What We Need Is a Brazen Type of Love

By | Jun 04, 2024
Avram Mlotek

As I approached my son’s daycare on the Upper West Side, a man called out to me shouting, “Shalom!”

“Shalom,” I replied, making a peace sign, and continued walking.

“Stop the genocide!” he proceeded, and when I kept walking, he continued to shout louder and louder.

“Tell your prime minister!” 

I didn’t tell him that as an American citizen I don’t vote in Israeli elections, but this man knew what he was really saying. 

Jew, tell your prime minister. 

Man with a trimmed beard, blue eyes, and short brown hair.As a rabbi who wears his kippah in public, I am no stranger to occasional harassment on the subway. Since the start of the Israeli-Hamas war, these encounters have increased in New York City.

At work, I was stopped by a private aide at a nursing home who asked me if I was “the Jewish rabbi who loves Israel,” and then berated me for not talking about how “Israel murders all the Palestinian babies.” When I engaged her on these comments, she denied Hamas’ butchery on October 7.

This kind of harassment should be unacceptable in the workplace and in the streets regardless of one’s political or religious affiliation. 

Unfortunately, it is the type of language that often slides under the radar of those Jews who find their place among those chanting for Palestinian liberation. Indeed, Palestinians deserve liberation and Israelis deserve new political leadership, but there seems to be no room for nuance in the political warfare in the streets or online. 

We need this brazen type of ahavas Yisroel, love of one’s fellow Jew, during such times of terror. 

Surely, the Jewish and ethical response demands we mourn and grieve for every innocent life lost, especially children. Protests against the current Israeli government or protests that are humanitarian focused are understandable and important. However, whatever the outcome of this current conflict, will we be able to say definitively that Jews have a right to live without persecution and terror in their own ancestral homeland? Anything less is antisemitic. We might demand a cease-fire, but to align with those that want an end to the Jewish state fuels the fire of Jew hatred.

I know there are those in the Jewish community who point to certain concepts from the past such as the Bund, the Jewish labor movement of Eastern Europe, as a viable example of a Jewish anti-Zionist movement. The Yiddish term doikayt, “hereness,” expressed the idea that Jews had a right to live wherever they dwelled and has been adopted today by those opposed to the Jewish state. This idea, however, never came at the exclusion of living in Israel. Indeed, there were Bundists living in Israel. More important, these current voices often forget the solidarity the Bund extended to traditional Jews, especially in times of crisis.

In 1936, Bund leader Vladimir Kossovsky wrote an article in the Yiddish language daily Naye Folkstaytung. He noted that although the Bund rejected all religious ceremonies, it opposed the government-proposed prohibition against Jewish ritual slaughter because that proposed prohibition both stood in opposition to the economic interests of the Jewish population and played into the hands of antisemites. 

Does standing in solidarity with those who shout “go back to Europe,” who paint swastikas, who seek the undoing of the Jewish state and the millions of residents who live there, with cries for Intifada not play into the hands of current antisemites? 

To my progressive family: I stood and marched with you demanding justice, wearing my kippah, as we rallied for women and for Black lives and broke bread at Iftar dinners. I have officiated wedding ceremonies for queer and same-sex couples, striving to be an ally to all those in their unique religious homes. I mourn and grieve for the loss of all innocent lives including Palestinians. I want an end to this brutal war that leaves Palestinians and Israelis free of Hamas’s fundamentalism.

Where is the concern for the fact that amid this painful Middle Eastern backdrop, the Syrian refugee crisis remains the world’s largest? That gay life and Jewish life are illegal under Hamas rule? Or that it is still physically dangerous for kippah-wearing Jews like myself to enter Arab lands? The human heart must remain flexible enough to hold an array of sufferings.

Today, when antisemites on the left and right revel in the Jewish people’s infighting and imagined demise, we might remember the Bundist self-defense groups. These groups came into effect in Czarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century to counter pogromists and defend Jews regardless of their observance levels or political persuasions. We need this brazen type of ahavas Yisroel, love of one’s fellow Jew, during such times of terror. 

For now, I will continue to wear my kippah, especially my pride-filled rainbow one, as I walk the streets of our large New York City shtetl, even if it attracts hateful remarks. I just wish that it didn’t feel like the hate was so often coming from those who ought to know better, whose voices I recognize. 

Avram Mlotek, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and noted Yiddish culturalists, is a rabbi, cantor, social worker and writer in New York City. 

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