Are Jewish Lives Worth Less Than Others?

Burt Siegel

Burt Siegel

In college, I worked for an organization then called the National Conference of Christians and Jews that brought together Black and white, Christian and Jewish teenagers and, alas, only two Muslim siblings, to learn about other people’s faiths and experiences.

I overoptimistically conducted a session devoted to the “Demise of Antisemitism and Anti-Catholic Prejudice.” I cited the end of anti-Catholic violence in the U.S., where attacks on churches and convents were once frequent, the election of Catholic John Kennedy as president, as well as the nationwide popularity of TV shows like “The Goldbergs” and obviously Jewish comedians like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

There were other positive signs, such as the elections of Jews to represent areas with small Jewish constituencies. Former U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas sometimes told audiences that there were more Jews in the room than there were in his congressional district. It was probably an exaggeration, but it was intended to make the point that the voters of Kansas didn’t care that he was Jewish.

Even the not always welcomed phenomenon of the increase in marriages between Jews and Christians was probably a positive indication that, unlike in the past, such a union did not typically result in the conversion of the Jewish partner.

In fact, it was often the opposite. Two of the most popular actresses in Hollywood converted to Judaism. Contrary to what is often believed, Elizabeth Taylor did not become Jewish to marry or to please her movie producer husband Mike Todd. She converted after his death.

Marilyn Monroe also converted and, like Taylor, there is no evidence that the Jewish men required or even desired their wives to embrace Judaism. The often-acerbic Miller hardly cared about his own Jewishness and apparently mocked his wife’s choice. Perhaps this indicated that these Jewish men looked upon being Jewish more negatively than did their non-Jewish partners.

And we cannot forget Sammy Davis Jr.’s decision to become Jewish, which might have been the most prominent conversion throughout Jewish history since the story of Ruth.

Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee came into being in the early part of the 20th century out of a very real threat to the safety and well-being of Jews, both here and abroad. But they evolved from what were called Jewish defense organizations into Jewish community relations organizations.

Their agendas became more universalistic. They eventually found time to advocate for equal pay for women, funding for public education, environmental protection and an overall agenda that was not all that distinctly Jewish but certainly reflected the values of the majority of American Jews.

I was an executive with the AJC in Philadelphia and in Atlanta and came back to Philadelphia to become part of the staff of the local Jewish Community Relations Council the week of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I retired 14 years ago as the last executive director of a once-independent agency after the local Jewish Federation determined that a significantly shrunken organization was adequate to serve the needs of our community.

By then, the physical safety of Jews very much moved to the back burner, and defending the interests of our community often meant making sure that Jews were allowed to stay home from work or school on Jewish holidays without penalty and that the education of the broader community about Israel was at least somewhat important.

While advocacy on behalf of Israel remained a component of JCRC’s agenda, few felt that the most horrid aspects of conflict between the Jewish state and her Arab neighbors ever threatened the safety and well-being of American Jews.

In recent weeks, however, most of us are no longer so sanguine.

Numerous colleagues who worked in the field of Jewish advocacy have shared their mounting anxiety and very real fear. Even before the recent murderous violence conducted by Hamas, incidents of verbal abuse, vandalism and actual violence directed against Jews had increased in recent years to the highest level ever recorded.

Surely, the ugly divisive rhetoric of the political right wing has made a major contribution to all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Jewish sentiments. But it is hard to imagine that American college students would ever enthusiastically join forces with those who wish to end the lives of any other people, as too many have regarding Jews.

This is certainly not to suggest that large numbers of our fellow Americans are now coming out of the closet as Jew haters. The research data indicates that, by far, most Americans look upon Jews and Judaism favorably and we should remain aware of that, but still …
As a lifelong liberal, I can’t help but wonder why there have been few on the far left rallying on behalf of the Ukrainian people, who were attacked by Russia with no provocation, nor has there been any sympathy extended to the innocent dead Russian civilians caused by Ukrainian retaliation? Both sides have experienced tremendous losses of lives.

Are dead Palestinians more dead than dead Slavs? Yes, the fact that Palestinian children have died in Israeli bombardments of Gaza is deeply disturbing. But where are the demands by artists and intellectuals that a cease-fire be put in force at once in the much longer-lasting warfare between the Russians and Ukrainians? And where are the calls for Palestinians to demand that Hamas never attack civilians on their behalf again?

I was heavily involved in exposing the genocidal attacks against the people of Darfur in Sudan. Those who followed these events closely will recall that the Arab ethnic Sudanese government encouraged racist feelings against the dark-skinned people of Darfur, but this hardly engendered a reaction from most of the “woke” community. I recall reading an accusation that the effort to expose the Sudanese atrocities visited upon the Darfuris was manipulated by Jews and Israel.

And, of course, too many so-called progressive people seem to have forgotten the slaughter of more than 1,000 Jews by Muslim thugs repeating the crimes of the Cossacks and the Nazis who felt that we Jews didn’t deserve to live.

Sadly enough, this sort of moral hypocrisy is hardly new. For an outstanding expose of the bizarre pattern of either ignoring Jewish pain or justifying it, I urge the book “Jews Don’t Count” by David Baddiel.

In closing, I beg of you to not follow the advice of removing a mezuzah from your doorpost or to not wear anything that defines you as a Jew. Too many of our people have paid the ultimate price for committing the “sin” of being Jewish. To hide who we are only profanes their memory, and this would be the true sin.

Burt Siegel served the Jewish Community Relations Council for more than 30 years, has taught college classes on antisemitism and was engaged by the Israeli Consulate to assist with advocacy for religious and political leadership.


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