Responding to Contemporary Anti-Semitism
Rabbi Richard A. Block
Senior Rabbi, The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Yom Kippur 5776/2015
A US Navy cruiser anchored in Southern port for a week’s shore leave, and its Commanding Officer received a note from a wealthy local citizen:“Dear Captain, Thursday will be my daughter, Melinda’s Debutante Ball. I would like you to send four well-mannered, handsome, unmarried officers in formal dress uniform to escort lovely refined young ladies. They should be excellent dancers and charming conversationalists. One last point: No Jews please.”In reply, the captain wrote:“Madam, thank you for your invitation. I am sending four of my finest officers. Each one is brilliant, highly educated and personable.”Understandably, Melinda’s mother was excited. At precisely 8:00 PM on Thursday, she heard a polite knock at the door. She opened it to find, in full dress uniform, four handsome, smiling Black officers.Taken aback, she stammered, “There must be some mistake.” “No, Ma’am,” said the first officer.“Captain Goldberg never makes mistakes.”
Anti-Semitism is no joke, but throughout Jewish history, humor has been an invaluable, and sadly necessary, survival tactic. It has often been the only weapon our powerless ancestors could wield against those who wished them ill because they were Jews. Anti-Semitism is the world’s most enduring form of bigotry; its recent resurgence is a cause of enormous concern.
The first attempted genocide against our people, by the Amalekites, some 3300 years ago, is recounted in the Torah. The Book of Esther describes another extermination plot in ancient Persia, now Iran. To justify the mass murder, Haman tells King Ahasueras, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction.”
Haman’s monstrous argument combines truth, falsehood and xenophobia. Jews have, in fact, lived “scattered and dispersed” among other peoples, either by choice or coercion, according to our distinctive laws and traditions. But the claim that Jews did not obey the sovereign’s laws was slanderous. Wherever we have dwelled, Jews have been the most loyal, law-abiding group, for two reasons: Jewish law made obeying secular laws a religious obligation; and their homes, livelihoods, communities and very lives depended on it. The argument that the Jews should not be tolerated, but murdered, because they were different, reveals the fear of strangers that is at the core of anti-Semitism.
In the first century C.E., the Jewish historian, Josephus, answered anti-Semitic charges leveled at the Jews of antiquity. These included what may be the original blood libel, a ludicrous tale that Jews would kidnap a non-Jew each year, fatten him up, sacrifice him, and consume his blood and flesh. From the 12th century on, the accusation that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood to make Passover matzo became a staple of anti-Jewish folklore, one that both reflected and incited hatred and violence against Jews. Incredibly, blood libels continue to circulate, and the fraudulent anti-Semitic tract, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a best seller in the Arab world, where the obscene and absurd claim that Jews perpetrated the atrocities of 9/11 is widely believed.
Religious prejudice, then, is a second key source of anti-Semitism. The claim that “the Jews killed Christ,” were cursed and rejected by God for this alleged crime, and were allowed to exist only to show what becomes of those who refuse to accept him as their Savior, were employed over the centuries to stimulate Christian faith and to justify persecution of Jews. These motifs were widely depicted in church sculptures, stained glass windows, and paintings, and in dramatic presentations called “Passion Plays,” which depicted Jews as horrible, horrifying fiends. Not surprisingly, these annual productions often led to violence and bloodshed. They helped create the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Europe that led to the Holocaust.
President, Dr. Moshe Kantor, summarized the situation: “Many streets in our European cities have become hunting grounds for Jews, and some Jews are now forced to avoid community institutions and synagogues as a result. Some are choosing to leave the continent, many are afraid to walk the streets, and even more are retreating behind high walls and barbed wire. This has become the new reality of Jewish life in Europe.”
The face of anti-Semitism in Europe is changing in another way. Its racial form, epitomized by the Holocaust, survives among right wing, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups. But much postwar European anti-Semitism emanates from the far left. Its ideologues view Jews, Israel, the United States, and the West as synonymous with oppression, domination, colonialism, and racism. Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected head of Britain’s Labor Party, who has associated with Holocaust deniers, blood libelers and homophobes, and called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends,” is a prime example of this loathsome phenomenon. The influence of this perspective on Europe’s politics and media is powerful and insidious.
