The Inscrutability of the Tea Leaves for Jews


All signs point to “feh.”

A few friends on social media have been reminiscing about their experiences working for McGovern or participating in student protests during the Vietnam War.

Most of the folks I know who were in the anti-war movement, and this included in some capacity my parents, grew out of radical activism, if indeed they participated in it at all.  We can look back and know how little impact anti-war protests really had, especially if we’re unburdened by the romance of the times.

I take a “this, too, shall pass” mindset on these student protests.  It cannot and will not hold the national attention for long, and those who will be productive citizens, then as now, will be productive citizens.  Occupy a building, demand food, whine about Zionist bananas, whatever…there’s finally an upside to our national limited attention span.

It’s the normalizing of certain facets of antisemitism that Gen X and younger have not generally experienced that leave me concerned.

I think Jewish leaders, and by that I mean clergy, institutional leaders, teachers, we need to be doing a better job to embed resilience in our children. I think if you’re identifiably Jewish, i.e. you wear kippah and tzitzit and live in Jewish communities, you may be more acclimated to a level of casual harassment than others.  Many Jews who aren’t normatively observant, or are Jews by Choice, had to substitute the indignity of a Santa Claus worksheet coming home in their kids’ homework for actual, intentional antisemitism. Many of us are now wishing it was just those simple things, I’m sure.

I’m not trivializing what’s happening on campus, but in the last 2000 years of Jewish history, the last 50-60 years of relative comfort in America are actually very rare, matched in recent memory only by the assimilation of Jews in pre-1933 Germany. We still have living members of our communities that can remember real discrimination, not just at the country clubs, but being allowed to serve as doctors at hospitals, on institutional boards, or in other areas. To my knowledge, the Hamilton Club in Lancaster, which was famously boycotted by Eleanor Roosevelt for its discrimination against Jews and blacks, still has not admitted a Jewish or black member. It’s not as common, but it’s not a distant memory, either.

We have the tools embedded within our tradition and generational memory to reconcile with this kind of reality. The emerging landscape is that the state and many institutions will turn a blind eye to substantive discrimination against Jews. We see it with policing and prosecution practices in many cities, and we’re now seeing it at universities who do nothing as Jewish students are denied entry to their education, for which they are paying.

My first recommendation: stop debating the people who point out Jewish presence among demonstrators or remind you that right-wing antisemites exist. They’ve already proven to you that they do not see the error in their side, and they aren’t going to be helpful to you. They’re never going to take seriously your safety concerns unless they can pin it on their opposition.

My second recommendation: be grateful for your unconditional allies and don’t alienate them. The lady that cried at my doorstep on October 8th came and went, as I knew she would, as soon as Israel took steps to secure itself. My pro-Israel, philo-Semitic Christian friends were there before and after October 7th, because they understand the moral imperative behind the existence of Israel or value our strategic alliance. Don’t you dare pencil them off as mere “evangelicals” with an eschatological agenda. They care about us here, and now, and not in some prophetic vision for Israel.

But then there’s politics.  Now that I’m a rabbinical student, I’m incredibly reluctant to weigh in on this or that candidate or political party.  I’m not a fan of Donald Trump’s statements about Jewish Democrats and loyalty, but I’m certainly not a fan of Ihlan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, or other members of the so-called Squad.  They’re spiteful, antisemitic children.

I am a Zionist.  I will always be a Zionist, so I do indeed vote for those I believe best for sustaining the Jewish state.  And that calls for hard, inelegant choices.  Do I prioritize concerns over a woman’s right to choose, the encroachment on Medicare and the VA with grift-laden privatization schemes, or bad foreign policy?  Or do I vote for Israel first—and what does that look like?  Appeasing a government that’s expanding settlements in Judea and Samaria?  Trying to narrow the Law of Return?  Crowding out liberal streams of Judaism with Orthodox hegemony?

