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"Anti-Semitism and Us."
A truth we didn't want our children to know -- there are those in the world who hate them only because they are Jews. We thought it was gone, this perennial cultural virus. But it has flared again, in Pittsburgh and Poway, across Europe, and close to home. The question is, how will we respond? Our response will shape Jewish life for the next generation.
I want to apologize for any difficulties you experienced getting into the synagogue today. I’m sorry for the checks and screening and metal detectors.
I’m not sorry we had these things. I’m sorry we had to have them.
I’m especially sorry to the young people who are with us.
I’m sorry because this isn’t the world that we wanted to share with you. We wanted a world without hatred, without anti-Semitism; a world where Jews, and all peoples, could live freely and never be afraid. We fought for civil rights and civil liberties. We built a culture of inclusion and acceptance that shamed prejudiced and shunned discrimination. We dreamt yours might be the first generation in our history that would never know a word of hatred, a gesture of exclusion; never experience the closed door, the painted swastika, the angry epithet.
And we believe this was possible. Because America is different from all the lands and cultures we have lived during millennia of Jewish diaspora. America’s core narrative is, after all, our master story, taken from our Bible: We escaped from tyranny, we crossed the Sea, traversed a forbidding wilderness, and with the help of Providence, arrived into a Promised Land of freedom. We believed America offered a release from our long history of persecution. We prayed that we might set aside the frightful words recited each year at the Seder table – b’chol dor v’dor, omdim aleynu l’chaloteynu. In every place, in every culture, in every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us. We believed in the promise of America.
And then came Charleston and Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Poway. Hate has returned with a vengeance. Anti-Semitism has resurfaced. Hate crime in the US rose by 17% last year. Crimes against Jews rose by 37%. The ADL recorded a total of 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents across the country in 2018, a 99% increase since 2015. You can enter the mall or the market or the movie theater without anyone stopping you. But today, to come to shul for yontiff prayers, you had to pass armed guards and submit to security screening. I’m sorry for that.
For many of you, this new. It comes a shock that someone hates you. Someone who doesn’t know you, never met you, has no idea who you are, except for one thing -- that you are a Jew. You must be wondering, Why? What did I do? Who are these haters? Why now? I want to recommend two fine new books. Emory University Prof Deborah Lipstadt’s Anti-Semitism Here and Now, and New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’ How to Fight Anti-Semitism. Both these books are very readable and will help you understand what we’re facing.
Anti-Semitism is a cultural virus. It is incurable; it never goes away. It may lie dormant in the body politic for generations. But at moments of social stress, of instability or change, it flares up.
When people feel they no longer control their world, when they experience a dissonance between the way things are and the way things ought to be, they have two possible responses. They could ask – What do we do about this? -- and begin a process of self-criticism and self-improvement. That’s what mature people and free societies do. Or alternatively, they ask – Who did this to us? They define themselves as victims. They imagine themselves as objects of sinister forces beyond their control and they go looking for someone to blame. In Western civilization, this has classically been the Jews.
This is not about you or about me. We did nothing to provoke this. And nothing we could change about ourselves, our behavior or our way of living, can allay this.
This is about the hater, the racist, the anti-Semite. It is fueled by the psychology of projection. The anti-Semite projects his powerlessness into a picture of the Jew. He imagines the Jew as the avatar of all that he most fears, the embodiment of all that he deems evil. He fantasizes about all the super-powers Jews possess. Jews, he will tell you, control the government, the banks, the media. Jews orchestrated the terror of 9/11. Jews created ISIS. Jews got America into the Iraq War. And Jews will force America into the next war.
We have been cast as a character in someone else’s nightmare.
There are those on the extreme Right, for example, who hold the conviction that America is a white, Christian nation. Real Americans -- regular, normal Americans -- are white and Christian. And today, this America is being threatened. On the horizon they see hordes of black and brown immigrants, armies of non-Christians, coming to sully and dilute the purity of America. They see an organized conspiracy to replace white Christian Americans with an unrecognizable mélange of inferior races and strange beliefs; a conspiracy engineered and paid for by devious Jews. So the Charlottesville marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”
In the manifesto he left online, the shooter in Pittsburgh, aimed his rage at HIAS. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization founded in the 1881 that helped many of our families come to America, and helps refugees the world over. HIAS, he believed, is the powerful tool of the Jewish conspiracy. In his blog, he wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch our people get slaughtered. Screw the optics, I’m going in.” So he took powerful weapons into a synagogue on a Shabbat morning and murdered 11 innocent people at prayer.
