We Must Never Be Ashamed to Be Jewish
A few years ago, my wife and I had Shabbat dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Because I love Iceland, I was especially happy to meet its president at the time, Olafur Grimsson, and his Israeli wife Dorrit Moussaieff — who sat at the head table.
I was back in Iceland last week, and had the great honor of speaking at the country’s new Chabad House in Reykjavik — the first permanent Jewish institution in the island-nation’s history. Its directors, Rabbi Ari and Rebbetzin Mushka Feldman, have brought their two young daughters to a land with not that many, Jews and a country that recently tried to ban circumcision. Religion is well on its way to a fatal death in Iceland, and religious practices are, in general, frowned upon. That, coupled with an unfavorable opinion of Israel, will make the Feldmans’ job that much more challenging.
But they will succeed, God willing. As Chabad always does.
They will succeed because Chabad refuses to fail. Ever. They will succeed because no Chabad emissary has a career, but rather a calling. No Chabad House director has an occupation; rather, they have a mission. Their objective: validate every person’s infinite dignity, make them feel irreplaceable, and connect them to their 3,000-year-old faith.
I also predict that the presence of the Chabad House will serve to reverse some of the irrational Icelandic hostility to Israel, and to cast the Jews in a favorable light, just by being there.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of simple visibility.
Chabad succeeds because of the power of its immense Jewish pride. There is no possibility of hiding one’s Jewishness when one is Chabad. If you’re a man, the beard, yarmulke, and black hat give you away. If you’re a woman, the sheitel — usually a stylish head covering — and modest dress code gives you away. And unlike other Jewish communal members in Europe who have succumbed to the all-encompassing advice to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, Chabad emissaries walk the streets of Berlin, Paris, Moscow, and Budapest with their Jewishness proudly on their sleeves.
It is responsible? Should they be concerned about attacks? That’s where faith comes in. Yes, we must all be much more security-conscious in an age where antisemitism — especially in Europe — is greatly on the rise. But there is a difference between caution and fear. Caution is a calculated response to a real and present threat. Fear is a hysterical response to an imagined danger. Synagogues and Chabad Houses need security in Europe, where they can be targets. But hiding one’s Jewishness — which I believe is impossible anyway — tells those who hate us that we are afraid. And fear invites intimidation.
A little while ago, my wife and I were in Paris and a woman told Debbie to put away her Magen Dovid necklace. “I love Israel,” she said, “but I don’t want you go to get hurt. And wearing that, you could be attacked.”
Needless to say, Debbie wore her Magen Dovid proudly the rest of the trip. Not because we are the most fearless Jews in the world. I can assure you that we’re not. Rather, my wife wore it proudly because she loves Israel and is honored to be Jewish. And Jewish pride should never be squelched.
Seventy years ago, Jews in Europe were forced to wear a yellow star of shame. Today we are capable of wearing Jewish symbols of pride. And the prouder you are, the more the world will respect you.
Which brings us back to Iceland.
I have visited the island many times for its beauty and natural treasures, and yes, at times, I have frozen there. But I have never found the people to be anything but friendly, warm, and respectful.
So what’s their beef with Israel? And why is Europe in general turning against the Jewish state?
Some say that it’s the new European antisemitism. After six million Jews were incinerated in European ovens by the Germans, it’s no longer fashionable to be an out-and-out antisemite. So hating Israel is the closest you can get to the real thing.
No doubt there is truth to this assertion. But it cannot explain countries where there is no history of antisemitism, like Iceland, because there is little Jewish history to speak of. Rather, I believe, it comes down to this.
People read about Israel in the media every day as a troublesome little country that is fighting with everybody. And Israeli is being condemned by all the world’s mainstream bodies, especially organizations like the UN. So, although people confess to not knowing much about the complexities of the Middle East, they begin to see Israel as the country that is causing all the problems.
And if these people live in countries where they scarcely ever even meet Jews, they have precious little to counter this observation — and to understand that the Jewish people, far from being belligerent, excel in all peace-loving fields like charity, community, education, and family. It’s only in Israel, where the Arabs have decided that the Jewish state is a humiliation to Arab and Islamic hegemony in the Middle East — and where the Jews have been given no choice but to fight back lest they be annihilated — that we are more famous for our army then for our scientists, academies, and teachers (although this too is changing).
Which brings us back to Chabad.
There are many things that can be said about the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the occasion of the 24th anniversary of his passing — which was commemorated this past Shabbat. But for now, I will focus on just one thing. The Rebbe was quite simply the proudest Jew of the post-war era, and he raised an army of disciples whose pride in being Jewish is public, global, irrepressible, and positively inspiring.
The Rebbe sent his emissaries to live in countries for the rest of their lives in places where most Jews were fleeing, as was the case of with the former Soviet Union prior to its collapse. While Jews were rightly trying to make aliyah to Israel where they could live the Jewish dream rather than be oppressed, the Rebbe sent his emissaries to live there so as never to abandon the Jews who needed religious leaders and to never allow any country to become Judenrein.
The result has been a proud and public Jewish presence in countries where Jews were either absent, as in Vietnam, or slaughtered, like Germany. And every Jew who visits these countries as tourists today know how comfortable the presence of a Chabad family and a warm Shabbas meal can make them feel.
Throughout our history, the Jews have been simultaneously the chosen as well as the frozen people — shut out in the cold by their neighbors who have chosen to shun and persecute them. But now it is up to us to determine if we will — even in Europe — wear our Jewish identities with passionate pride and bold affirmation. The answer should be a resounding yes.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.