Chile. The fires have so far burnt up about 26,000,000 acres (about 41,000 square miles), a space roughly the size of South Korea or Iceland. Something like eight thousand buildings have been destroyed, more than two thousand of which were people’s homes. It seems possible that half a billion animals have been killed, which figure does not include insects but does include about eight thousand koala bears, a third of the koala population in the affected regions. Nor is there any question that all of the above numbers will rise, and dramatically, over the next days and weeks. And although the worst fires are in New South Wales in the southeastern corner of the country, there is no region in Australia left unaffected, as this heatmap based on NASA satellite imagery makes clear:

To say that this is an ecological disaster is really almost to say nothing at all. But even though only twenty-eight people have so far died in the fires, which figure includes four firefighters, the damage to the ecosystem in Australia has been catastrophic and will only become more devastating as the days pass without the fires being brought under control. This is most definitely not just a bad thing happening somewhere else to other people. Yes, for the moment it’s about them. But if the kangaroo is just this week’s version of the canary in the coal mine, then it’s fully about us too. And it’s nowhere near over. 

Of course, the big question is whether this still-unfolding disaster is or isn’t the result of climate change. There are, as you can easily imagine, very strong opinions on both sides of the debate. Nor is this a simple matter to unravel even for scientists. I’ve been reading widely on the question to prepare myself to write to you today, and I have to say that the situation is far more complicated than I anticipated it was going to be.

I started by reading carefully a blogpost published on the website of Scientific American by Nerilie Abram, a professor at the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University. (To read the essay in its entirety, click here.) She begins by observing that what’s new this season is the intensity of the fires, not their mere existence—and that Australia has had very hot summers before as well as devastating wildfire seasons. (For a list of such fires in Australia going back to 1851, click here.) So you could argue that this kind of catastrophe is merely part of Australia’s ecological profile and thus simply part of Australian reality. But that is not what Abram argues. She begins by pointing out that wildfires require four things to burn at all: that fuel to burn be available, that it be dry, that weather conditions be conducive to its spreading beyond its original perimeters, and that there be something available to ignite the fire. It is specifically the middle two factors—dryness and weather—that she finds related to climate change.

The Australian climate has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius in the last century. To most laypeople, this doesn’t sound too serious—who can really tell the difference outdoors when it’s a single degree or two warmer or cooler than the day before?—but climatologists see in even a single degree’s increase the framework for increased dryness and thus for the presence of massive amounts of dry brush to burn. On top of that, rainfall in Australia has decreased dramatically over the last decades—by about 20% per annum since the 1970s. This too is what scientists call “anthropogenic,” i.e., human-caused—for reasons that Abram explains in detail in her article. The whole relationship between meteorology and climatology is complicated. Just following her explanation of the relationship between something called the IOD—the Indian Ocean Dipole, which by cutting off one of Australia’s main sources of moisture has induced the kind of drought that gave way to the fires currently raging—and the SAM, the Southern Annual Mode that has driven the traditional cold fronts that result in winter rainfall away from Australia is complicated for non-scientists like myself fully to understand. But the forcefulness with which she argues her point that her nation’s leaders are literally fiddling while their nation burns is crystal-clear and unequivocal. It’s a strong, well-argued piece of writing and I recommend it to all who are interested in learning more.

Lots of people don’t agree. The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, continues to maintain that there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the currently raging wildfires. That is not entirely inconsonant with Abram’s argument—she does not specifically address the question of whether Australia itself is responsible for the fires or if the blame is more reasonably to be assigned to the general condition of planet (i.e., as contributed to by all the nations of the world who have failed to meet their own carbon-emissions reduction goals) is more reasonable. (I could list the nations that haven’t met those goals, but it would take up far less space just to list the countries that actually have met the commitments set forth in the Paris Accords of 2015 since there are only two: Morocco and Gambia. Click here for more details.) For a detailed exposition of the relationship between Australian and global responsibility for the fires published just two months ago on the Time Magazine website, click here.)

