Do Jewish Lives Matter?

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In the early 20th century, universities in America, including elite Ivy league schools, imposed a Jewish quota, denying many qualified and worthy applicants’ entry, simply because they were Jewish.  For example, A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University from 1909-1933, labeled the growth of Jewish students at Harvard as the "Jew problem" and asserted that the growing number of Jewish students at Harvard would "ruin the college." He proposed reducing the number of Jewish students at Harvard by imposing higher standards of admissions to members of "the Hebrew race."


While 100 years later, Jews are admitted to college campuses, today, in many cases, they are not welcome there and simply are not safe there. Last week, Jewish students had to lock themselves in the Cooper Union library as other students chanted "Free Palestine" outside the doors and held up signs while aggressively and threateningly banging against the glass windows.  A few days ago, threatening statements about Jews on an online discussion board at Cornell University prompted officials to send police to guard a Jewish center and kosher dining hall and found Jewish students hiding in their dormitory rooms.  Jewish students at Columbia University said at a press conference this week that they had recently been subjected to a series of antisemitic incidents in recent weeks, including death threats.


These stories and countless others, unimaginable and unfathomable just a month ago, are now becoming the norm, not the exception, on campuses.  Shockingly, many of the hateful students are emboldened or even openly encouraged by professors who endorse and subscribe to the same ideology of hatred and attach their names and respected credentials to letters blaming Israel for October 7 and/or outright supporting Hamas. While reactions of disgust and statements of support have come from the White House, many elected leaders, and other allies, the national outrage, or mass movements that we have seen to confront other forms have hate and bigotry have not emerged.


To appreciate how relatively muted the reaction has been, consider the appropriate national reaction if black students were told the black student center was closed because it couldn’t be secured from the racists who threaten black students and all black students need to hide in their dorm room. Imagine Muslim students or LGBTQ students needing to lock themselves in the university library because they are being taunted and threatened. 


Campuses are not the only place that antisemitism is on the rise. Reuters reported that in Los Angeles, a man screaming "kill Jews" attempted to break into a family's home. In London, girls in a playground are told they are "stinking Jews" and should stay off the slide. In China, posts likening Jews to parasites, vampires or snakes proliferate on social media, attracting thousands of supportive reactions. In countries where figures are available, like the United States, antisemitic incidents have gone up a mind-boggling 400% since Oct. 7 compared with the same period last year.


Jim Gaffigan, posted: “Does anyone else feel the need to call all their Jewish friends and say, Okay, you weren’t being paranoid?”  Gaffigan is a popular comedian, but his observation is no joke. 


In 2017, following the exposure of numerous abuse allegations against high profile individuals, the #Metoo movement swept the country with millions using the phrase and hashtag first in English and soon after in dozens of other languages.  A groundswell of support emerged to stand with victims of abuse and to make clear it would not be tolerated.


In 2013, the hashtag  #BlackLivesMatter began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The movement returned to the headlines and gained international attention during the George Floyd protests in 2020.  That year, 67% of Americans expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.


Where are these same voices to defend the Jews? Where is the sweeping outrage, where is the birth of a movement to stand with Jewish lives while there are growing explicit vile threats against innocent Jewish lives?  Why hasn’t #JewishLivesMatter gone viral?  Where are the demands to defund campuses, where is the call to cancel antisemites and Hamas sympathizers? 


We would like to believe that the overwhelming majority on campuses and off of them, around America and the world, are decent and moral, disturbed by what happened in Israel and the ripple effects elsewhere. But being disturbed is not enough. Sitting on the sidelines is unacceptable. As Shai Davidai, a professor at Columbia whose passionate speech about campuses not being safe for Jewish students recently went viral, eloquently put it, “To the silent majority: I think we need to talk about your silence.”


We need all good people to speak up, act up, confront antisemitism and antisemites and be intolerant of the intolerable. We need a #JewishLivesMatter movement, a sweeping campaign to confront antisemitism and protect Jews everywhere.


Elie Wiesel once said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”


At this moment, standing with Israel and the Jewish people is the center of the universe. As antisemitism grows everywhere, I know how much it means to me to see each and every gesture and demonstration of solidarity with our people and our homeland.  Those who are not indifferent are indeed making a difference.  I opened my front door this week and saw my non-Jewish landscaper riding his lawn mower with Israeli flags flying from it.  An older non-Jewish couple in Ft. Lauderdale airport stopped me to say how upset they are by what is happening and that they stand with the Jewish people and Israel. A video of a non-Jewish construction worker in New York standing up for us and aggressively confronting someone taking down pictures of kidnapped hostages has warmed our hearts.


The position we as a people are collectively in right now is a grave cause of concern, and it should and must motivate us to speak up and fight for ourselves.  More than that, it should also inspire us to think about how we feel, what we are going through, and to remember this experience when another group, race, or minority finds itself confronting its enemies.  If even small gestures are meaningful to us, we must express them to others in the future who need to know they aren’t alone or on their own.  If solidarity matters, we must stand with those who are targeted in the future.


In last week’s Parsha, when Hashem tests Avraham by asking him to leave his home and all that he knows, He promises to make Avraham great, to bless him and also v’heyei beracha, to be a blessing.  What does it mean to be a blessing? It can’t mean to be blessed because that was already said with avarechecha, I will bless you?  Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Hashem was not only promising Avraham that he would be blessed, but at the same time was challenging Avraham to take his experience, to learn from his own story and to use it to become a blessing for others.  Others pursue being blessed, satisfying their wants and needs and finding their own happiness.  To be progeny of Avraham is to take our experiences and to pursue becoming a blessing in other people’s lives, using it to help others find justice, security, and ultimately happiness.


In this week’s Parsha, Avraham is a blessing by advocating for and protesting on behalf of Sedom.  When Hashem reveals His intent to destroy this corrupt city and society, Avraham doesn’t passively accept with indifference.  He objects, protests, and negotiates on their behalf. 


As we find ourselves in this urgent time, a crisis for our people not only in Israel but around the world, we are fair and just in expecting more from the world, in demanding outrage, support and solidarity.  But at the same time, we must demand of ourselves to take this experience and feeling and to be a blessing for others who will need us to be outraged, support and stand in solidarity with them.