A Battle Between the Brain and the Heart

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By Wayne Pines

While on a recent vacation in Florida, I visited a local synagogue and bought a cap with a Jewish star that said “Temple Shalom.”

At lunch that day, I wore the cap and asked two friends, both Jewish, whether they thought I should continue to wear the hat in the future.

They were instantly unanimous: “No!” It wasn’t a close call for either of them.

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They cited the significant increase in antisemitism in the U.S., as documented by the Anti-Defamation League. They mentioned the persistence of racial tension in the country, especially during this election year when politics are so polarized. They mentioned the lack of public understanding about the war in Gaza.

They mentioned how the media seems more sympathetic to the plight of civilians in Gaza as compared to Israeli citizens. They noted the anti-Israel bent seen in some of our leading newspapers. And they noted that there remain people in our population for whom seeing a simple hat with the name of a congregation could be a trigger for violence.

At dinner, I asked four friends what they thought. Three of the four thought it was OK for me to wear the hat, though none encouraged it, while one said she thought it was not a good idea.

It’s a clear dilemma. Should I put the hat in a closet and save it for when the Gaza war is over, the Middle East is more stable (if ever), and antisemitic incidents in the U.S. appear to have leveled out or even diminished? Or should I proudly wear the cap publicly to express my support for Israel and Judaism?

It’s a dilemma that many others are facing today. My grandchildren, who pre-Oct. 7 sometimes wore necklaces with the Magen David to school, stopped wearing them. Their explanation was straightforward and logical: they did not feel comfortable advertising that they were Jewish, and in fact they were going out of their way to avoid drawing any attention to their religion.

It’s also a perpetual dilemma for men who want to wear a kippah in business meetings or in public but sometimes feel uncomfortable doing so, or women who have necklaces or other jewelry with the Magen David.

The dilemma has become especially acute since Oct. 7. It’s a battle between the brain and the heart.

The brain says that antisemitism in the U.S. has reached frightening levels, and many antisemites apparently feel at liberty to express their views without fear of pushback.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian advocates stormed the fences outside the White House on Jan. 13, throwing bottles and sticks and threatening violence, all without punishment. And the three university presidents who testified before Congress all originally said that expressions supporting Jewish genocide are tolerated on their campuses as long as the threats are not acted upon.

The brain sees that antisemitism not only has increased but is now tolerated under the guise of “free speech,” even by some members of Congress. The brain says that in U.S. daily life, it has become unnecessarily dangerous to wear clothing or any symbols that would identify a person as Jewish, other than in a safe space such as a synagogue with a police car outside.

The heart has a different view. Why should we, as American Jews, entitled by law and the Constitution to freedom of religion, feel frightened in our own country and communities about identifying as Jews? Jews have made contributions to society and civilization that are disproportionate to their numbers, and today are leaders in every aspect of American life.

Jews have led the movements in support of civil rights and legal protection for other minorities. Why should we fear wearing Jewish stars and kippahs and other outward signs of being Jewish?

And why should any Jew be reluctant to speak up at a meeting or in a personal conversation when antisemitic comments are made? Why should any Jew avoid putting Chanukah menorahs in the window as our Christian neighbors are draping Christmas lights around their homes? We hear about so many, too many, of these examples.

Are American Jews in the U.S. going to feel even more uncomfortable “advertising” their Judaism?

There is no simple answer. No one wants to endanger oneself or a family member by self-identifying as a target. At the same time, Jews should not be fearful of letting others know who they are and their pride in their heritage.

The dilemma will exist long after the war in Gaza is over. Antisemitism in the U.S. will persist after the war has ended. The American Jewish community must be much more aggressive in combating antisemitism than it has been in the past and even currently. We need to support organizations and programs that identify and fight antisemitism. The Jewish community needs to be more visible in this effort.

But we need to make individual decisions as well. Do we listen to our brain and seek to avoid personal conflict and potential endangerment by muting our outward identification as Jews? Should I put the cap with the name of a synagogue in the back of the closet? Or should we listen to our hearts and say, we are proud to be Jewish and are proud to wear the symbols of our religion and heritage?

This is where the war in Gaza and the surge in U.S. antisemitism become more than just daily headlines. They become personal. In these times, every Jew needs to decide for themselves which path is best for them.

Wayne Pines is a health care consultant living in Chevy Chase.

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