So while the political issue occupying Australian politicians is what specific role their nation plays in its current misfortune, the more interesting issue for us non-Australians is the larger one: are these fires just a national disaster like horrific tsunamis or earthquakes, or are they specifically a function of our earth-wide failure to address climate change. That, it seems to me is the question worth asking.

What seems indisputable is that the world—and Australia along with it—is getting warmer. And warmer means dryer. And dryer means more prone to catching fire. Nor does there seem to be any serious opposition in the scientific community to the notion that human activity has contributed to the rise in temperature, which it turn has led to the dryness and weather conditions that have set Australia ablaze.

For a good exposition of the latest scientific thinking on the matter, I’d like to recommend a BBC News article simply entitled, “Is Climate Change to Blame for Australia’s Bushfires?” (Click here to see the whole article.) Opinions from a broad spectrum of viewpoints are cited at length, but what I myself came away thinking after weighing all of these many opinions and trying to puzzle out the science for myself can actually be summarized in just a few words. As the earth warms due to a general failure of the nations of the world to do their part to prevent the earth from warming any further, the effects on all nations in the biosphere will be real. In some cases, like in today’s Australia, they will be devastating. In other contexts, they may be noticeable but less horrific. But the general trend as we continue to be more concerned with our own nations’ abilities to compete in the global marketplace and less concerned with the bigger issues facing the planet is going to be one of ever-increasing risk. A Pew Research Center poll from 2017 yielded the result that a full 74% of Americans believe that our country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” My guess is that that number would be even higher today. Whether the three-quarters of all Americans who claim to be ready to do what it takes to preserve and protect the environment actually have the collective will to take that sentiment and make it into a make-or-break issue for the 2020 election, of course, remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Lawfare is Warfare

When I first heard that the International Criminal Court based in The Hague had determined that war crimes have been committed on the West Bank, in Gaza, and in East Jerusalem and was going to embark on the process of deciding whether or not to prosecute those alleged crimes, my first tendency—like most normal people, I imagine—was to wave it away as yet another example of an organization founded to prosecute wrongdoing being hijacked by Israel’s enemies as part of a long-term effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. In a nutshell, that actually is what this is all about. But the potential consequences for Israel are serious. And the situation, as it turns out, is far more complicated than I had first understood.

The court was founded in 2002 by the signatories to the so-called Rome Statute that now serves as the court’s foundational document. Neither the United States nor Israel is a signatory to the Rome Statute, however, because at the time both nations feared—apparently entirely reasonably—that the court would end up delivering highly politicized judgments unrelated to the pursuit of justice that was supposed to be the court’s raison d’être in the first place. And although the ICC is in theory independent of the United Nations, the on-the-ground reality is that the Court is so intricately related to the U.N. so as to make of its latest machinations just another part of the U.N.’s mission to ignore—and, indeed, to whitewash—the crimes of all members states except Israel so as to have the time solely to devote itself to the demonization of the Jewish state. (More on this below.) But just to wave this latest development as just another example of the moral bankruptcy of a United Nations-related agency like UNESCO or (even more egregiously) UNRWA would be a mistake. This is an important development that needs to be taken seriously.

The ICC can only try individuals, not entire countries. And so, if the pre-trial hearing that will now ensue endorses the opinion the President of the Court, Fatou Bensouda of Guinea, that the ICC does indeed have the right to pursue the matter, what will almost inevitably follow will be the issuance of subpoenas to major Israeli political and military figures ordering them to appear before the court. If they declined to appear, warrants could then be issued for their arrest. And although it is so that the Bensouda’s original decision speaks in passing about crimes committed by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, no one appears to be taking any of that too seriously—including not Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, both of which organizations openly and effusively praised Bensouda’s decision to proceed and neither of which entities seemed to harbor even the slightest worry that it might end up having to answer for any of its own actions.

There are strong arguments against the ICC decision to move forward against Israel, some procedural and some moral.  Of them, though, surely not the least compelling is the relationship—ignored by the court but fully relevant—between the fact that Israel is not a signatory of the Rome Accord and the fact that the ICC only has the right to bring the citizens of member states to trial. But there are other strong arguments in Israel’s favor as well.

