Now Is the Time for American-Jewish Fearlessness

Friends told me that rabbis of even Orthodox congregations are advising their communities that they need not wear yarmulkes in the street as they walk to shul. Others have told me stories of women hiding Magen Davids.

Yes, I know I know. Jews are being beaten in the streets of New York, assaulted in Toronto, and terrorized in Los Angeles.

Sadly, for me, none of this particularly new. I spent 11 years as rabbi to the students of Oxford University. I traveled all over Europe, where Jews are becoming a secret society, afraid to display their Jewishness in the open. We just never believed that it could happen here in the United States.

Less so did we ever believe that a man like Aaron Keyak, who served as President Joe Biden’s Jewish liaison during his campaign, would tweet, “It pains me to say this, but if you fear for your life or physical safety take off your kippa and hide your Magen David.” Yes, an adviser to the president is reminding Jews that they are utterly powerless, and that even the most powerful man on earth cannot help them.

Truth be told, I could not disagree with him more.

Now more than ever, we need public displays of Jewish identity and Jewish pride.

A few years ago I visited Paris with my wife Debbie. As we bought tickets to the Musee’ d’Orsay, the woman selling us the ticket asked my wife to cover her Magen David. We were aghast. She protested. “No, please, I don’t hate Jews. Quite the contrary. I love them, which is why I want to protect you. Please hide it so you don’t get hurt.”

Here was a woman, working at the second most famous museum in Paris and the leading museum of French modern art in the entire world, telling us that Jews were going to be assaulted even in her museum. She may have had the best of intentions, but her words were a searing indictment of modern France. Forget the fact that it spoke to the French Republic’s intolerance. More importantly, it spoke to its impotence. It could not even protect people in its cultural epicenters?

Is that going to happen in the United States? Will the most powerful country in the world succumb to thuggery? Will the Jewish community surrender to antisemitism? Will we teach our kids to cower in fear?

I would say to Aaron Keyak, “Would you have ever advised a Muslim woman to take off her hijab to be safe? Would tell a Sikh to take off his turban? Would you have ever had the nerve to advise an American Christian to hide his cross? And if not, why the heck would you tell the Jews to hide their yarmulkes?”

NO, MY friends, precisely the opposite is true. Now is the time to wear our tzitzis out, to wear your kippas proudly, and to fly American and Israeli flags outside our homes. Now is the time to show courage and fearlessness. Not only so that young Jews can take great pride in who they are in and the righteous democracy that Israel is, but so that America remain the land of the free and the home of the brave.

How free are we if we have to hide our Jewishness? How brave our we if we teach our kids to cover their kippas with baseball caps? How free are we if the moment we leave our homes we hide whom we are?

I’m writing this column on Memorial Day. Yes, I know. We Americans have utterly desecrated Memorial Day as the mattress-sale day. Yes, there is nothing wrong with having a BBQ or going to the beach on the “unofficial start of summer.” But it would be nice if Memorial Day USA had something of the way the State of Israel commemorates it, with visits to military cemeteries and just a little bit of somberness, reflecting the sacrifices of millions who have died so we can be free.

I posted a picture of my recent visit to the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, where I have been many times and where I was last on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I thought of the greatest generation who fought and died to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. They would turn over in their hallowed graves if they heard that amid their sacrifice in Europe, Jews were now cowering in fear in the United States.

Now is the time for the Jewish community to march for our rights. We need a rally in Washington, DC, with tens of thousands showing up to say, “We’re not going to take this garbage any more.” We’re not going to watch Jews murdered in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway. We’re not going to watch Jews beaten to a pulp in Times Square. We’re not going to witness synagogues desecrated in Los Angeles. We’re fully American. We’re fully human. And we fully demand our rights.

It speaks volumes that when our black American brothers and sisters watch a man murdered by a bad cop – and most cops are heroes – in Minnesota, they march in their millions through the streets of our nation, with so many emboldened by their refusal to put up with discrimination any more.

And the Jews? Oh yes, we rallied as well. After all the recent attacks in New York, our mainstream organization got together last Thursday and staged – get ready for this – an online rally! Yes, an online rally. Which would be comical if it were not so pathetic.

On 14 June I am launching my new book, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, which chronicles how in the summer of 2017 I took my kids on a journey to the major Holocaust extermination and concentration sites of Europe: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, France, and more. The journey started in Berlin where, as we arrived in Tegel Airport, a security guard walked over to me to plead that I remove my young sons’ yarmulkes so that they would not get hurt.

Yes, we had arrived to commemorate the martyrdom of the six million only to be told that in Europe the hatred had not abated.

But America is different. It was always different. The pilgrims came here to escape Europe’s religious persecution and intolerance. Enshrined in our constitution is the freedom to worship as we are and to express ourselves as we please.

We disgrace our Jewishness by suppressing it. And we dishonor America by hiding it.

Now is the time for a fierce generation of Jewish Americans who walk tall with yarmulkes on their heads, who stand proud with Magen Davids, and who stand public with Israel, the only free American-style democracy in all the Middle East.