Australia/Israel Review


The Last Word: Alone again, naturally?

May 31, 2024 | Rabbi Ralph Genende

How should Jewish people respond to the efforts to make all supporters of Israel into pariahs? (Image: Shutterstock)
How should Jewish people respond to the efforts to make all supporters of Israel into pariahs? (Image: Shutterstock)

In 1965, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a towering figure of 20th century Modern Orthodoxy, penned one of his most famous essays, “The Lonely Man of Faith.” In 2024, he could easily changed the essay’s title and thrust to “The Lonely Jew of Fate.” 

So many Jewish people across the world – from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, Mumbai to Melbourne – are suffering from a collective sense of acute isolation. We are bewildered by the torrent of antisemitism; fatigued by the hypocrisy and wilful ignorance of many governments and international bodies; confounded by the astonishing attacks on Jewish artists, philanthropists, businesses and academics; perplexed by the insidious intellectual dishonesty of so much of the liberal intelligentsia; dismayed by the toxic campaigns of protesters and distressed by how so many ordinary friends and colleagues have not reached out to us out of ignorance, fear, or apathy. 

We also feel let down by a great number of our political and religious leaders, not to mention other Jews who have been so quick to malign their own community – and not out of love. Some people of faith feel that God Himself has cold-shouldered us. 

One response to this existential angst is to affirm that this is part of our fate and destiny. After all, in biblical times the non-Jewish prophet Balaam asserted:

Israel is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations (Num. 23:9).

In Talmudic times the rabbis asserted: 

“Every generation rises up to destroy us.”

Indeed, some Israeli politicians – especially right-wing radicals – have a sense of pride in Israel’s growing pariah status, defiantly seeing it as the source of strength. They also argue, correctly, that Jews who turn against their community are not a new phenomenon; we have always had Jewish detractors, informers and apostates.

There is, however, another response that is more in keeping with the theme of another work by Rabbi Soloveitchik entitled In Aloneness, In Togetherness. 

You can choose to remain alone and isolated, feeling like you have no friends and that nothing you do will make any difference. This is the psychological phenomenon known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you define yourself as the people that is alone, that will be your fate. It is understandable that many Jews feel this way, after the failure of both European emancipation and communism to rescue us from our isolation and degradation, culminating in the conflagration of the Holocaust. 

However, this argument is self-defeating and potentially dangerous for the Jewish people and for the future of our homeland, Israel. It is a strategy, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested, that substitutes a ghetto of the mind for the ghetto of the street – an elitist strategy that makes no sense now in the diverse multi-faith and multicultural liberal democracies of the West. 

Even though the professional protesters and hateful masses may make us feel abandoned, we do still have many allies and probably a lot more friends than enemies. 

We have many supporters here in Australia and across the world. I hear their voices every day during my work in the wider community and in my interfaith and multicultural endeavours for AIJAC. We need to encourage them to stand together with us. We are not really alone. And the phrases about living alone and the inevitability of Jew-hatred are not really part of core Jewish theology, but result from a selective reading of it. To echo John Donne, no person – and no nation – is an island unto itself.

Some of our co-religionists may choose a segregationist lifestyle, insisting we are destined to live apart as a small sectarian splinter group. However, our great thinkers from Moses to Maimonides have taught that we should be prepared to stand alone to defend our moral code but also choose to be part of the world and embrace a Jewish role as ethical leaders. Despite recent blows, we need to continue to reach out to the world, share our voices and be a blessing to humanity.

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