The Feds, Power, and Courage: Reflections on Yom HaShoah 2024

Following a recent meeting between increasingly concerned Jews and the government agencies charged with protecting them, I approached the senior agent representing the FBI and asked him to explain their declared policy of not monitoring protests until violence or threats of violence ensue. I was dismayed by the response.

The post-October 7 campus climate, where rallies extol and promote Hamas, predictably produces violence. We were not surprised by the Cornell student who rode the wave of those protests to the point of threatening online to “shoot up 104 west” (the kosher dining hall at Cornell University), to “stab” and “slit the throat” of any Jewish man he saw on campus, to rape and throw off a cliff any Jewish women he saw, to behead any Jewish babies, and to “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig Jews.” In that case, federal authorities rapidly identified and apprehended the offender, who eventually pleaded guilty. But there is much more where that came from.

How could the FBI not monitor protests when they were clearly the breeding ground for more of this violence?

The agent’s response came with a wry smile:

“We tried that once before, in the ’60s, and it did not end well.”

I pushed further. True, but do you think this hands-off approach will end well? How do we let the campus temperature rise while engaging in a whack-a-mole response to the resulting flood of violent threats? We are constantly asked by members of our own community when we will finally realize that the current situation is not different from Germany in 1933 or 1938. What should we say to that? Why do we find ourselves having to regularly answer that horrible question?

This time the agent did not smile. “That will not happen here. In Germany in the 1930s, the government, police, and army were the problem, whereas in the United States our government and law enforcement officials are the solution. Our people are not haters. We take every agent to the Holocaust Museum, and we stand firmly committed to learning the lessons of its history and never letting those horrors happen here.”

He is right. Those charged with law enforcement in this country are nothing like those university professors, department heads, and DEI officers who have defined Jews and Israelis as privileged and powerful white colonizers. They are not to be lumped together with the virtuous champions of human and women’s rights – except those of the Jews. And they are certainly not to be compared to the many large Muslim American groups who have yet to condemn the actions of Hamas on October 7 and are nevertheless invited to weigh in on the evils of Islamophobia.

We have no doubts about the sincerity of the FBI’s support of our community, just as we do not question the seriousness of the many government officials who have been working overtime to address the rising tide of American antisemitism. They are neither antisemitic nor apathetic to our plight. But they have yet to display the courage needed to boldly address the violent antisemitic anarchists.

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The choice to mark this day during the Jewish month of Nisan was made because of the desire to include in its commemoration of the Holocaust the courage of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighters whose rebellion was initiated on Pesach. Theirs is a story of people who courageously stood up to evil but whose powerlessness made their effort doomed to fail.

What we have been seeing too often in the government response to the continued anarchy on campus is the very opposite: a government with all the power and the tools but lacking the courage. We tried it before, they say, and it did not end well.

Is the lesson of the campus protests of the ’60s and the BLM rallies of 2020 that law enforcement must always stand down? Must we allow violent rallies because we are fearful of being accused of suppressing the truly sacred right of peaceful protest? Does our concern for police overreach move us to handcuff law enforcement? Does our sensitivity to racism and Islamophobia justify our acceptance of Islamically-driven hatred and violent antisemitism?

As we mark this Yom HaShoah, we note how blessed we are to live in this country where our President is dedicated to addressing the growing scourge of antisemitism and where government and law enforcement agencies listen to us, work with us, and share deeply our concerns and our fears.

What we tried once before, in the ’60s, did not end well, but the strategy of choosing not to get involved in demonstrations does not seem to be ending well either. To learn the lessons of history we must try it again and do it better, aiming to get it right by preventing violence without throttling peaceful protest. As Jews read from the Torah (Leviticus 19:17) today, “you shall not stand by when the blood of your fellow is threatened.” We appreciate sincerity, but we need courage.