By Benjamin Kerstein
Recently, and at long last, the antisemite who has been vandalizing my family’s business in a Jewish suburb of Boston for nearly a year was caught.
My family owns a small store that sells, among other things, Israeli products. A sign hung from the store’s awning advertises this fact. Over the past year, this sign was repeatedly stolen, torn down and defaced by an unknown racist. Finally tired of replacing it, my family installed security cameras. The next time it happened, the criminal’s face and license plate were captured as he committed the crime, and the police tracked him down.
The self-righteous fiend told the police that his crimes were justified because he found the sign “extremely offensive.” The police were forced to inform him that this did not entitle him to break the law. The question now before us is what the next step will be.
The police want to settle things privately, with the criminal paying some kind of restitution. My father wants compensation paid, but also wants to meet with the criminal and require him to attend an educational course given by a group like the Anti-Defamation League. He feels that an overly punitive reaction may only intensify the criminal’s antisemitism.
I, on the other hand, want the criminal prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law. (In my darker moments, I also want to see his legs broken in multiple places with a baseball bat, preferably wielded by myself.)
For the most part, however, this entire ordeal has forced me to recognize a gaping divide between me and the rest of my family on the issue of antisemitism in general. A divide that, I believe, may be emblematic of a larger divide within the Jewish community itself.
I have lived in Israel for 20 years. I am a Zionist and make no apologies for it. I believe that when faced with racism and/or violence, the Jews should respond in the most punitive manner available in order to achieve justice and create deterrence. I do not believe antisemites can be educated, changed or cured. They won’t stop unless they are stopped — until they are made to understand that the cost of hating the Jews is higher than its sadistic benefits.
Even more telling is the emotional divide between me and the rest of my family. They appear to be inclined toward something like magnanimity, while I am comfortable with the fact that I hate those who hate the Jews. I have never met the criminal himself, and I do not care to. But I hate this person. Hate him. My family, perhaps to their credit, does not.
My family are American Jews. For the most part, they have always lived in America. And I think that their attitude is emblematic of that of the vast majority of American Jews. They believe that antisemitism can be fought by nonpunitive means — education, reconciliation and dialogue. They believe that antisemitic incidents should be dealt with in a moderate and measured way.
When one of my father’s friends compared the vandalism to Kristallnacht, my father felt he was going a bit far. The rest of my family has not said as much, but I sense that they would agree with this. They don’t feel the sense of urgency that I do.
I am fully prepared to admit that they may be right. Perhaps it’s better not to overreact. Perhaps my reaction is somewhat hysterical. Perhaps our long history of persecution has fostered a certain paranoia among the Jews, which causes us to exaggerate and overstate what may simply be the random acts of distasteful individuals. Perhaps America really is different, the Jews are relatively safe there and we must be aware of this in dealing with the small amount of American antisemitism that does exist. And perhaps education, reconciliation and dialogue are indeed better than stern justice.
Moreover, the police acted promptly and effectively to the vandalism, and are trying to arrange some kind of relatively painless solution to the issue. The protection of the law, in this case, appears to have worked. Perhaps it is better to let it go.
Perhaps. But for myself, I can only see the gaping divide between us. And this divide, above all, frightens me. It frightens me because I am painfully aware of certain facts: A terrifying percentage of the progressive left and the Muslim-American community holds antisemitic attitudes and is prepared to act on them. And antisemitic violence, if not checked, always escalates, as it did last May, when Muslim-American and pro-Palestinian thugs attacked Jews across the United States. To me, this criminal and his vandalism were not an aberration — they are the new normal. And this normal has now struck frighteningly close to home.
I also know that, perhaps when Israel fights its next war, it will happen again. And this time, it will likely be much worse. There is a very good chance that it will end in a murder — perhaps many murders — and I fear that the attitude taken by most American Jews cannot stop such a terrible eventuality. I also know that, when this happens, my family will be vulnerable to such violence, and so will the entire American Jewish community.
This is because the police, however well-meaning they may be (and they are), cannot be everywhere and cannot act until the thing actually happens. And at the moment, most American Jews have no other options. With a few local exceptions, usually in Orthodox communities, they have no security or defense force of their own. When it happens, there will be no one there to protect them. And even if local law enforcement takes action to secure Jewish sites and businesses after the fact, this means the Jews will be forced to live their lives under continuing siege. All of this is unacceptable to me.
So, I am forced to look across the divide at my loved ones, hoping that despite my misgivings, they will turn out to be right. I wish very much that this divide could be bridged, and that the larger divide between Jews like me and most American Jews could be bridged as well.
At the moment, this appears unlikely. And so, I am forced to worry, and know that I will continue to worry for a very long time.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv.