Hours after I posted my “Chanukah Thoughts,” tragedy struck. As I was considering the lessons of Chanukah, the persistent resistance to oppression and the collective action of Tikkun Olam, tragedy struck in two ways, intellectually and violently, and in two different milieus, the newspaper of record and a rabbi’s home in Monsey, NY. The rabbi’s house just 3 miles from the house where I spent my earliest childhood years in neighboring Spring Valley.
The intellectual tragedy was that the NY Times Opinion editor chose to publish a racist eugenicist screed written by conservative commentator Bret Stephens. In it (and no, I won’t link to such drivel) Stephens asserts that Ashkenazi Jewish are better thinkers than other races and ethnicities because they “think different;” that their tradition of debate and discussion of Torah and Talmud – as well as a genetic proclivity cited in a 2005 pseudo-scientific study of IQ testing, later removed by the editor – causes the group, a group to which I proudly belong, to count more “geniuses” among their numbers than other groups. I was so appalled that, while still in my pajamas, I dashed off the following letter to the editors of the NY Times, unlikely to ever see the light of day in the newspaper of record, but available now on social media platforms like this:
Nothing breeds antisemitism quite like false claims of Jewish superiority. Bret Stephens’s recent column will do much more harm than good and you should not have published it.
Where I work, in a minority serving institution where Jews are few and far between, I regularly see students who are the first in their families to go to college soar to intellectual and artistic heights (often while juggling two jobs and supporting a family). While I appreciate the Jewish tradition of questioning and discussion, the abilities of the boys and men in the yeshiva to do so were privileged by and because of the hard work of the women at home, women like my own grandmothers and great grandmothers. Study was a privilege, one that is now shared by millions of students of all races, religions, and ethnicities thanks to public higher education. When we all (men, women, Jews, gentiles, Whites, and People of Color) have access to quality public education, then we’ll all have, to use Bret Stephens’s metaphor, a soccer ball of our own.
The second tragedy is the sadly logical outcome of antisemitism: the murder or attempted murder of Jews because we are, somehow, different. Genetically, we are not any more different than you, dear reader, are from your neighbor, whether of the same race or ethnicity or not. A 37 year old man searched “German Jewish temples near me” and “why did Hitler hate the Jews,” before breaking into the home of an orthodox Hasidic rabbi and stabbing the family there, gathered to celebrate the lighting of the Chanukah candles. While there is no obvious causal relationship between the Stephens column and the hideous act of violence in Monsey, there is at minimum a correlative link between the rhetoric of hate in our current time and the increase in hate crimes against Jews, Blacks, and other people of color or minority religions.
It is the tradition of debate, discussion, and questioning that keeps me marginally interested in Judaism (as well as all the greasy, fattening holiday foods (e.g. latkes) that I grew up with). Questioning can itself be a form of resistance to oppression, and we must never stop questioning why someone would stab a family of Jews lighting candles, why the NY Times editors would publish and reference the work of eugenicists, or why the current regime is insistent on reducing access to healthcare (e.g., the decimation of the ACA) or food stamps (e.g. changes to TANF rules). To repair the world, our shared “temple,” we must work together with love and not hate, in the spirit of togetherness rather than difference.