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Jewish World Review Aug. 20, 1999 /8 Elul, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

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Don't let the California Jewish community center shooting distract us from our real problems -- THE PICTURE OF SMALL JEWISH CHILDREN fleeing a Jewish Community Center under attack from a maniacal gun-toting hater will live forever in the memory of American Jewry.

That image is indelibly imprinted on our hearts and will likely recur every time we see a child dropped off at a Jewish institution.

Yes, anti-Semitism is still alive and well, even in America, where 11 members of the U.S. Senate identify as Jews. Buford O. Furrow Jr., the white supremacist with a history of mental problems who shot up a Los Angeles-area JCC proved that it is alive. As did the evil creatures who recently burned a few Sacramento, Calif., synagogues and the authors of other such incidents large and small.

But as we recover from our shock and pain at the pictures of those vulnerable children, we must also ask ourselves a serious question: Does one nut with a gun dictate the American Jewish agenda?

While there can be no debate about the priority that community institutions must give to security, it is worthwhile pausing amid the hysteria about neo-Nazis and guns to ask ourselves whether we truly believe anti-Semitism remains a serious domestic concern for American Jews.

If the answer is yes, then we should take a deep breath and think again. At a time when barriers to Jewish success in politics, business, the arts or any other sector of society have utterly collapsed, one violent episode - no matter how disturbing - should not distract us from our real problems, which have more to do with assimilation and ignorance of our heritage than with Nazis.

It is important to remember this, because the consequences of letting a fear of anti-Semitism and the accompanying self-image of Jews as victims determine our view of the world are enormous.

Why? Because we have other problems we need to focus on that point to a more serious threat to the future of American Jewry. They are Jewish assimilation, disaffiliation and downright apathy. They are about the startling ignorance of Judaism and the inability of many American Jews to transmit Jewish values and identity to their children. They are about a shrinking community that is losing interest in Israel and cannot sustain itself on bagels-and-lox Judaism.

Leiters Sukkah The remedies have to do with increased funding for Jewish education and reinforcing institutions that sustain a community based on faith and a shared destiny. They are about working to build a community that is not based on fear of Jew-hatred, but on creating a positive rationale for retaining our Jewish identity.

These other problems don't generate sexy headlines or produce Pulitzer Prize-winning action photos. And you can't scare people into caring about them by mentioning Louis Farrakhan or some white supremacist equivalent of the Nation of Islam.

And that's the real problem here. It's easy enough to whip up interest in a Jewish issue if it is connected to our fear of anti-Semitism or even our far-more-justified concern about Israel's security. Yet it's difficult to focus public attention on the day-to-day work of promoting American Jewish continuity.

Jew-hatred has festered inside the heart of Western civilization from its very origins in antiquity, and has persisted in and out of the culture's mainstream ever since. Writer Ruth Wisse wisely referred to it in an essay in Commentary magazine as the century's most successful ideology, since it was a major factor in both Nazism and Communism, yet survived them both.

Those who follow events in post-Soviet Russia know the power of Jew-hatred, as do those who read the official newspapers and school curricula in places like Egypt and those lands administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Only a generation ago, 2,000 years of Jew-hatred culminated in the Holocaust, which surely confirmed to all but the most unreasoning optimists the truth of the line in the Passover Haggadah that says, "In every generation, they rise against us."

In the post-Holocaust United States, Jew-hatred has persisted, but only on the margins of society, where a desperate few fantasize about fighting against the "ZOG" - the "Zionist Occupation Government" - that in their fevered imagination is the "real" power running the country. Elsewhere, for all of its virulence, anti-Semitism usually has to masquerade as anti-Zionism to survive.

The growing legitimacy of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam among African-Americans is troubling, as is the acceptance enjoyed by a mainstream political figure like Pat Buchanan,despite his open embrace of anti-Semitic rhetoric and positions.

But looking at the world as a place where every non-Jew is a potential, if not an actual, enemy of the Jews is not a view of reality in 1999 America. Sometimes, it is hard to take yes for an answer. Most Jews I have met who grew up on the East Coast still tend to think that non-Jews who live anywhere west of the Alleghenies are scary hayseeds who marry their cousins and would kill us all if only they could figure out how. And the unjustified fear of religious Christian conservatives is apalling. That there are still hideous neo-Nazis out there who seldom wash behind their ears and want to do us harm is not news. But the fact that most non-Jewish Americans feel as threatened by these evil lunatics as Jews do has somehow not penetrated our consciousness.

The reaction to the California shooting has been strong and, in many respects, entirely positive. The outpouring of sympathy and the public revulsion against the shooter tell us far more about America than any sensationalized account of the crime or a report compiling lists of anti-Semitic incidents.

Law-enforcement agencies do need to work harder to monitor hate groups closely and prosecute them whenever they commit crimes. Personally, I don't think that means we need new hate-crime laws, and I doubt the panacea of more gun control will make much of a difference in these cases. But that isn't the issue here.

Jewish institutions may need to take security seriously, but that should not be an excuse for drifting back into believing in the old paradigms that saw combating anti-Semitism as the focus of our communal efforts and resources.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his book "Anti-Semite and Jew" that in the absence of anti-Semitism, there was no reason for Jews to remain Jewish. It is the duty of American Jewry, a community that faces none of the challenges that once afflicted European Jews,to prove Sartre wrong.

Focusing on anti-Semitism in America as we approach the 21st century is still largely an exercise in chasing ghosts. That can be a satisfying and even profitable endeavor for Jewish groups, but it is not an answer for the future.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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