These are questions I don’t have answers for, and as Jews, I suggest we all do the best we can according to our consciences, and focus more on what we can collectively control:

  1. Our approach to antisemitism on campuses – what are our solutions?  Do we lean into publishing lists of “safe” universities?  Do we publish manifests of antisemitic and anti-Zionist professors and faculty?  I don’t think we can expect many schools to be proactive, so in turn, we must be proactive.  We must remove ourselves from support for endowments, alumni donations, and institutions that are not favorable to us, and put our investments to work for our people, as Bill Ackman has done.
    We absolutely need to be present, if our communities are adjacent to universities.  If Hillel is cowed, we need not be.  We must reach out and provide safe spaces in our homes, congregations, and other institutions for Jewish college students.
  2. Our approach to antisemitism in local government.  I remain disgusted with what I heard from two Bangor City councillors at a workshop where a ceasefire resolution was discussed.  In both cases, they were flagrantly antisemitic.  Then and now, I’m not invested in debating the merits of a ceasefire, but what I do know is that local government is not an appropriate level of government to address foreign policy.  All it serves to do is amplify a particular voice.  If you’ve ever served in local government, it’s the often the least glorious of political work, whether it’s council, planning commission, or even a zoning hearing board.  No one cares until they need redress…so it’s a great springboard to give disproportionate credibility to vocal minorities.  The majority of the State of Maine supports Israel.  It’s a demonstrable fact.  A few loudmouths in a few key municipalities gain the ability to present more support than they actually enjoy.
  3. Our approach to antisemitism in Muslim communities. I say it loudly, I have no interest in rebuilding bridges with Muslims or left-leaning institutions that reflexively take the pro-Hamas side right now.  But it can’t exist like this forever.  At some point, we have to be good neighbors.  I’m thinking guarded courtesy, nothing more, for now.
  4. What choices do we make about causes we are now alienated from? I still personally care passionately about rights of disenfranchised groups.  I care about equality for women, voting rights, etc., but animosity to Zionism has driven many of us out and away from organized efforts.  The Sierra Club took and then walked back a position in the past concerning trips, but the anti-Zionist rot is still palpable at every level.  Do we form our own groups?  Do we mute our Zionism?  Choices must be made.
  5. Most importantly, how can we prepare our children for the inevitable antisemitism we will now face?  We’re past strongly-worded letters here.  After several antisemitic incidents involving children from our congregation, including my own, I and others have been gaslit by the superintendent of RSU22, our school district that spans the border between Hampden and Newburgh in Penobscot County, and Winterport and Frankfort in Waldo County.  We’re not going to get help from our institutions unless it’s unmistakable and egregious, and even then, with our local administration, I have serious doubts.  I cannot control this, but I can help my child reconcile with it.  More importantly, our educational apparatus can.  We focus on Hebrew and liturgical literacy towards b’nai mitzvah, but we also have to shape curriculum that acclimates kids to this new reality.

One thing I will push back on is the absurd idea that we will be safer in Israel.

I love Israel, with all my heart.  But I am a 30-year veteran of the American military.  I bleed red, white, and blue.  I love the Maine woods, ice fishing, and moose.  We had agency and freedom here, for the most part, from 1783 forward, long before 1948.  We have so many beloved friends, people that would lay down on the wire for us.

And as much as our Israeli friends would like to pretend this isn’t the case, this isn’t 1948, 1967, or 1973 where the Arab armies were poorly trained and equipped.  Iran’s missile attacks and the protection of Iron Dome demonstrate that Israel is highly reliant on EU and the United States for security.  We need a strong Jewish presence in Diaspora for Israel to continue to exist safely.  We need to be here, vociferously lobbying for both Western liberalism and the Jewish state, as both are under threat from all sides.

With all that, I’m not finding it helpful for us to be kvetching at the post-service Shabbos oneg about what’s happening on campus for the tenth year in a row.  We have to start considering these things within our institutions and building out our own systems.  We need to give that to our communities, because no one else is going to do it for them.

Will it all be okay?  I don’t know.  How much lead time was there for Kristallnacht?  Will it get that bad?  Is that an overreaction?  Would it have been an overreaction in 1932?  If nothing else, we’re preparing the remnant from the next catastrophe.  Our 8 ball comes up blank, so we’re going to have to do the work.

That’s always how it is for our people.

Brian

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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