What does the phrase “Never Again” mean to you? And what should it mean to Jews living in the United States in 2020?
In light of recent acts of anti-Semitic violence in such places as Poway, Monsey, and of course Pittsburgh, this question looms large. When considering these questions, it behooves us to acknowledge that the historical impetus for this phrase — a fully operational policy of eliminationist anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany — thankfully no longer exists in the world today.
Notwithstanding the disturbing frequency of recent attacks, our society bears little resemblance to pre-war Germany, a society that seethed with racially motivated hatred toward Jews cultivated through hundreds of years of immersive religious and cultural anti-Semitism. Germans enthusiastically elevated Adolph Hitler to power in 1933 through democratically held elections well after his views toward Jews were widely known, and subsequently volunteered by the millions, in both military and civilian capacities, to help turn his genocidal aspirations into a reality. (The fact that a troubling number of young people today erroneously believe that Hitler seized political power by force and unilaterally imposed his murderous agenda on an unknowing citizenry is a whole other issue.)
In striking contrast, today’s anti-Semitic perpetrators are met with immediate and universal condemnation by citizens and political leaders alike (one of the few issues Democrats and Republicans can agree on), and they are ostracized as “fringe” elements deserving the harshest punishment allowed under law. Indeed, if anything, these attacks have resulted in calls to change the law to allow for even greater punishment, in the form of enhanced sentences under proposed hate crime legislation.
Thus, as disturbing as these attacks may be, the fact remains that today’s Jews — especially those living in the U.S. — enjoy a level of freedom and security that precious few of our ancestors during the last 1,500 years could have dreamed of.
So, what does “Never Again” mean for us today? First and foremost, it remains a clarion call, as it was 75 years ago, to guard against a society like pre-war Germany from ever surfacing again. But recent events now dictate that it take on an additional meaning: to purge forever the identity of weakness and vulnerability that we have allowed to become associated with our religious communities, creating an environment in which violent attacks often take place with impunity.
For far too long, Jews when confronted with acts of violence have simply taken it, doing little more that reverting back to our all too familiar “victim” status, lamenting these abhorrent acts as reflective of our preordained destiny (“It’s happening to us again … ”). Our only recourse: relying on the efficacy of law enforcement and sympathetic politicians to protect us.
This must change. The time has come to protect ourselves. Those who would seek to do us harm, who view Jews as easy targets, equating yarmulkes, payot and tefillin with weakness and vulnerability, must be taught otherwise. This can only be done through displays of physical force equal to that which would be levied against us.
It will require preparation, professional training and armed self-defense when necessary, and must be organized in our communities and carried out in conjunction with local law enforcement. And while these efforts will not be easy, it has been done before (under far worse circumstances).
To readers who find this admonition discordant or unsettling (“We’re Jews, what do we know of fighting and weapons and self-defense?”), keep in mind that as long as we view ourselves through a lens of vulnerability and helplessness, this is where we will remain. Must we always place our safety and security in the hands of, and at the mercy of others, be they our elected representatives, the police or our attackers? When is enough enough?
The time has come for Jews to realize, finally and forever, as our Israeli brothers and sisters have for the last 70 years, that our future need not be defined by a tragic past, but rather by an identity imbued with strength and self-determination. Any other mindset must be banished forever. pjc
Mitchell Bober is an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh.