By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
I just returned home from another amazing trip to Israel with renewed personal and spiritual perspective. It was a trip like none other. This was due to a variety of personal circumstances and experiences, including long-overdue quality time with relatives and our granddaughter’s amazing first trip to Israel as part of her bat mitzvah experience.
One of my favorite activities when visiting Israel has always been early-morning walks through the iconic Rova in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.
While walking through those narrow golden passageways, one can’t help but enjoy the fragrant air of the Jewish Quarter permeated with a unique sweet aroma of Israeli spices, delicacies, and freshly baked breads. These early morning senses are heightened by the beautiful sights and sounds of children playing in the narrow walkways, parents pushing and pulling strollers on shiny Jerusalem cobblestone, and people, young and older, shopping for morning groceries, while others sprint to work, to minyanim, to the Kotel, or to a shiur/lecture in the Jewish Quarter.
As I was walking, I reflected upon the wonderment and historical significance of this location. After all, this was Yerushalayim, the epicenter of the Jewish world, the very place where the first and second Beis HaMikdash stood for centuries before their destruction; where Abraham forged his covenant with G-d through the binding of his son Isaac; and finally, the ancient holy city that experienced the ravages and scars of war, violence, and liberation. The fact that it was just prior to Shivah Asar B’Tammuz (the beginning of the “Three Weeks”), added tremendously to my sense of renewed purpose and reflection.
During my walk through the Rova, on my way to the Kotel, I could not help but think about the article I read on an international news website the night before at my hotel. The headline read “Increased Anti-Semitism World-Wide—On The Rise.” The title of the article still resonates with me as I write this. Struck and absorbed by the article, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. It was a frightening disconnect. Here I was, in Yerushalyim, enveloped in a beautiful environment of holiness, goodness, relative peace, and calm. Yet, the stark contrast was beyond disheartening—Jewish communities around the world experiencing increased acts of antisemitism in the year 2019 seemed almost enigmatic if not unfathomable. Some folks refer to this frightening phenomenon as the “new normal.” In reality, there is nothing normal about it. It was not normal 75 years ago and it’s definitely not normal today! To be sure, the recent acts of antisemitism and racial hatred and discrimination represent a cloaked societal pathology which has now morphed into a season of frenzied, unabashed hatred.
As I approached the Kotel in order to join a minyan, I noticed an elderly gentleman slowly wrapping tefillin on his left arm. His motions were slow, deliberate, and purposeful, as if cherishing each moment of the experience. While observing the gentleman from the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice a tattooed number engraved on his arm — an all-too-familiar indication that he was a Holocaust survivor — one of the many survivors who are now dwindling in numbers. It was, again, a stark reminder that the price he and millions of others paid at the hands of the Nazis will never be in vain.
Then, a sight I will never, ever forget. Standing next to the man was a young boy. Based on his height and appearance, he most likely just became or will shortly become a bar mitzvah. The man, who may have been the boy’s grandfather or perhaps a close friend or family member, was helping the young boy with his tefillin. You could see a proud and beaming smile on the elderly gentleman’s face as he was helping the boy navigate the tefillin-wrapping on his arm and forehead. It was an expression of surrealistic proportion; a smile that spoke volumes and one which had profound significance — a survivor’s delight and joy in passing down our rich mesorah to the next generation. It was as if he survived the horrors of the Holocaust in order to reach this very day at the Kotel. It was a proud moment for this man, and, in a way, a proud day for the Jewish people and for Am Yisrael.
As I completed my tefillot, I started to look for the man and young boy. I wanted desperately to speak with them in order to appreciate their backstory and to wish them both well. But they had left the place they were previously standing and were gone from sight.
As I began exiting the Kotel plaza, the confluence of emotions was beyond overwhelming. My emotions welled up inside of me in ways I never felt before. I had images of this elderly gentleman as a child, as a frightened, grief-stricken young man who must have experienced the worst nightmares imaginable. Who knows if he ever had the opportunity to put on tefillin as a child or experience the warm smile, touch, or embrace of a parent on the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah? These are questions which will go unanswered, just as the millions of other stories that were never told, shared, or celebrated.
Here we are today — Summer 2019 — in Yerushalayim, at the Kotel, celebrating life, the beauty of Judaism, and bearing witness to the fact that we will always endure the ill-will of our enemies, an endurance which has enabled us to survive, grow, and flourish as a community and as a Jewish State. This is a reality we should never, ever forget and a reality that is once again being threatened by forces which must be challenged and confronted in the strongest sense.