The ICC’s decision to treat the Palestinians as though Palestine were an independent country is rooted in the kind of wishful thinking that has characterized the fantasyland approach to reality of the United Nations for decades. Palestine, of course, could easily become an independent country: having already been recognized as a state—or at least a state in potentia—by well over one hundred countries, all the Palestinians have to do is to declare their independence and then get down to the task of negotiating a workable modus vivendi with the neighbors. It’s that last part, of course, that has gummed up the works for decades now: the obvious necessity of recognizing the reality of Israel’s existence and learning to live in harmony with the Jewish state has been the sticking point that has held back the Palestinians from doing what they endlessly insist is all they really want to do: to live in peace as an independent state among the nations of the world.  But that inability to accept reality and create a nation is hardly Israel’s fault: the door to Palestinian independence has been open for decades even despite the Palestinians’ unwillingness to step through it. The ICC’s solution—simply to ignore reality—is simultaneously childish and malign, and does not do the court any credit. But there is far more to say as well.

Key too is that the court exists to prosecute individuals for war crimes in places where there is no independent judiciary that can investigate and try its own citizens. But Israel is hardly that place: the independence of the Israeli judiciary and its ability to act freely has just been demonstrated in the various indictments handed down against Benyamin Netanyahu. Even more relevant, though, is that there actually have been individuals tried over the years in Israel for having behaved with excessive force or violence against Palestinians. So the notion that the ICC would need to step in even if it did have some sort of jurisdiction in the matter is not particularly convincing. And when paired with the fact that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas has ever tried anyone for war crimes committed against Israeli citizens and actually foster terror crimes against civilians by lionizing terrorists who die on the job and providing endless financial support for their families—taken together, those two facts make the whole notion of trying Israel at the ICC even more Kafkaesque.

But when all of the above is considered in light of the ICC’s own history, the situation moves past Kafka.

The ICC has, to date, undertaken investigations into twelve different countries, mostly in Africa. (The countries involved are Burundi, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Kenya, Mali, Libya, Uganda, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.) But it has adopted a totally hands-off policy with respect to the Arab world: the government of Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of its own civilians over the last few years, destroyed countless towns and villages, and turned fully half of its own population into refugees. But the ICC has shown no interest of any sort in that behavior. Indeed, among the nations of the Middle East, only Israel arouses its ire…and merely for defending itself against entities that openly espouse terror as their weapon of choice in a war they could end tomorrow but prefer to pursue perennially as though violence directed at civilians could somehow result in the achievement of their avowed goals.

Finally, the argument—which I’ve noted in a dozen different on-line settings—that the ICC is independent of the United Nations is simply not true. For one thing, the ICC depends fully on the United Nations for all of its funding. For another, the ICC regularly bases itself on the kind of one-sided, wholly biased reporting of U.N. agencies that no reasonable person would consider even remotely accurate.

The world has mostly nodded. Yes, the P.M. of Australia, who has more on his plate this week to worry about than the ICC, took the time to opine in public that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the matter of Israel’s behavior. The German government said much the same thing, as did our own Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.  So there’s that to be grateful for. But the larger issue—the public demonization of Israel in the larger forum of nations and the general willingness of the nations of the world not to care or even particularly to notice—is beyond distressing.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the issue itself of war crimes committed during the Gaza Uprising of 2014 is itself a bogus charge invented by Israel’s enemies without any serious evidence to muster on its own behalf.  A year later, in 2015, the independent High-Level Military Group—a group led by General Klaus Naumann, the former chief of staff of the German Army and the Chairman of the NATO military committee and staffed by generals, high-level military experts, senior officers, and chiefs of staff from seven NATO nations—came to the following conclusion regarding Israel’s actions in Gaza: “Each of our own armies is of course committed to protecting civilian life during combat. But none of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the IDF last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population in such circumstances…During Operation Protective Edge, in the air, on the ground and at sea, Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.”

