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World Jewry and the War of Simchat Torah

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, 26 October, 2023

%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%97%D7%99%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%A8%D7%97%D7%91%D7%99 %D7%94%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%94%D7%A4%D7%92%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA %D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9B%D7%94 %D7%91%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%90%D7%9C 1It is with deep pain and sorrow that I write these words, but I do so in an attempt to obtain the bird’s-eye view of the events unfolding before our eyes in both the State of Israel as well as in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, in these days of war.  I would like to describe some of the events that have transpired in wake of the current war in Israel, and which continue to impact Jewish communities around the globe. I will further try to outline some of my initial insights on what is happening, and the possible implications of this war on world Jewry.  The war which is taking place in Israel as we speak does not only have a direct effect on what is happening within the territorial borders of the State of Israel, but also impacts Jews and Israelis all over the world.  The feelings of sadness, loss and trauma that we are currently experiencing in Israel have transcended our borders and have enveloped Israelis and Jews across oceans and continents.  Jewish communities are experiencing this war with great intensity because the war that is being waged is not only aimed against the State of Israel, but also against the entire Jewish nation, for the simple reason that we are Jewish.  And, indeed, this time round, the war is not only about the Land but also about the People, and, as such, we are all taking part in it; every single one of us is recruited to the mission.  One cannot help but feel that World Jewry is in this war together with the State of Israel.  In fact, the danger we face in Israel creates a real peril for Jews across the Diaspora.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that Rabbi Soloveichick’s well-known philosophy, which propagates the idea that Jewish identity is based on the principles of “fate” and “destiny”, is no longer a utopian notion, but a very realistic one.  In the last few days, we have seen how Jewish “fate” does, in fact, impact Jews everywhere.  We have also seen how the State of Israel is not only the common mission of the Jewish People, but also dictates our common destiny.

Loyalty vs. Anxiety

World Jewry is currently in a precarious position, with emotions ping-ponging between loyalty to the State of Israel, and feelings of great anxiety at the events unfolding in Israel and around the world.  On the one hand, world Jewry has put into action massive support programs for Israel in the form of fundraising, public diplomacy and a show of unrelenting solidarity with the State.  On the other hand, these same Jewish communities are greatly distressed by the rising antisemitism they are now facing.

The Jewish Diaspora is a full partner to what is happening in Israel, and Jews of all kinds – observant, affiliated, non-affiliated, assimilated – have come together with the common goal of fighting for Israel.  Jewish communities, as well as individuals, have made large donations to the IDF and to Israeli civil society; they have flown over huge amounts of crucial equipment to Israel; they constantly engage in public diplomacy and advocacy for Israel on social media and other media platforms; they have opened their homes to Israelis who have travelled abroad; they have been holding support events for the State of Israel and massive prayer services for the safety of our soldiers, our kidnapped, our wounded.  It is without a doubt that the Jews of the West have their hearts deeply rooted in the East when it comes to the war in Israel.

In Warsaw, Poland, the Jewish community organized a huge support rally for Israel right next to a rally held by Hamas supporters; last Shabbat, the Jewish community of Rome set up a long Shabbat table with 204 empty seats, including high seats for infants, on the main street of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome; in Miami, the Jewish communities joined forces to raise funds for Israel, and arranged for equipment to be sent over to the IDF soldiers; school children and members of Jewish youth movements sent tens of thousands of personal letters to soldiers on the battlefront and on the home front; thousands of Jews came to Israel to volunteer and assist in whatever way they can.  Last Shabbat, synagogues all over the world invited the Israeli and Jewish public to special prayer services for the State of Israel and the safe return of the kidnapped and the missing.  A great many visited the synagogues, which were even fuller than they normally are during the Kol Nidrei prayer of Yom Kippur.  The fact that world Jewry has shown itself fully committed to the State of Israel makes us all feel that we are truly one People, a family, and reinforces our feelings of brotherhood and Jewish peoplehood.  The sense of unity which is felt so strongly in Israel at the moment has spread across seas and borders, and many Jewish organizations abroad – which had always worked separately – have come together and joined forces.  Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities pray together and contribute jointly to the State of Israel.

Fears and Antisemitism

%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%97%D7%99%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%A8%D7%97%D7%91%D7%99 %D7%94%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%94%D7%A4%D7%92%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA %D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9B%D7%94 %D7%91%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%90%D7%9C 4Despite the great show of support for the State of Israel and the IDF that we have seen in recent weeks, we have also been witness to pro-Hamas protests, as well as numerous acts of violence and antisemitism.  Massive pro-Hamas support rallies have taken place in dozens of countries worldwide, from London to Sidney, Australia; from Lima in Peru to Mexico City.  These have provoked a sense of insecurity within the Jewish communities.  It must be noted that it is not only Muslims that take part in pro-Hamas rallies.  Many of the protestors are members of the radical political Left and the radical political Right.  There is almost no place on the globe where such anti-Israel protests have not taken place.

