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Wounded and Blessed

12/12/2019 04:16:48 PM

Dec12

The Biblical story starts with confusion, fear and fighting, and ends with wounds and blessings. We can only hope that the week ends as well for American Jewry. This week in Vayishlah, we read that Jacob, already afraid of his brother, Esau, falls victim to a sneak attack from an unexpected, unidentified assailant. The two spend the night locked in battle. The attacker flees at dawn, and Jacob ends up with a new name and a blessing.

 

The Torah never names the attacker, and the story leave us with questions. If Jacob’s assailant is an angel sent from God, one must ask why God would inflict permanent harm on Jacob. Alternatively, is he a negative force or Esau’s guardian angel, or is it all a prophecy?

 

This week has been a week of similar confusion and struggle for American Jews. Over the weekend, at a conference of Israeli Americans, President Trump described Jews as “brutal killers” and “not nice people at all.” I am confident that the president does not hate his Jewish daughter and grandchildren, but one can believe harmful stereotypes about a group without seeking to harm them oneself. That is the great irony. He ascribes to Jews traits, like greed and unscrupulousness in business, that I might see as negative but that he himself respects. So, his remarks may not have been intended to harm, but they still have the ability to wound, because they give us a bad name that feeds the fires of hate among some listeners.

 

But that was two crises ago.

 

A few days later, the president signed an executive order declaring that legislation preventing racial discrimination on campus would now be applied to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity. Early reports about the executive order made it seem that the president was declaring Judaism to be a “nationality” rather than a religion. This caused great concern among Jews who fear a rising tide of racial exclusion. I  appreciate the discomfort that comes for some from the new order. There are many different ways of understanding Jewish identity- for some, it is primarily religious, for others, more ethnic or cultural. Jacob was happy to receive his new name, Israel. As Jews, we are uncomfortable having a name or identity forced on us or defined by governmental authority.

 

The actual order was not what was feared. College campuses have become an increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students. Criticism of Israel has become the legitimator for many types of anti-Jewish sentiment and attacks on Jewish university students. Anti-Semitic votes, activities, and incidents of vandalism targeting Jews have taken place at Emory and UGA among dozens of campuses around the country.  Jews are being attacked not because of how they worship, but because they are identified with Israel. I have any number of criticisms of the current administration and its policies, but I do feel that this change will be beneficial for our students on campus. In a free society, criticism of any country or group must be allowed, but when one’s very identity or right to exist is challenged, that crosses the line of discourse.

 

Meanwhile, four people were murdered in an attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, NJ. When I first heard about the attack, I assumed that we would soon learn that it originated with one of the two primary sources of anti-Semitic attacks in our country. The attackers were surely either right-wing, white supremacists who have carried out similar attacks, or perhaps radicals from the left or Muslims expressing anti-Israel sentiment (though this seemed less likely because in this country those groups have typically acted through boycotts, vandalism, and harsh language). As it turns out, the violence came from another quarter altogether. The perpetrators were members of the “Black Hebrew Israelite” sect, a highly anti-Semitic African American splinter group. They are distinct from many other groups of African Americans who identify as Jewish in that they claim that they are the only true Jews.

 

Much like Jacob, we fear an attack, but don’t always know who our assailant will be - we may gird to protect against Esau, but violence may come from another direction altogether. How we express our identity does not prevent the hate - it only tips the scales of who is most likely to hate us. Ironically, the Jews who were murdered in Jersey City belong to a Jewish sect called Satmar, which is itself anti-Zionist, and whose views on Israel would be accepted on any college campus.

 

As we read the story of Jacob and the stories of our own day, we are reminded that often the threat we have been preparing for is not the one that succeeds. We appreciate how much it matters to choose our own name and identity, rather than have it placed upon us. We also learn that someone may offer us a blessing and nevertheless leave us wounded.

 

Sun, January 19 2020 22 Tevet 5780