The worst thing American Jews can do right now is hide
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Opinionguest columnist

The worst thing American Jews can do right now is hide

This is not a time to hide as Jews, to retreat from civic engagement or modify our religious observance.

A man wears a kippah at a gathering in Berlin to protest anti-Semitism. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
A man wears a kippah at a gathering in Berlin to protest anti-Semitism. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

This story originally appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, go to forward.com/newsletter-signup.

The leaders of my synagogue, Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, recently moved our Shabbat mincha service to an undisclosed location, out of fear that a pro-Palestinian demonstration taking place at a park just up the street from the synagogue might turn violent.

The protest of approximately 300 people, billed as “Black and Palestinian Solidarity for a Ceasefire this Christmas,” was ultimately peaceful.

I am a longtime member of the synagogue and attend services regularly. The shul leaders are not only friends of mine, but honorable, committed Jews, who are trying to make the best decisions possible for the well-being of their congregants.

And yet, their decision is an example of what not to do in these fraught times. Jews should not be backing down or hiding. We should be standing our ground, expecting and demanding that our rights be protected. This is a difficult time to be a Jew in Israel, in the U.S., in Europe and in the world. But if Jews cower, we will only make it more difficult.

I know from experience. I was one of the creators of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and have spent my academic and public career studying, teaching and memorializing the Holocaust. I have dedicated my life to the study of antisemitism. The protesters in Los Angeles succeeded in making Jews cower, retreat, withdraw and hide. This is exactly what not to do.

With its brutal massacre, rape, plunder, and hostage-taking, Hamas drove the Jews out of the Gaza envelope. Attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon drove the Israelis out of the northern cities of Metulla and Kiryat Shmona. These demonstrators drove Jews out of their synagogue in Pico-Robertson.

Evacuation of Israel’s south and far north is understandable, but why Olympic and La Cienega?

Did synagogue leadership believe that they did not have the capacity to keep their congregants safe? If so, increase security for a few hours. Talk to the Los Angeles Police Department, the Beverly Hills Police Department, the FBI and Homeland Security. Instead of responding with self-imposed powerlessness, they should have exerted some power.

The synagogue’s actions indicate a distrust of city officials to keep them safe, which is a bit surprising, given that the LA City Council Representative for Temple Beth Am’s district, Katy Young Yaroslavsky, is a proud and active member of Temple Beth Am. She attends services with her husband and her children who go to its schools. Our mayor, Karen Bass, has also condemned the Hamas attacks and explicitly given her support to the Los Angeles Jewish community.

History will recall that there was a time when the most responsible thing for Jewish leaders to do in Germany and in Eastern Europe was to tell their community to leave. Los Angeles in 2023 is emphatically not such a time. Despite the rise in antisemitic attacks since Oct. 7, it is not 1938.

This is not a time to hide as Jews, to retreat from civic engagement or modify our religious observance. Instead, it is a time to go out in public as proud, strong and defiant Jews. Tenacity and courage are required.

If we allow fear to dominate the Jewish community, the antisemites will have won. They will have reduced the presence of the Jewish community in the public arena and frightened us into self-imposed ghettos.

For millennia, Jews faced much more difficult conditions and much more vehement antisemitism around the world. They faced governments that were unresponsive to their needs, turned their backs when violence was directed at Jews and even joined the attackers in destroying Jewish life and property. Our Jewish ancestors lacked the protection of law and the guarantees of rights inherent in the Constitution as American Jews now enjoy, yet they did not cower. They continued to live and practice as Jews.

Black Lives Matter LA, the organizers of the Dec. 23 demonstration, deliberately chose a Shabbat afternoon and a Jewish neighborhood as their time and place, when observant Jews might be reluctant to hold a counter demonstration. There were other sites that could have been chosen, other locations more relevant to their announced cause of a cease-fire, such as the Federal Building or the Israeli Consulate, but it is their right to gather and protest where they choose.

Yet instead of being strong and continuing Shabbat worship as usual, synagogue leadership chose to avoid risk. In so doing, they abdicated their right to worship freely and without persecution.

One would have thought American Jews had learned something from the last century of Jewish history and our own legacy of political activism around social justice, Soviet Jewry and Israel. Most Jews believe that we have established our rights as Americans, and insist that our religious freedom be respected and protected.

Not all American Jews have cowered in this moment. In November, some 290,000 Jews demonstrated proudly in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall in support for Israel, in opposition to the brutality unleashed by Hamas on Oct. 7. They were unafraid to stand with Israel. Some Jews continue to wear a bracelet with the name of a hostage, others proudly put on a necklace which proclaims “Bring them home now!” Many walk to synagogue with a kippah, some wear a Star of David.

My grandparents and great-grandparents used to say in Yiddish: “Tis Schver t’zein a Yid” — It is hard to be a Jew. Hard as it was, they didn’t hide or retreat. They developed a thick enough skin to do what it took to live as a Jew. When it proved to be impossible to live as a Jew safely in Eastern Europe, they came to America or to the Land of Israel, and cherished its freedom and opportunity.

For the last 78 years, there were no limits on what Jews could accomplish in America, and few obstacles to such achievements. We felt free to live openly and proudly as Americans and as Jews.

Now that it seems more difficult to live as a Jew in the United States and even in Los Angeles, we can’t buckle and hide. Los Angeles is the city with the second-largest Jewish population in the United States and one of the largest in the world. If Jewish Los Angelenos are to tremble with fear, what are the Jews of smaller cities and towns to do?

This is not a time to take down mezuzahs, take off our Jewish stars or move our services out of shul to an undisclosed location.

It is written in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a time.” The requirement of this time is simple: Jews, be proud. PJC

Michael Berenbaum is a distinguished professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

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