Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (Yavetz) was one of the great halachic authorities of his time. He lived in Hamburg at a time when – despite general belief – the Jews were already beginning to acclimate to society and live comfortably. And in the introduction (Sulam Beit El) to his famous siddur (Prayer Book), he wrote the following remarkable words – a cry to the Jew in the Exile:
Not one in a thousand arouses himself to dwell in the Land (of Israel), to live there.
Only one from a town and two from a family.
No one seeks its love, desires its peace and good and waits to see it.
It appears to us as we sit in comfort in the Exile that we have already discovered another Land of Israel and another Jerusalem.
And that is why there came upon us all the evils when we sat in Spain and other lands in comfort and great honor since the time of the Destruction … until we were later driven from there and not a trace was left of Jews in those countries.
And he concludes with words that shake the firmaments of the Jewish world:
How long will you sleep, O lazy one, in the bed of laziness … until the foundations of the universe shall be uncovered! And why shall you not acquire for yourself wise counsel to flee for your life while you yet may?
Stunning, powerful, awesome words from a halachic giant, Rabbi Ya’akov Emden! And the Jew hears nothing. And why should we be surprised? Why should we be astonished that the Jew fails to hear the words that echo from the eighteenth century, from Hamburg, German, when he cannot hear the cry of Bensonhurst?
I arrived in the United States for two weeks in time to see and hear the awesome cry of Rabbi Ya’ akov Emden – this time from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. And I look about me at the Jew who apparently is blind to what is so obvious; so deaf to the screeching sounds about him, and so dumb – both in inability to express the reality and to understand it.
In the cold-blooded murder of a black youth in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, lies the reality of America, and the impossible dilemma for the Jews of that country who, like those of so many generations of Exile past, thought, in the words of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, that “they had discovered another Land of Israel and another Jerusalem.”
Bensonhurst lies in White America, attacked to Boro Park – land of Jewish certainty and assurance that herein lies yet another Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem. Bensonhurst is an almost all-white enclave that, incredibly, brings comfort and security to the Jews who live there or who border on it. And in Bensonhurst a young man was gunned down because he was black – and the Jew heard nothing and understood nothing and felt not the slightest alarm. Indeed, G-d help us, there were not a few who agreed with the white gentiles that blacks who come into the neighborhood risk receiving what the murdered black man got.
Does no one see? Does not the Jew understand what the lesson of Bensonhurst is? Does not one look at the faces and souls of the Bensonhurst whites who stood jeering and taunting blacks and shouting “niggers,” and understand that the bells toll for him? Is there not a Jew who saw the hate and venom and willingness to murder, and understood that those same faces and same haters and same people could, tomorrow, just as easily and willingly do the same to the Jew? Does the Jew not understand what he is hearing? Is the Jew listening? Does he want to listen? Does he want to understand that haters are not capable of being limited in their hatred to one particular people that is different? That those who hate blacks hate Jews, too, and perhaps even more? That hatred is a disease that enters the marrow of the bones and emerges in all its horrors whenever social or economic or psychological conditions drive it out into action?
What is it about the Jew that fails to make him understand that the hater, the bigot, the murderer of the black man today will be the destroyer of the Jew, tomorrow?
There is a host on a large New York City radio station. He is immensely popular with Jews, especially those of Brooklyn. He is a bigot and a hater – albeit a clever one. And how the Jews love it when he, in his viciousness, goes up against a “shwartzer.”
And I remember once, driving in an automobile and listening to the man as an Hispanic caller phoned in. How the radio host-bigot ridiculed the man’s accent! How he humiliated the man because of that accent that was different from the “American” one. And the very next caller fairly fell over himself in delight and congratulations to the host for how he handled the foreigner. The caller who was so delighted was from Brooklyn and had a Hungarian accent thick enough to serve with goulash under the light of his chandelier and the happy smiles of his wife under her sheitel
It is more than blind and needless hate that I cry out against. It is the fact that the Jew hears the haters of Bensonhurst crying out their bigotry and does not hear the unspoken word, “Jew!” For those thugs and gross hooligans and ignoramuses hate Jews with more passion than they do blacks. For what they really feel about blacks is fear, but they hate Jews. They are jealous of them and envious, and no greater hate emerges than from that . What did Solomon say: “Wrath is cruel and anger is overwhelming, but who is able to stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4).
The same ones who murder blacks, and hate and fear them and curse them and “make the neighborhood safe,” are those who sit in their bars muttering about Jews in frightening envy and jealousy that breeds the most awesome hatred of them all. They are a danger to the very survival of Jews and G-d help us all should there be an economic collapse that will drive them into unemployment and desperation and loosen the social chains that bind them.
And that is the dilemma. For the black community is one that is riddled with Jew-hatred. Real hard-core hatred of Jews. And much more open and much more “legitimate” than the kind that is endemic to whites. Not only is a Jesse Jackson capable of making outrageous anti-Jewish comments and yet remain a legitimate national figure and candidate for the Presidency, but on every campus in American the local black student group can issue openly anti-Jewish statements and not be condemned, let alone lose its college funding. Black papers and radio
stations can spew forth anti-Jewish hate, and the FCC and political leaders are strangely silent. The fact is that, despite the obscene refusal of Jewish liberals to condemn black Jew-hatred but rather to rationalize it away, blacks in great measure and in huge numbers hate Jews.
And that despair grips a Jew from Israel as he sees, on the one hand, the mindless, ugly faces of the Bensonhurst whites with their Jew-hatred barely beneath the surface, while at the funeral of the black youth, Farrakhan and his black-faced brownshirts arrived. The fact that they allowed the black Nazi Farrakhan to speak, and not one black leader protested (and naturally not a white politician dared to), underlies the despair and the hopelessness of the situation for the Jew.
On the one hand, a black community that has made anti-Semitism an integral part of its existence. On the other, far more dangerous white majority Jew-hating class. And that for the Jew is the real meaning of Bensonhurst and America that is riven, polarized, riddled with hate and violence that is held back only by economic prosperity. But behind that dam lie the waters of hate and envy and jealousy. And it is the Jew who is the target.
The Jew who saw and heard the faces and voices of Bensonhurst, the hate and violence and taunts, and who saw nothing and heard nothing. And the voice of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden comes across the ages, crying: Are you listening, Jew? And the Jew does not even hear that.