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July 1, 2020 8:24 am

An Urgent Call for American Jewish Self-Defense

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein


Police tape is seen in front of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after the October 2018 shooting attack there. Photo: Reuters / Alan Freed.

The rise of antisemitism in the US, which seems to cross party lines, ideologies and ethnic groups, has caught many American Jews by surprise, and no one seems to know quite what to do about it.

The indications of a looming crisis, however, are obvious, and have touched Jews of all communities and denominations: Synagogues have been shot to pieces, visible Jews have been subjected to a wave of street assaults, antisemites have risen to power in the US Congress, campuses have become sites of intimidation and violence and the latest riots and social unrest have targeted Jewish businesses and religious sites.

Moreover, there is an ominous threat on the horizon: At some point in the future, Israel will be engaged in another war, one that will inevitably be brutal and bloody, and a wave of antisemitic violence in the Diaspora will ensue, with mass protests likely becoming pogroms precisely as they did during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Unfortunately, for the most part, non-Jewish authorities have proved themselves largely ineffective, and even indifferent, in dealing with American antisemitism. While there have been heroic actions on the part of the police, they almost inevitably — through no fault of their own — arrive too late to prevent the worst of the carnage, and in other cases, such as the hapless mayor of New York and innumerable campus administrations, those responsible for securing their Jewish citizens or students have proven outrageously incompetent and even actively hostile.

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It seems, then, that the long American Jewish tradition of reliance on non-Jewish authorities is not nearly enough. An unprecedented rise in antisemitism in a country that has always been resistant to such phenomena should be a warning to all, and appears to have only one answer: organized self-defense.

Organized Jewish self-defense has had a long and storied history in Europe and pre-state Israel, but the necessity and even the possibility of it has never really caught on in the United States, with one glaring exception: Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (JDL).

Despite its brief celebrity in the Jewish community, however, the JDL, and Kahane himself, remain a troubling conundrum. The JDL was, perhaps, initially necessary and even commendable in its call for strength and an end to Jewish victimization, especially in the face of the complete societal breakdown that occurred in the New York City of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Very quickly, however, it became clear that the JDL was not a defense force in the classic sense, but an offensive terrorist organization, given to bombings and the occasional assassination, making it anathema even to the Soviet Jewry movement it claimed to support through violence.

As for Kahane, as the years passed, he became something truly monstrous. Initially, he was a radical akin to Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, and his ethos of Jewish self-defense was, if overwrought, nonetheless defensible. But as he grew older and uglier, Kahane’s totalitarianism, theocratic fanaticism, anti-Arab racism, sexual paranoia and sanctification of violence became repulsive to all but a small minority of Jews.

Kahane’s greatest crime, however, was that, in his embrace of hatred and terrorism, he set back the cause of Jewish self-defense by decades, much as Joe McCarthy did for the anti-communist struggle.

Now, however, it is clear that the current moment requires a reawakening of the central, pre-JDL ethos of Jewish self-defense — one that rejects the tainted legacy of Kahane and the JDL, stands for the principle of Jewish pride rather than Jewish hubris, and embraces a radicalism that nonetheless admits of democracy and anti-racism.

This can likely only come through a re-embrace of two of the principles upon which Herzl founded the Zionist movement: Jewish empowerment and the tradition of liberal democratic nationalism.

It is important to point out that, in many permutations of Zionism, it did not per se demand aliyah. Zionism was always for the Diaspora as well as the Land of Israel, preaching the revival of Hebrew culture, a newly activist insistence on Jewish rights and Jewish pride without the corruption of chauvinism and arrogance.

More than anything else, however, Diaspora Zionism was a wake-up call: It asserted that the Jews must awake from their assimilationist slumber and abandon their desire for acceptance into the gentile middle class.

It is this desire, perhaps, that is the greatest obstacle to Jewish self-defense in the US. The century-old American Jewish dream of somehow becoming a middle-class WASP has castrated the possibility of Jewish empowerment. But this is no longer desirable or acceptable in the face of the sudden metastasizing of American antisemitism. If it is to survive as something other than a beleaguered minority dependent on the good will of others, American Jewry must awake from its domestication. It must foster a new ferocity of the soul.

We may be seeing the first seeds of such an awakening in the Jewish security organizations that protected synagogues during the recent riots, such as Magen Am. At the moment, however, these are small and local, and nearly all from the Orthodox community, which with its strong communal sense and tendency not to place middle-class comfort as its first priority, is more suited to collective action. But Jews of all denominations and secular Jews of none must embrace this awakening as well.

What is required, it seems, is a new league. A Zionist League that will unite these nascent self-defense groups into a national movement. One that rejects the sins and failings of its predecessors, but nonetheless insists on the right of American Jews to empower and protect themselves. In doing so, it will honor those who have died for the sanctification of the name, and ensure that no more will be forced to do so. Or at least, if there must be more, they will not have been taken from us without a fight.

Benjamin Kerstein is The Algemeiner’s Israel Correspondent.

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