That said, the most virulent source of postwar anti-Semitism is Islamism. Like the far left, the Islamist movement is violently anti-Western, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic. Most attacks on European Jews now come from residents of Muslim neighborhoods, where many young people remain unassimilated, uneducated, unemployed, and alienated. The plight of Syrian refugees is heartrending, and a humanitarian response is imperative. But if the predominantly Muslim immigrants are not acculturated and integrated, the problems I’ve described will be exacerbated. ISIS agents are already attempting to recruit young refugees arriving in Germany without families. And Saudi Arabia’s recent offer to establish a new mosque there for every 100 immigrants Germany absorbs is downright chilling, since the ones Saudis fund worldwide promote Wahabism, Islam’s most fanatical expression.
The foremost state exponent of Islamist anti-Semitism is Iran, whose regime is also totalitarian, theocratic, oppressive, xenophobic, anti-American, homophobic, misogynistic, and rapacious. It is the principal instigator of regional instability and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Its leaders deny the Holocaust, but repeatedly declare that Israel must be “annihilated,” something they say they have God’s permission to do. Under the nuclear deal with Iran, it will eventually be free to build or buy ICBM’s that can reach the United States, enrich without limitation, and become a nuclear weapons threshold state, with the “breakout time” between enrichment and the creation of nuclear weapons reduced to zero. In the meanwhile, resources available to Iran to promote terrorism will increase exponentially. In fact, it has already increased funding to Hamas and Hezbollah in anticipation of its post-sanctions windfall.
Those were the issues that led me to oppose the deal. Nonetheless, I realize that reasonable people can disagree, and I found the uncivil character of the debate extremely disheartening. Some leading supporters portrayed opponents in language redolent with anti-Semitic themes. Opponents sometimes described supporters as anti-Israel or crypto-Nazis. Unconscionable rhetorical excesses on both sides undermined the bi-partisan support Israel has traditionally enjoyed, damaged the fragile unity of the American Jewish community, and deepened the polarization and hyper-partisanship that are so toxic to our democracy.
Ironically, most proponents and opponents of the deal alike support Israel’s security, recognize the evil nature of the Iranian regime, seek to deter its nuclear aspirations, abhor its support for terrorism, and oppose its expansionism. This was primarily a battle over means, not ends. What is urgently needed now is for the President and his administration to repair diplomatic ties with Israel, and a bipartisan initiative to put real teeth in the deal, bolster Israeli defense and deterrence, counter Iranian aggression, and sanction banks and other entities involved in terror financing. The President and Congress should join to make it absolutely clear that we will never, ever allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, that we will regard an effort to accumulate highly enriched uranium as an attempt to do so, and will employ all means necessary to prevent that, including military force.
The problem of anti-Semitism is not just extra-territorial; it is also here at home. On campuses across the US, including Ohio, many Jewish students feel beleaguered. According to a 2015 study by Brandeis University, 75% of North American Jewish college students and young adults report being exposed during the past year to one or more anti-Semitic statements. About a third of undergraduate respondents reported verbal harassment. More than a quarter describe hostility toward Israel on campus as a “fairly big” or “very big” problem, and nearly fifteen percent perceive this same level of hostility toward Jews, generally.
Much of this comes from proponents of the BDS movement, which demonizes Israel. The most pernicious group is the so-called “Students for Justice in Palestine,” which engages in systematic intimidation of Jewish students and others with sympathy for Israel. It presents itself as a grass roots entity, but is, in fact, a well-funded, well-organized, national effort by a coalition of anti-Israel groups. SJP seeks to build coalitions with progressive campus organizations that deal with such issues as LGBT rights, fossil fuel divestment, racial discrimination, and immigration reform, and to leverage the relationships to undermine Israel. These efforts have done little, if any, damage to Israel. Their primary effect is to make Jewish students and campus supporters of Israel feel isolated, unwelcome and, sometimes, unsafe.