In addition to these protests, Jews have been subject to violent acts and a myriad of unsettling incidents: public support for Hamas on local media platforms; threats aimed at Jewish individuals and Jewish communities on social media; anonymous threat letters sent to Jewish communities; swastika graffiti sprayed on synagogue walls and Jewish institutions.  In the heart of the Jewish neighborhood of Golders Green in London, the windows of kosher restaurants were smashed, and in central London, posters calling to “Free Palestine” were hung up.

European leaders have taken additional security measures to protect synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods in anticipation of antisemitic threats resulting from the war.  Jewish communities are also tightening security in the vicinity of synagogues and Jewish schools.  This last Shabbat I visited one of the European communities.  Dozens of pictures of the kidnapped were attached to the seats inside the synagogue in a show of support and as an expression of the shared pain.  There were dozens of soldiers and police officers standing outside the synagogue entrance.  As is my custom, I always walk around with a kippa on my head, no matter where I am.  Upon leaving the synagogue, an officer approached me and asked me to remove my kippa or else cover it with a hat.  I refused, of course, but, I must say, tensions are certainly running high.

Campuses and Universities

University campuses, it appears, have boasted the highest levels of hostility towards the State of Israel and massive support for the Palestinians.  In England, this is all the more blatant.  In addition to support rallies for Palestinians and posters condemning Israel, rabbis and shlichim working on campuses have reported that anti-Israel activists have been putting up posters and signs bearing personal threats to themselves and their families near their homes and on their cars.

Israelis in European Communities

%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%97%D7%99%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%A8%D7%97%D7%91%D7%99 %D7%94%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%94%D7%A4%D7%92%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA %D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9B%D7%94 %D7%91%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%90%D7%9C 3It is a well-known fact that tens of thousands of Israelis have immigrated to European countries in recent decades.  There are approximately 200,000 Israelis living as permanent residents in Europe today.  The war in Israel is difficult for everybody, this also includes Israelis living abroad.  They all have relatives in Israel, many of whom are currently serving in the army.  While Jews everywhere are bemoaning the situation, Israelis are in a state of real anxiety.

Until recently, most Israelis living in Europe were not really connected to the local Jewish communities, and preferred their own social setting.  However, the sudden war situation in Israel, which evoked a real sense of danger, topped with the sudden urge to reach out and help fellow Jews and engage in public diplomacy and fundraising for the State of Israel and the IDF – all of these created new bonds between local Diaspora Jews and Israelis living abroad.  In these day of war, Israeli Jews now have a place of honor in Jewish communities around the world.  They are helping to improve the communities’ security setup, and are engaging in public diplomacy and advocacy for Israel on social media and local media channels; they have been putting up posters showing the faces of the kidnapped Israelis in Gaza.  In some countries, Israelis have set up war rooms, call centers and alert teams to assist in whatever is needed, and offer emotional support to Israelis dealing with PTSD, and feelings of guilt and anxiety for their relatives in Israel.

Alongside the myriads of Israelis who have returned to Israel since the war broke out, thousands of Israelis have gone abroad.  There are those who wish to stay abroad for the duration of the war, not because they do not identify with what is happening in Israel, but out of real fear for the safety of their families.  Many Jewish communities in Europe, the likes of Greece, Switzerland, England, Germany, Cyprus and many others, have displayed a great deal of sensitivity and empathy and are assisting Israelis with accommodation, educational frameworks for the children and are even offering financial aid.

Fighting for our Home whilst Fighting for our People

Until now the Jewish People was a “Cosmopolitan People”, as it were.  Jews living in this day and age have perceived themselves as citizens of the world, and have pretty much felt at home anywhere in the world.  Diaspora Jews have largely identified themselves as belonging to the Jewish People but not necessarily as belonging to the Israeli People, whose center and homeland is the State of Israel.  The State of Israel  was never considered to be a central component of Jewish identity by a great many Jews, who have become more and more disconnected from the State of Israel over the years.  From the latest Pew report recently published, it appears that seven out of ten (69%) Jews living in the US feel connected to the State of Israel, which doesn’t mean to say they are considering aliya.   Only 43% of Jews in North America view their connection with and concern for the Jewish State as a central component of their Jewish identity.  Once again, this in no way reflects support for aliya or the desire to live in Israel.  Although the above feelings with regards to Israel may express concern for the welfare of the Jewish State, they do not reflect a sense of belonging, nor mutual responsibility for Israel.

But then the Simchat Torah War broke out and things changed in an instant for Diaspora Jewry.  Suddenly, Jewish existence was not only defined by Jewish faith, but also by Jewish Peoplehood and nationalism.  In fact, every Jew has suddenly become affiliated with the State of Israel, whether by personal choice or else by the fact that the non-Jewish world took a stand against the State of Israel.  It has suddenly become clear that World Jewry is not an independent entity.  Rather, its existence depends on the policy dictated by the host countries, as well as the fate of the State of Israel.  Jews in the Diaspora live as a minority within a local majority, and it is the latter that determines the fate of these Jews.  Jews living in Israel, however, are a majority, and, as such, get to determine their own fate and destiny.

