2016-06-30
Reprinted from SocialAction.com, a member of the Jewz.com network.

On Simchat Torah, in the noisy bustle of services at the Conservative shul down the street from my mother's house, the rabbi announces that because of the war, we will not go out of the building this year to dance in the street with the Torah scrolls. We're still going to rejoice, she assures us, and we do, singing and dancing and carrying the scrolls around the sanctuary. The children run wild, carrying their little stuffed-toy Torahs. Parents and grandparents carry their children in the hakafot, the circle dancing, following the scrolls; the kids are just as precious, just as colorfully dressed.

Something's missing, though. With each hakafah we would ordinarily be running out into the street to dance, carrying the scrolls in a procession that becomes a whirling spiral of dancers, shouting the words of old songs to the just-past-full moon. Men would be hoisting friends carrying the scrolls onto their shoulders, still dancing, and the rabbi would have to come out after ten or fifteen minutes and plead with everyone to come back in, just for a while, until we finish the next part of the service.


While the American people charges forth to assert its cultural identity, my community automatically pulls back a little.
While kids eat chocolate bars and adults hand Dixie cups of whiskey up and down the aisles, and the prayers go on, we quietly discuss the possible reasons for staying inside. Opinion is divided: is it a safety issue, or a matter of not rejoicing too publicly while the nation is in mourning? Are we afraid of a nut with a gun in the dark, or are we afraid that our singing in a foreign language, our wild dancing, is too exotic, too un-American, too reminiscent of the rejoicing of bin Laden's supporters that our neighbors have watched on television?

Who are we afraid of?

The return of major-league sports and all their accompanying merrymaking was greeted as a national act of courage. The Thanksgiving Day parade is not going to be called off, nor are they going to cancel Christmas this year. But while "the American people" charges forth to assert its cultural identity, my community automatically pulls back a little. We know that we are a little too "other", and never too safe. An interfaith service can be seen as an American triumph, but tonight, when we are not entertaining guests, we stay discreetly indoors even as we sing "Adon Olam" to the tune of "God Bless America".

We're not talking about this, though, and neither is anyone else. Sifting through newspapers and websites, community gossip and announcements from the bimah, I see how the same racist backlash that has been directed at Muslim, Arab, Pakistani, Indian, and even Latino and Native American communities in the U.S. is aimed at Jews as well. But as a community we are not discussing it, and Jewish issues are being completely excluded from those forums that are discussing responses to post-September 11 racism.

Three weeks ago, a Jewish man was prevented from boarding a commercial flight at the pilot's request. A few days ago, a plane was diverted and grounded out of fear of two Middle Eastern men "speaking a language other than English"--two Orthodox Jews praying during the flight. Jews who look too Semitic--in particular, Mizrachim, Jews of eastern descent-- are being hassled on the streets and in their workplaces.

There's been a synagogue arson with accompanying graffiti and bomb threats in Tacoma, WA, and several incidents of anti-Semitic leafleting. A New York radio show suggested that Jews should be asked to declare their loyalty either to America or Israel. There was an assault at UC Berkeley Hillel's Simchat Torah celebration. And these are just the few incidents I happen to know about, because, as I said, we're not discussing this, or what it means for us, the American Jewish community, in this frightening time.

Why not? As usually happens, I think American Jews are uneasy about drawing attention to ourselves. And we know we don't have natural allies in demanding that anti-Semitic backlash be addressed. The American mainstream asks, often overtly, that we be "like everyone else" in this time of national crisis, The anti-racism forums and rallies that have sprung up often have an explicitly anti-Israel agenda. Jewish organizations are not appearing on their coalition lists, and Jewish issues are not going to be brought up.

We are afraid that we're going to be blamed. This is already happening, but we're hoping that it won't get any worse. One of the most persistent myths to spring up in the wake of the terrorist attacks is the nasty rumor that Mossad warned 4,000 Jewish workers at the World Trade Center not to go in to work on the morning of the 11th.

Ludicrous, yes. But so is the story about the girl whose terrorist boyfriend warned her not to go to the mall on Halloween. Both are being believed. (And the missing 4,000 are, for some reason being classed in the media with the nutty stories about Satan's facein the smoke, rather than the reporting on racist backlash.)

The story of the missing 4,000 was forwarded to me as part of an article about the current belief in the Middle East that Mossad engineered the hijackings. The woman who sent it to me, someone I once trusted, added that she thought the American media ought to give more time to "alternate theories" like this. At a moment when patriotism is being exalted as a prime virtue, we are accused of escaping harm by aiding the enemy. Have I heard this story somewhere before? And the peace activists aren't going to address anti-Semitism either; it might confuse their point about U.S. foreign policy in Israel.

Late on Simchat Torah night, I pass three young women walking home from synagogue with at least eight children between them. The women's hair is covered with bright scarves, the little boys wear big embroidered yarmulkes. Most are dark, all have that classically Jewish face that is also a classically Arab face. I say "Chag Sameach", a little girl makes a funny face at me, we pass by each other.

The neighborhood is fairly safe, and they probably live nearby, so I trust that they will be all right this evening. But I see the covered hair, the modest clothes, the exotic headgear on the children, and for a moment I realize that to a bigot stupid enough to attack Sikhs and Arabs in America's name, they too look Middle Eastern, foreign...terrorist. I'm afraid for them, and for myself.

Jews and Americans. We cry for our country, but we hide our celebrations indoors, and hide our fears from one another. In the middle of a nation in fear and turmoil, in an uncertain world, we can't agree to be the missing faces at the table. We need to support one another, and demand support from others. We need to be able to call the hate directed at us by name so we can fight it. Without that, we have nowhere to begin to build a world where next year we can go out to dance in the streets again.

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