Disliking Jews is not anti-Semitism. That’s human. We are all entitled to not like people. But when you deny Jews the rights that all peoples are entitled to, to be free and equal, that’s anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitism. That’s democracy. Criticism of Israel’s government, challenging its policies and practices, demanding that Israel live up to its ideals as a democratic, Jewish state, advocating for the rights and freedoms of Palestinians, are all perfectly legitimate. That kind of dissent, that voice of protest, has always been an important part of the Zionist conversation.
On the American Left, there are voices that demand human rights for all peoples, an end to racism and oppression, a redress historic injustice and inequality. That’s very admirable. But on the extremes of the Left, there are voices that go beyond. What the Jew becomes for the anti-Semitic Right, Israel becomes for the anti-Semitic Left, a fantasy, an avatar, a projection of all that is evil.
There are those on the extreme Left who perceive Israel as the last bastion of white, European colonialist imperialism. They accuse Israel of committing genocide against an innocent native, non-European, non-white community. Born of this original sin, Israel is deemed the enemy of all that is good and progressive. Its very existence is an offense. In some progressive circles, the word Zionist has become a curse word. On some college campuses today, it is dangerous to be openly pro-Israel. Under a banner of justice and righteousness, Israeli academics, journalists, artists and political leaders are shouted down and the demonization of Israel has become academically respectable. It is taught in classrooms, rehearsed at conferences, published in journals.
They claim they are not anti-Semitic, only anti-Zionist. They say they love Jews. They will point to Jews who are part of their movement. They will raise the objection that legitimate criticism of Israel is being branded with the hateful stamp of anti-Semitism. So let’s be clear. Criticism of Israel’s policies and practices is legitimate. But denying the right of Jews, among all the world’s peoples, to exist collectively as Jews, that’s anti-Semitism. Denying the right of Jews to define themselves as a nation, and denying the long, historical connection of Jews to the land of Israel, is anti-Semitism. Reducing the staggering complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the single cause of Israeli intransigence, demonizing Israel as uniquely guilty for all the problems of the Middle East, is anti-Semitism. Calling out only Israel, among all the nations of the world, for boycott, divestment and sanction, calling out Israel -- with a very free press, an independent judiciary, and a growing population of Moslem Arabs -- as an enemy human rights in a world of Syria, North Korea, China, Turkey, Russia, Sudan, Myanmar, Iran, the Congo, Saudia Arabia, Yemen and so many more… that’s a not a call for justice, that’s anti-Semitism.
I’m sorry there were guards and metal detectors in front of the shul today. This a sad reality that will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable. I’m sorry that our children must now live with a heightened awareness of hate around us. I am genuinely sorry. But please recognize:
While anti-Semitism is all about them, and not about us, our destiny as a community, the texture and tenor of Jewish life is all about us, and must not be about them. How we choose to respond to the hate that surrounds us, how it affects us, how it affects our view of ourselves and each other, and our view of the world, is entirely our choice.
I have been a life-long student of Jewish history and this is my conviction. No power on earth can destroy the Jewish People, except the Jewish People. We control our destiny. So how shall we respond to the hate?
When Moses brought the people Israel to the Red Sea, they heard the hoof-beats and war-cries of Pharaoh’s chariots pursuing them. According to the Midrash in the Mechilta, they broke into four camps.
One faction said, “Let us return to Egypt and serve the Pharaoh.”
Another said, “We must fight the Egyptians!”
Still another said, “Let us pray to God for redemption.”
And the last said, “We must move forward together.”
These same voices are heard today.
“Let us return to Egypt” is the voice of surrender. Accept the reality, it counsels. Recognize the inevitability of Jew-hatred. Lie low. Make no waves, attract no attention. They don’t want you here? So find another place to live, another place to work, to go school, to raise your kids. The opposite of activism is quietism, an ethic our ancestors learned over the centuries to practice conscientiously. Maybe if we change, they thought, they’ll change. Maybe if we assimilate, give up our distinctiveness, blend in, they’ll come to accept us. But they didn’t. They never do. Their hatred is not affected by anything we do. It’s not about what we do.