In the past, when there were displays of antisemitism, Diaspora Jews were accustomed to saying – these terror attacks are not antisemitic; they are anti-Israel.  I think this era has now come to an end.  This distinction no longer exists.  Hatred towards Israel and Israelis is also hatred towards Jews.  Jews all over the world are being attacked because they belong to the Jewish People, irrespective of their political views.

The brutal and murderous attacks on men, women and children which took place in the Israeli communities bordering Gaza will forever be etched as a trauma in the collective memory of the Jewish People.  The massacre of Simchat Torah will not be forgotten, nor will it be forgiven.  As pointed out by President Biden in his words of support to the State of Israel: “This attack has brought to the surface the painful memories and scars left by a millennia of antisemitism and genocide against the Jewish people.”  President Biden’s words are a reminder to all of us that any brutal attack on the State of Israel is an attack against the Jewish People everywhere.

Facing the Future

%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%97%D7%99%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%A8%D7%97%D7%91%D7%99 %D7%94%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D %D7%91%D7%94%D7%A4%D7%92%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA %D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9B%D7%94 %D7%91%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%90%D7%9C 2I am no prophet and cannot foresee the future; however, I do believe that this war is a watershed moment in the existence of world Jewry. As has been said of late, this war is an existential one; we are fighting for our home.  The same is true for Jews living overseas.  Because when this war ultimately ends, Jews will no longer speak as they did a year ago.  I know it is still too early to predict anything, but I do foresee a few types of reactions. One reaction might be Jews distancing themselves from Judaism and their fellow Jews out of sheer fear.  Another possible reaction is the exact opposite: Jews will reinforce their Jewish identity, and even their religious one, with the profound understanding that they have no other Land, and have no other People.  A third reaction might be massive aliya to Israel, or, alternatively, Jewish immigration to remote locations around the globe, where the Jewish problem has never been heard of.  By the way, since the beginning of the war, aliya to Israel has stopped almost entirely because people are simply too scared to come to Israel.  We have no idea when aliya will resume and in which capacity.

Modern-day “Anusim

To convey the danger and the sense of fear Jews around the world are currently experiencing, let me share a question I received from a Jew living in London two days into the war:  “Being as worried as I am of things flaring up here, and I can’t believe I’m even asking this, am I allowed to remove the mezuza from my front door?  I know this is a crazy question, but I feel obligated to protect my home and my family.”

Since the war broke out, many Jews have been hurt, both physically and emotionally, and are therefore afraid to display their Jewishness outwardly.  It is no secret that antisemitism has spread to the public domain and is once again stereotyping Jews negatively and assimilating these negative ideas into public awareness.  What is different about this war is that antisemitism is no longer confined to words nor to social media, but has turned into real acts of violence perpetrated against Jews on the streets and in the marketplace.  The difference forces at play in Europe – the radical right, the radical anti-Israel left, radical Islam and even mainstream Catholicism – all of these movements are leaving their mark and creating a feeling of dread in which people find it hard to function.  The most common antisemitic statements are:  “Israelis are acting like Nazis towards the Palestinians (51%); “Jews have too much power” (43%); “Jews are exploiting the horrors of the Holocaust for the personal gain” (35%).

Even before the war, various studies showed that half of European Jewry hide their Jewishness because they don’t’ feel safe walking around with Jewish identifiers like a kippa or Magen David.  (In North America, the figure stands at 22%.)  In my view, the current state of war as well as the increasing displays of antisemitism will not only impact Jews’ sense of fear, but will also prevent people from visiting Jewish sites or attending Jewish events.  Jews will no longer feel safe when they are perceived as being part of a Jewish community, nor will they feel safe when making their way to their community.  Naturally, this also includes the simple act of walking to the synagogue or to any Jewish gathering.

But I think the real question is how this war will ultimately affect Jewish identity.  Will it create Jewish pride and national resilience, or, alternatively, will it sow fear and anxiety?  Will Jews walk the streets of Berlin and Brussels with heads held up high, proud of their kippa, or will we once again be witness to a Judaism of “Anusim“, where Jews can only practice their Judaism inside their own homes while keeping it completely concealed outdoors?

God forfend we should find ourselves again in the period of the Anusim of Spain and Portugal.  God forbid we should surrender our Jewish pride and free Jewish lifestyle on any street in any capital of the world, for this will only lead to a more covert Jewish identity and to greater assimilation.  The latter, in addition to the war that is being waged before our eyes, might pose the greatest danger of all to the future of the Jewish People.  We must therefore channel some of the educational and community efforts in the Diaspora to tackling this existential danger.

Conclusion

“Our brothers and sisters the whole house of Israel, who are in distress and captivity who wander over sea and over land — may God have mercy on them, and bring them from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption, now, swiftly, and soon.”

The above prayer recited in the synagogues after the Torah reading in the morning prayer service, and which calls for the release and the rescue of Jews who are in distress and in captivity, has once again become relevant.  Jews living in the Diaspora recite the prayer for the Jews living in Israel, while Jews living in Israel have their brethren living outside of Israel in mind as well.  This is a mutual and reciprocal prayer for the victory and resilience of the Jewish People.  Indeed, we are all in this together.

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training and Placement institutes and an expert in world Jewry

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