The good news in the Brandeis study was that two thirds of Jewish students reported feeling “somewhat” or “very much connected” to Israel. And anti-Israel activities are opposed by the 33 member organizations of The Israel on Campus Coalition, a “national network of students, faculty, and professionals dedicated to strengthening the pro-Israel movement on campus.” It reports that campus pro-Israel events outnumber detractor events two to one, that more than 100 new local pro-Israel campus organizations have been formed recently, and that “pro-Israel students are increasingly disciplined, coordinated, and strategic.” The Birthright program, now available to Jewish young adults ages 18-26, has enabled more than a half million of them, including nearly 300,000 Americans, to experience the real Israel, strengthening their Jewish identity and their solidarity with the Jewish State.
The Internet is another hotbed of anti-Semitism. It has rightly been called “a superhighway for bigotry…choked with hate-mongering sites and chat rooms and new links among once isolated communities of Jew bashers.” While freedom of speech is a cherished American value, Internet service providers, web hosting companies, social media platforms and search engines have no obligation to provide a forum for bigots and anti-Semites. On the contrary, we must encourage and, if need be, pressure them to adopt a clear industry standard defining hate speech and anti-Semitism, and global terms of service prohibiting the posting of such materials.
Even as we denounce anti-Semitism, however, we must never forget that Jews are not bigotry’s sole victims. In the Sunni-Shia bloodshed, Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities are being persecuted, driven out, raped and slaughtered. Here at home, racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of intolerance are far from fully eradicated. And just as violence against Jews is appalling, so is violence by Jews against others, such as several recent attacks on Arabs by Jewish extremists in Israel. The determination of Israeli authorities to bring perpetrators to justice and to suppress domestic terrorism is laudable, and must be unrelenting. As for us, our condemnation of anti-Semitism has moral authority only if we speak out and act when others are mistreated. As Hillel reminded us, “If I’m not for myself, who will be? But if I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Realistically, anti-Semitism will not be eradicated any time soon. Nothing we or Israel can say or do will convince bigots, ideologues, and demagogues that they are wrong, or force those who refuse to listen, or reason, to do so. Nonetheless, there is much we can do. We can be proud of our Jewish identity and heritage. We can ensure that every young Jewish adult has the opportunity to visit Israel, and do so ourselves. We can love our fellow Jews, the United States, and Israel, even when they or their leaders disappoint us. We can support the efforts of those who stand up for Jews, Judaism, and Israel, on campus, on Capital Hill, and in Jewish communities worldwide. We can express our gratitude for the priceless legacy our ancestors sustained and bequeathed to us by deepening our own engagement with Jewish life.
And there is one thing more. In a remarkable commencement address last year at The University of Texas, Admiral William H. McRaven, who leads the U.S. Special Operations Command, described life lessons he derived from his training as a Navy SEAL. The 9th week of the program was called “Hell Week,” six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one day at the Mud Flats, fifteen hours engulfed in freezing mud up to their necks. The instructors told the trainees they could all leave the mud if only five of them quit. Looking around, with eight hours left until the sun came up, it was clear that some trainees were about to give up. Amidst chattering teeth and shivering moans so loud it was hard to hear anything, one voice cut through, raised in song, terribly out of tune, but with great enthusiasm. One voice became two. Then two became three, and soon everyone in the course was singing. Somehow, the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer, and the dawn not so far away. What McRaven discerned was this: “If you want to change the world, when you’re up to your neck in mud, start singing.”
There is a lesson here for us, too. Even when times are tough, especially at those times, we must remain optimistic and hopeful, and keep singing. We sing: Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish People Lives; and HaTikvah, The Hope; and Im Tirtzu, If You Will It, It is No Dream; and Od Yavo Shalom, Peace Will Yet Come. Despite everything, the Jewish People, the Jewish Faith, and the Jewish State survive and thrive. That is more than ample cause for celebration as this New Year begins, but celebrating is not enough. What is needed from each of us now, and from now on, is to care ever more passionately about the Jewish People’s fate and faith. What is needed from each of us now, and from now on, is to accept a larger personal share of responsibility for the Jewish future. Not halfway, half-heartedly, or just when it’s convenient or when the spirit moves us. When our People’s fate, faith, and future are at stake, each of us must be All In! All In!
Keyn y’hi l’ratzon. May this be God’s will and our own. Amen.