Several attacks on Jews have occurred in the New York metropolitan area recently.
In December, a man and woman killed three innocent people shopping in a kosher market in Jersey City, after having previously killed a respected police officer in a confrontation in a cemetery. In Monsey, on the seventh night of Chanukah, a man entered the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg and stabbed five people with a machete while they were gathered to celebrate the holiday. Several other less publicized attacks have also occurred.
How we view these attacks, their underlying causes, and strategies to prevent future similar events, can be seen, especially for Jews, through the lens of the main lesson we have learned from the Holocaust. I submit there are two competing versions of the key Holocaust lesson — one particularist and one universalist.
In the particularist view, the Holocaust was an attack on the Jewish people first and foremost, the culmination of frequent episodes of anti-Semitic laws, discrimination, and outright violence, over centuries of European history. In this view, Jersey City and the other attacks are yet another episode in this long history, and combatting it involves strategies like fighting anti-Semitic hate groups — legally and otherwise — and increasing security at Jewish institutions.
The universalist perspective views the Holocaust as the most, or at least among the most, egregious example of human hatred of one group toward the Other. In this view, the poison of hatred has led to tremendous suffering worldwide over the course of human history. The Jews, by virtue of living as a distinctive minority in intolerant cultures throughout their 2000-year exile, have suffered particularly from this phenomenon. In this view, however, the core problem is hatred of the Other, rather than hatred of the Jew. Programs and policies, such as dialogue between groups, that seek to increase understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of human differences are more effective responses.
This distinction can help explain, in part, the Jewish community’s split in political affiliation in the United States. Community members with a particularist view gravitate toward those who give specific comfort to Jews and Israel, especially if that comfort is perceived as strengthening protection, even if the source of such support inflames enmity or violates Jewish values in other ways. On the other hand, the universalist view supports solutions and advocates for policies that seek to decrease hate of all types, and it spurns offers of help from sources that simultaneously inflame hatred.
Although I have presented this distinction as a way to understand divisions in American Jewry, in fact this dichotomy also can help to explain the current political differences between Israel and the more liberal factions of the West. In Israel, especially among the ruling political leadership, the particularist view is stronger, while the more left-leaning factions that lean toward the West (including within Israel itself) are driven by the universalistic lessons of the horrors of the 20th century.
Although presented as poles, in reality many people may feel that each pole has elements of truth. It is my hope that using this framework, people might be better able to understand both their own and the other perspective. It is my belief that focusing discussion on the relative merits of the particularist and universalist perspectives can lead to greater understanding, allowing discussions to focus on the core issues rather than their secondary implications.
Dr. Ronald D. Ennis is a member of the Teaneck Jewish community, a practicing physician, and an amateur poet. He spent a gap year studying in Israel at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He is a graduate of Columbia University (B.A.) and Yale University School of Medicine (M.D.).