Today, this approach is more subtle. It is expressed in the partial blindness that enables us to see so clearly the anti-Semitism on the other side of the political divide, but not on our own. It is the “yes, but…” response, the “what-about-ism.” This allows those on the Left to scream about the dog-whistles and winks to white supremacists by the Right, while remaining deaf to the voices of vicious anti-Zionism in their own house. It allows those on the Right to raise the alarm at the language of apartheid and the tool of boycott deployed against Israel by the Left, without hearing the racist invectives by their own.
Anti-Semitism must be called out, wherever it lives. On my side, on your side, on any side. Pretending not to hear, not to know, offering rationalizations, the “yes…but…”, the “well, we need to understand…” excuse only serves to enable, to facilitate, to reinforce the hate. It stops only when we say, “Enough.”
When I was young, I participated in demonstrations and actions to free Jews from the oppression of the Soviet Union. Lots of Sundays, we’d be somewhere protesting something Russian. I once innocently asked my mother -- When you were my age, the Holocaust was happening, how many demonstrations did you go to, how many political actions do you join? My poor mom, a first generation American, could only lower eyes. “We were scared,” she explained, “scared that if we made too much noise, stirred up too much trouble, they throw us out. Your generation is different. You belong here, as we never did. Go demonstrate” she said, “Do what we couldn’t do. Go save Jews.”
I give thanks to God that in my lifetime I have seen the end of Jewish quietism and the arrival of Jews into power. This is a spiritual revolution. We have found our voice. We have assumed responsibility for our political destiny. We learned the singularly bitter lesson of the tragedies of 20th century. No matter how nice we are, they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop until we make them stop. We’re not going back to quietism. We’re not going back to Egypt.
Out of the crowd comes another voice, “Let’s fight!” And that’s exciting. It’s muscular and assertive. It raises the adrenaline. We feel rage, and that pushes away the fear. Yes, we’ll fight! But fight what? And fight whom?
I’m sorry to say, but there is a severe moral auto-immune disease within the Jewish people. When we are threatened, and we turn to fight -- filled with the rage and righteousness of battle – we turn on each other. We turn on our own.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash, the holy Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud tried to piece together an explanation. How could this happen? How did we lose our land? Our city? How was God exiled from our world? They told a story: When the armies of Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, with an enemy literally at the gate, the Jews fought among themselves. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai escaped the city and went to negotiate a peace with the Roman general Vespesian. In the rabbis’ telling, the Roman asks him with astonishment, what kind of people are you, fighting one another? Can’t you see what’s before you?
The Talmud concludes sadly – Jerusalem was destroyed and God was exiled, not by mighty Roman armies, by the uncontrolled, boundless hatred and rivalry we unleashed on each other in a moment of crisis. mipne sinat hinam, they taught. Jerusalem was lost and God exiled because of the boundless hatred and rivalry we unleashed on each other, because of what we did.
There is an enemy at the gate once again. And once again, we turn on one another. Instead of unifying us into a common defense, the rise of anti-Semitism has become a wedge that breaks us apart. How many families have told me they can’t sit together at the Shabbos table, or the yontiff table or the Thanksgiving table or before the Hannukah candles? How many circles of friends have broken apart? One word is uttered, “Trump,” “Netanyahu,” “Omar,” “occupation,” “immigration,” and instantly bonds of family, and ties of friendship, years of closeness dissolve into shouting. Seamlessly, the language escalates. “Racist,” “Nazi,” “Traitor” –are screamed across a table. It is as if all the hate directed toward us, is hurled back at those who should be close to us. All the frustration and rage, vented upon those who should matter to us. This is sinat chinam. This is how God was exiled from the world.
We have to do something about this. We have to fix this. This year, VBS, together with communities around Southern California, will undertake a project with the support of the Jewish Federation, called “Resetting the Table.” We’re going to learn how to quiet the shouting and the accusations. We are going to learn how to hear one another. You’ll read about this in our announcements soon. This is a workshop teaching us all how to find one another again; how to listen, how to share, how to engage in dialogue, how to find our shared values, how to be families and how to be friends again. I hope that you will come and participate. I’m coming too, because I too need to learn.
We can fight anti-Semitism. But we have to remember that anti-Semitism isn’t an insurgency or an invading army. Anti-Semitism is an idea, a narrative. You fight a narrative with education. You fight a narrative by presenting a different narrative, a narrative which supplants and undermines the hate.