As the specter of anti-Semitism rises at home and abroad, we tend to focus on the thugs and brutes that attack Jews at worship in synagogue or at home. That rising tide has to be addressed, obviously, and somehow confronted. But to allow our distress over that kind of activity at home to divert our gaze from institutions like the ICC merely because they present themselves not as ruffians or hoodlums but as jurists concerned solely with the pursuit of justice—that would be a disastrous error of judgment. In the end, I still hope that reasonableness will prevail, but I feel less sanguine with each successive article I read, both in print and online, about the inner workings of the International Criminal Court. Our government has already spoken out forcefully on the side of decency and rationality. I mentioned above the responses of Germany and Australia. Which of our other so-called friends and allies will join us in calling out the ICC, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 2, 2020


Most—but not all—of the responses to the horrific incident last week in Monsey struck me both as reasonable and heartfelt. But what was lacking even in the most sincere comments I read or heard was a clear sense of where we go from here, what specific path we must or should now follow forward into the uncertain future that lies beyond Pittsburgh and Poway, beyond Jersey City and (now) Monsey. And that is the specific issue I would like to address this week in my first letter of a new decade to you all.

Yes, some of the responses were outrageous. Particularly tone-deaf, for example, was the suggestion of Avigdor Lieberman, former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense Minister, that the only truly viable solution to the problem of anti-Semitic violence in America would be for all American Jews to move to Israel. Problem solved! Although most Israeli officials have traditionally shied away from encouraging mass aliyah by the Jews of the United States (which advice they certainly have not held back from offering to the Jews of other nations, including most recently France and the U.K.), Lieberman clearly saw no reason to hold back. (Click here for the Jerusalem Post account of his remarks.) Apparently unaware—or at least unwilling to accept—that American Jews are patriotic, deeply engaged citizens of their own country who have zero interest in solving their problems by running away to seek refuge in some other country, even one they hold as dear to their hearts as Israel, Lieberman’s comments betrayed such an abysmal understanding of the American Jewish community that I felt ashamed for my non-Jewish co-citizens to read accounts of his remarks.

His comments, however, did not sound entirely unfamiliar: In fact, I found them weirdly reminiscent of the position set forward by those people in the first half of the nineteenth century who felt that the most reasonable solution to the slavery issue that eventually did tear the country apart would have been to pack the slaves up en masse and ship them back to Africa. But the Back-to-Africa movement, predicated on the assumption that American society could never just consider black people to be “regular” citizens possessed of the same rights and privileges as white people, foundered precisely because it sought to solve a deep societal problem by shipping it overseas instead of solving it in the only way that injustice and inequity are ever successfully addressed on the national or societal level: for like-minded citizens to find the political will, the spiritual stamina, and the moral courage to morph forward into a finer, better iteration of their former national self. It was a simplistic, unreasonable solution to the slavery issue then. And it is a simplistic, entirely unreasonable solution to the problem of anti-Semitism in America today. And because the American Jewish community isn’t going anywhere at all, the resolution has to be to address the affliction and not simply to exile the afflicted.

Other responses were more reasonable, if mostly banal. Bernie Sanders, for example, pointed out that his own father came to this county as a teenager to escape anti-Semitic violence in Poland and that Monsey, by reminding him of his father’s plight, only made it clearer to him how important it is “to say no to religious bigotry.” The President called upon his fellow Americans “to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.” Mitch McConnell referenced Monsey as “another reminder that the fight against hate and bigotry, especially anti-Semitism, is far from finished,” adding that this was true not only on the global level but also “right here at home.” Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, called for “a relentless battle” to be waged against “this horrifying and painful spate of violent anti-Semitic attacks.” Israeli President Rivlin expressed his “shock and outrage,” and called for a worldwide effort “to confront this evil, which is raising its head again and is a genuine threat around the world.”  You get the general idea: bigotry is bad in any event, but violent expressions of racial or religious bigotry represent the kind of societal evil that cannot merely be dealt with by being roundly condemned but which must be addressed by some combination of law enforcement officials, government legists, and civic-minded civilians acting together forcefully and effectively.

