There are so many what ifs that can be posed given the history of Jewish activism — or more accurately the lack thereof — in the face of anti-Semitism.
What if, in the 1930s, Jews had protested at the White House demanding more help from the Roosevelt administration and higher quotas for Jewish immigrants, especially children?
What if Jews had launched a boycott of the Ford Motor Co. when its founder, Henry Ford, published his anti-Semitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, and promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
What if Jews had taken to the streets to picket the United Nations after it adopted a resolution that Zionism equals racism and took many other anti-Israel, anti-Jewish actions?
What if Jews had applied high-profile public pressure on the Catholic Church to force it to take Father Charles Coughlin, the World War II radio priest, off the air given his virulent anti-Semitic messages?
What if … what if … there are so many of these that can be posed given the history of Jewish activism — or more accurately the lack thereof — in the face of anti-Semitism.
It is important to dissect these issues because Jews in general, to this day, have never learned that anti-Semitism — all bigotry, racism, xenophobia — can only be defeated by strong confrontations.
We have never done so historically, and we don’t do so even today. We frown on tactics such as pickets, boycotts and public condemnation, no matter how virulently we are attacked.
For instance, even in the ’30s, leaders like Hillel Kook (also known as Peter Bergson), a Zionist political activist, and the playwright Ben Hecht, among others, were ostracized from mainstream Jewish organizations for their “unacceptable” political activism in trying to call attention to the Holocaust.
They organized mass meetings at Madison Square Garden in New York and placed ads in major newspapers, only to be condemned by more “moderate” Jewish activists.
In more recent years, when Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss took to the streets for various Jewish causes, he was, basically, shunned and ignored by the mainstream Jewish body politic.
We seemed to have learned little in our long history of fighting anti-Semitism and xenophobia through the ages.
Consider the present atmosphere, which is witnessing a troubling increase in anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently reported that the American Jewish community experienced the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents last year since tracking began in 1979.
Right-wing conspiracy theories are claiming on internet sites that George Soros, the liberal billionaire and Holocaust survivor, is funding the protests against police brutality. President Trump has stoked anti-Semitism and Rudy Giuliani, a strong Trump ally, retweeted a message calling Soros an “anti-Christ.”
The internet is awash with anti-Semitism, and NPR reported that Israeli researchers have tracked a global trend of anti-Semitic hate speech blaming Jews and Israelis for the coronavirus.
It has all been met by silence.
The irony is that, to our credit, we always have helped others. In the 1960s, we went to the South in droves to help Black people in their civil rights battle. We assisted labor unions, the LBGT community, women — and now Jewish organizations and individuals are joining tens of thousands to demand action against institutional racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death.
When Black people, union leaders, gay rights activists and other minorities fight for their rights, they are labeled “liberals.” When Jews confront anti-Semitism and take controversial positions and promote activism they are labeled “conservatives,” and the characterization is not meant to be positive.
Why not launch a major high-profile campaign to force Facebook, Twitter, et al, to enact more controls to stem anti-Semitism and hate speech? Why not call for a boycott of rapper Ice Cube’s music in light of his recent anti-Semitic tweets? We do not have to reinvent the wheel; all we have to do is adapt the playbook from other minorities.
Overall, the response for stronger resistance is generally met with arguments that “it will be counterproductive and do more harm than good.” Well, it did not do more harm for others who have suffered from racism, bigotry and humiliation.
The Black community learned this lesson with the Civil Rights movement. Guided by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black leaders, they learned how to bring about change and to make racists come to grips for their bigotry.
Dr. King heard the same complaints; fortunately, he did not listen. He understood what was required to promote change.
We generally are content with writing letters to the editor, issuing press releases, holding conferences to “build bridges.”
Activism not only produces results, but it also gives a warning to other bigots that they will pay a price for their hatred.
Although Rabbi Hillel the Elder’s quote on this issue has almost become a cliché, repeating it one more time won’t hurt: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Berl Falbaum is a West Bloomfield veteran political journalist and author of 11 books, including Not One Normal Day, Trumpedia: A Tome of Scandal, Lies, Corruption and Much More.