You know what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct 27th last year. Do you know what happened the next Shabbat? Muslim communities across the US and Canada formed human chains, circles of life and protection, around synagogue so that Jews could pray in peace. The national Muslim community raised $200,000 for the families of victims. Listen to Molly Pascal, a member of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh writing in the Washington Post --
“Six days [after the shooting], [she writes] on Friday evening, the Tree of Life congregation gathered privately in a small chapel at Rodef Shalom, a nearby synagogue, for the first service of Shabbat. As I waited for the service to begin, people I didn’t know filed in. Soon, the row behind me held a half-dozen strangers, the women in traditional abaya and hijab. I looked around and saw many Muslim families like them joining the crowd. When our congregation rose to speak the mourner’s Kaddish, they rose with us. They offered us their condolences and invited us to attend a service at the Islamic Center. Salaam, I said. Shalom, they said.”
Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Israel, taught that there is only one way to defeat sinat chinam, boundless hatred, and that is ahavat chiman, boundless love -- a unreasonable measures of human solidarity, respect, community and care. That is our ultimate weapon in the fight against hate.
The third voice Moses heard that day at the sea said, “We must pray.” I’m all for prayer. The tradition is all for prayer. Except that a strange thing happens in the Torah at this point in the story.
Standing before the Sea, with his people crying about him and Pharoah’s armies pressing down upon them, Moses prays, and according to the Torah, God responds, Ma tizhak eylai, Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to move forward, commands God.
Of all moments, standing at the edge of oblivion with no escape, God says, stop praying. Why?
There is a time to pray, and time to move. There is a kind of prayer which can move me. And there is a kind of prayer which paralyzes. When I pray, God save me, I become helpless, frozen in place. I become passive and powerless. I relinquish responsibility for my condition and I assume the role of victim.
The truth is, there is something strangely delicious in being a victim. As a victim, I can command attention and demand the pity of others. As a victim, I occupy an imaginary moral high ground. I can be mad as hell and shout “Look what they did to me!” and feel somehow superior. Jews are curiously good at this game of victimhood.
This was my Jewish education growing up. I knew the words “pogrom” “ghetto” “holocaust” “inquisition” “expulsion” before I learned the words of Shema Yisrael. I knew the names of all the Nazis before I learned the names of the rabbis of the Talmud. This was Jewish history for us – Pharaoh, Haman, Nebuchadnezzer, Antiochus, Titus, Torquemada, Chelmnitzky, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Heidrich, Eichmann. Every week of Hebrew school, a new tyrant, a new persecution, the next atrocity. After a while, we stopped listening.
God says to Moses, Ma tizhak eylai. Stop praying and move forward. Because victimhood is a drug. A narcotic. It may temporarily lift us up, but it changes nothing in the world, and it leaves us with a terrible hangover.
God says, Stop praying and move forward because I took you out of slavery, out of helplessness and powerlessness, and I won’t allow you to crawl back.
God says, Move forward, because victimhood, just like quietism and rage, is no identity. In victimhood, there is nothing there to live for, to aspire to, reach toward. Quietism, rage, victimhood are all based on fear. Hiding from fear, punching back at fear, internalizing fear. But fear is no basis for commitment, for passion, for vision. For that, you need love. Only love can launch a life of purpose. Quietism, rage, victimhood are defensive. A life of meaning must be creative. Quietism, rage, victimhood all scream NO. A life worth living begins with a YES.
So please, tell your children our story. But tell them a different Jewish story. Jewish history is not a story of what they did to us. Jewish history is not an endless nightmare of persecution, oppression, destruction and Holocaust. Jewish history is the story of all that we became, despite the hate; the communities of care and support on ruins of destruction; the brilliant spiritual wisdom and profound moral truth we discovered, in spite of persecution; the ideals we uphold, the faith we sustain, the convictions we impart, in the face of cruelty and brutality. We maintain: Olam Hesed Yibaneh, it is our responsibility as God’s partners to build a world of lovingkindness. And no anti-Semite can triumph over that dream if we don’t let them.
So, yes, for the foreseeable future, there will be guards at the door, but there will be powerful wisdom, inspired Torah, within.
A guard will check your ID at the gate, but once inside, you will get a warm a hug from Shirley Lowy, a word of Yiddish wisdom from Herschel Fox, and if you’re lucky, Yossi Dresner will give you an aliyah. Once inside, is Jewish life and Jewish joy.
We will have metal detectors at the entrance, but in here together we will share joy and learning and friendship and song.
After the demise of Haman, the Megillah of Purim proclaimed, la’yehudim hayta ora, v’simcha v’sasson vi’kar, We Jews are blessed with light, celebration, honor and joy. We will let neither hate nor fear destroy that.