Following this brief moment of emotional reflection while leaving the Kotel plaza, I began thinking long and hard about how the article I read last night at the hotel chronicled the proliferation of anti-Semitic acts now taking place in the United States, Canada, and in Europe; Echoing in my mind was a phrase I used to hear my father, z’l, say quite often when I was a child — “it can happen here” — a phrase I always thought I understood, but was too young and immature to fully comprehend; a phrase that engenders more realism and relevance today than ever before since the end of World War II.
Over the past year, we have witnessed an increased spread of violent antisemitic acts in the United States, Canada, and Europe unsurpassed in recent history. This does not include the daily reports of horrendous acts of unabashed racial hatred exacerbated by recent anti-Semitic and nationalist rhetoric, hate speech, editorials, essays, political cartoons, and social media. And the list goes on and on. Shootings in our synagogues and our neighborhood streets, bomb threats, violent muggings and beatings, hate-mongering by pro-Nazi white supremacists and nationalists; and vulgar BDS messaging by elected officials and public figures all have a cumulative effect on the complex demonic albatross of racial and religious hatred growing daily, right before our eyes.
It is beyond disbelief that the frightening antisemitic and racist trends that we are now experiencing around the world sadly parallel the horrendous events of pre-Nazi Germany, leading up to the Holocaust. This is no exaggeration. The Jewish community is experiencing an all-too-familiar frightening and ugly chapter in our history.
So, in light of these realities, what should our response be as American citizens, as a civilized people, and as a democracy? What is our response as Jews living in the Diaspora, as we remember that our brothers and sisters were paraded into death camps like sheep to their slaughter while the world, including the United States, was completely silent?
Moving forward, the organized Jewish community must mobilize itself in order to combat this growing cancer that is metastasizing in our communities. Articles, position papers, political pronouncements, speeches, and press releases are important, but not enough. We must engage in a decisive course of action. We can no longer sit idly as we and our brothers and sisters around the country and abroad are under attack. We must leave our artificial “comfort zones” and challenge this status quo, like never before. This is bigger than any one organization and far more important than the politician who is seeking airtime or facetime during an election year.
Several thoughts regarding a coordinated response may include:
• Holding elected officials accountable and responsible to take decisive and forceful action against acts of antisemitism and racial hatred;
• Launching an extensive and comprehensive anti-racism marketing (media) campaign through print and digital media markets and platforms;
• The boycotting and public exposure of any public or private entity which supports, promotes, or encourages BDS. This includes financial markets, the entertainment and news industry, the arts, the scientific and business community, and academia;
• The establishment of organized and well-funded anti-hate watch groups that will publicly (or clandestinely) inform and work closely with the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. Let’s expand the “if you see something” campaign into “If you hear something, say something”;
• The creation and dissemination of engaging and meaningful curricular material for our schools in order to heighten teacher, parent, and student consciousness and awareness on the middle school, high school, and college/university campuses;
• The intensification, coordination, and promotion of anti-BDS rallies and peaceful demonstrations on college campuses; and incentivizing pro-Israel advocacy initiatives via grants, awards, stipends, and public recognition;
• The formation of “Citizens for Racial and Ethnic Civility” which will catalyze and promote respect, tolerance, and peaceful dialogue in our communities;
• The creation of a National Teen Leadership Summit and think tank in order to motivate and encourage teens to help combat antisemitic rhetoric and acts of racial discrimination and violent aggression;
• The establishment of International Jewish Community Crisis Intervention Centers (G-d forbid it should be needed) composed of volunteers and professionals trained in mental health, transportation logistics, as well as rescue and relief. These regional centers will have the capacity to be mobilized within hours to assist Jewish communities in crisis throughout the world (to be coordinated in partnership with other organizations and governmental agencies);
• The mandatory provision of security audits for all Jewish institutions, which must include lockdown drills, surveillance, and tactical responses to acts of antisemitism and terrorism;
In addition to the above suggestions, to name a few, it is imperative that we cross all denominational, political, and partisan lines and barriers in order to create a unified front — including the across-the-board banning of combat firearms (except for law-enforcement agencies), the creation of more stringent assault-gun laws; the harsh penalty for any hate or racially motivated crime; the red-flagging of hate speech and web-based racially inflammatory comments, remarks, or positions.
As a civilized people, we can do it, and we must do it. We are inherently a kind, caring, and passionate people. We must be steadfast in our conviction that antisemitism will not stand under any circumstance.
If we are indeed an ohr l’goyim (a light unto the nations) and an Am Kadosh (a holy people), it is our duty and obligation to ensure a safe, respectful, and healthy community for our families.
Let’s do it for them, for ourselves, and for those who sacrificed so much for so many. Finally, let’s do it for that “elderly gentleman at the Kotel” with his bright, beautiful smile of joy, simcha, and pride.
Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is the principal of the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, Florida. He is the founding partner of LEV Consulting Associates, specializing in strategic planning and leadership training and development.