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Because of Me

It’s possible for individuals and parties to deserve both credit and blame at the same time


e all believe in balanced, even-handed analysis of issues, giving praise and blame where each is due, don’t we? Here, then, is a balanced way to approach a recent news story, with ramifications, too, for how to respond to the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism.

The president of the United States recently issued an executive order (EO) regarding campus anti-Semitism. The EO formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism and applied the Title VI federal anti-discrimination laws to universities that tolerate anti-Semitic activities on their campuses.

A balanced analysis of this story would do the following:

It would credit the president for issuing an EO designed to protect Jewish students from those who hate them. It would also credit the George W. Bush administration, whose Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, Kenneth L. Marcus, in 2004, set forth the very same policy stated in the EO. (Marcus currently holds the same position under the Trump administration.) And it would also credit the Obama administration, whose Assistant Attorney General, Thomas E. Perez — now the chair of the Democratic National Committee — reaffirmed in 2010 that same position.

It would credit what Jewish Insider describes as “an influential group of Jewish Democrats,” who worked with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a five-year effort to build a coalition to push identical legislation through Congress, and when it stalled in Congress, approached the White House about issuing an EO.

It would criticize the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who in 2016 prevented that legislation from being voted upon. It would criticize the current Democratic majority for failing to vote upon it when it was reintroduced by a Republican representative.

It would note that the New York Times initially reported, erroneously, that the EO “will have the effect of embracing an argument that Jews are a People,” while also criticizing Israel’s US ambassador for claiming the Jews “were a People before we were a faith.” The truth is that we are something unique in humanity’s annals, a People and a faith as one.

It would note that the president himself will at times use language in reference to Jews that some may find offensive, at times stereotype Jews and their loyalties.

Apparently, it’s possible for individuals and parties to deserve both credit and blame at the same time. Once we go beyond the superficial platitudes and consider all the relevant facts, a news story we may have thought was so straightforward turns out to be a lot more complex. It requires us to be capable of holding two different, even conflicting thoughts in our heads simultaneously.

For some, that may be asking too much: They just want to be able to make up their minds without anyone confusing them with shades of grey. They need to be part of a personality cult, to be party members. But ever since Avraham Avinu, Jews have refused to genuflect before any man or party. As Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote in his sefer Ha’adam B’yikar, his rebbi, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, regarded identifying with political parties as the antithesis of being a ben Torah.

Why do good Jews stumble in this way? Consider the following: Everyone’s now talking about the resurgence of anti-Semitism, in America and worldwide. In everyday conversations and in the frum media, there is endless discussion surrounding the causes for the flaring anew of this age-old hatred and ideas for what can be done about it. Some focus on the perpetrators, others on what law enforcement or government or the media are or aren’t saying or doing.

Here’s what the Brisker Rav had to say during a very difficult time for Jews, as people sat with him, each ascribing the troubles to yet another cause. As reported by Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulzinger, the Rav said: “The ship Yonah Hanavi was fleeing on was filled with wicked idolaters, and when a storm kicked up at sea and threatened to sink the ship, it would have been possible to attribute it to many causes. But Yonah said to his fellow shipmates, ‘Cast me into the sea and the sea will quiet, for I know that it is because of me that this great storm has come.’ That is the hashkafah of a Torah Jew: Because of me, this great storm….”

That is precisely what is conveyed by the famous first Rambam in the laws of Ta’aniyos, how Jews respond to tragedy and persecution by engaging in soul-searching, and when they do not, the tragedies just repeat themselves until the message is received. It’s not, G-d forbid, “blaming the victim” nor does it absolve the victimizers, who will be treated to their just deserts for all eternity. It is simply the truth, albeit one people have a hard time accepting. Indeed, in the torrent of words that appear in the frum media regarding anti-Semitism, the univocal view of the Rambam and every other Torah authority is almost nonexistent.

Internalizing the message of the Rambam and the Brisker Rav can help Jews avoid becoming enamored of personality cults and parties that may compromise what they truly hold dear. They often do so by rationalizing to themselves that the ends justify the means: We’ve got to protect Jews, so we need to identify with whoever claims to be our protector.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 791)

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