So much for the macro level. On the ground here in the actual Jewish community, however, I sensed a far more equivocal response as people tried to negotiate the straits between Over- and Under-Concern.

When Governor Cuomo referenced the incident as “an act of domestic terrorism,” for example, it was hard to decide if he was speaking a bit exaggeratedly about an attack that seems to have been perpetrated by a mentally unstable man acting alone or if he was realistically assessing a new reality for the Jewish community, one in which the possibility of having one’s synagogue or one’s home invaded by angry anti-Semites armed with guns or machetes truly is part of a new normal that somehow crept up on us unawares.

Nor was Governor Cuomo alone in seeing a clear line from Oklahoma City to Monsey. Bryan Barnett, the president of the U.S. Council of Mayors, also unequivocally categorized Monsey as an act of domestic terrorism and called upon the nation “to recognize them—he was referring to Monsey and Jersey City—for what they are and work to prevent them from occurring in the future with the same commitment we have made to preventing international terrorism.”

But here too, I sensed uncertainty in the communal response as Jews on the ground tried to decide if a handful of violent acts undertaken by Jew-hating crazy people has really put the clock back to 1938…or if what this is really all about is the Jewish community taking its unhappy place in the mainstream of a nation so inured to gun violence that the incident of just two days ago in in White Settlement, Texas—a violent assault incident in which a gunman with no apparent motive entered a church during Sunday services, murdered two worshipers apparently at random, and was then himself shot to death by armed parishioners—was considered a front-page story for one single day and then vanished into the back pages of the paper where it will eventually be entirely forgotten other than by people directly and personally involved. Speaking honestly, it’s not that easy to say. And yet, despite it all, just waving Monsey away as another instance of senseless violence aimed arbitrarily at victims whose specific misfortune was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—that seems entirely inconsonant with the way the facts on the ground feel to me…and, I suspect, to most within our Jewish community.

And so we enter a new decade on the horns of several dilemmas at once. The justice system will deal with the suspect in the Monsey incident, just as it will deal with the Pittsburgh shooter as it would have dealt with the Jersey City shooters if they hadn’t been killed. But how are we, the people on the ground, to respond as these incidents become more frequent, less unimaginable, more expectable, less shocking? To beef up security at our synagogues and schools is an obvious first step. To keep our doors locked and our powder dry, ditto. But the more profound question is whether we should allow these incidents to alter our self-conception…or our sense of ourselves as free citizens of a secure, democratic state, as people whose right to assemble where and when we wish is constitutionally sacrosanct, as Americans whose right to self-identify as Jews in public and to walk securely down any city street is non-negotiable? Is it weak and self-defeating to allow the sonim to affect who we are and what we do? Or is it merely prudent, even wise, to allow these incidents to guide us forward in a way rooted in realism rather than happy fantasy? I’m not speaking about whether we should or shouldn’t hire another security guard to watch over the synagogue when we’re gathered there in large numbers for some specific reason. I’m asking something else, something far more challenging to answer honestly or, even, at all: whether the noble path forward—and the clever and proper one—should involve allowing these incidents to shape who we are and how we understand ourselves (and, yes, how we do or don’t behave in public)…or whether the correct path into the future should specifically feature us refusing to accommodate the haters by altering our behavior at all…or our self-conception.

As Bari Weiss’s very admirable recent book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, showed unequivocally, anti-Semitism is a feature of the extreme left and right in our country; neither extreme is immune. As of now, no thoughtful Jewish American can imagine that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, a feature of older, less tolerant times. The origins of anti-Semitism run deep in Western culture—and that too is something known to all. So the real question is whether things have changed…or whether they’ve mere clarified. And that question leads to the one stated above: do we need to rethink everything because of a handful of violent incidents or should we simply refuse to submit to the crazies and insist on carrying on as we always have—as patriotic citizens well aware of our civil rights and as secure in our skin as were our parents before us? To my way of thinking, that is the real question that the Monsey assailant inadvertently lays at our feet: can knuckling under to a new normal be reasonably described as growth…or only rationally as surrender?