This post was delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.
I chose to talk about Antisemitism on Rosh Hashana months ago; did I know that the problem would not be resolved by the end of Jewish year 5779? Yes. Did I have any idea how much material from the news I would have to process? No. And, since congregants appreciate High Holiday humor, had I fully considered the challenge of working in jokes to a sermon on antisemitism?….No.
We have been told that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Of course, new events are not exactly the same as historical precedents. Mark Twain supposedly wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” After the Holocaust, we thought we understood the lesson of “Never Again” – but what WAS that lesson exactly? Was the lesson “never again to any genocide,” as Elie Wiesel called to the world’s conscience during the 1990s Bosnian conflict? Was the lesson only “never again to the Jews,” so that saying “Never Again” to anything short of a full Holocaust is antisemitic appropriation? Was it “never again to overcrowded indefinite detention centers”? If so, then we also have a lot of work to do for the Chinese Uighur Muslims whose mosques are being destroyed while tens of thousands are interned in “reeducation” camps.” Or the purges of gay men in Chechnya. Or the entire country of North Korea. The price of “never again” may be eternal vigilance, but we never expected to see so many opportunities, on our own borders and everywhere.
This Jewish New Year, we seek to understand the world today by looking back. Our hatred of “the other” is very old – deeply rooted in our psyche, demonstrated over and over again in human history. Even today, no matter what anti-bullying policies are in place, school classmates are othered: by religion, by ethnicity, by appearance, by name, by individuality. And what happens in seventh grade does not stay in seventh grade; it echoes in our minds and reverberates through society. Jewish history provides ample lessons in hatred. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman famously asked if, with all of this suffering we are still the divinely chosen people, once in a while choose someone else! The earliest antisemitic writers lived two thousand years ago; we do not have their books, but we do have a rebuttal by the Jewish historian Josephus. Their accusations included that the Jews left Egypt not via divine Exodus, but because they were expelled for being diseased and polluting – the Jews had to rest after walking for six days because the infections in their groins were too painful. Even Shabbat is given an insulting rationale. In another passage, a man is found captive in a secret room in the Jerusalem Temple – he explains (section 8):
The Jews did the same at a set time every year: they used to catch a Greek foreigner, and fatten him thus up every year, and then lead him to a certain forest, and kill him, and sacrifice with their accustomed solemnities, and taste of his entrails, and take an oath upon this sacrificing a Greek, that they would always be enemies of the Greeks;
Recognize these accusations? Pre-echoes of the medieval blood libel, which accused Jews of killing Christians to use their blood, or a modern version: Israelis stealing organs from captive Palestinians.
In some ways it’s the same old song that rhymes. And yet, we have still been shocked by the events of the past few years. Two fatal synagogue shootings exactly six months apart, when the previous American synagogue shooting death was over 40 years ago? Political campaigns depicting Jewish figures with piles of money? Progressive marches for human rights banning a rainbow flag with a Jewish star for being too similar to the Israeli flag, while allowing other national symbols? “It’s all about the Benjamins,” tweets one side. “Beware the globalists,” Facebook posts the other. We knew these attitudes existed on the fringes, though as I said last year, 10% of Americans being antisemitic means 30 million people. Today we see it more and more, and wider and wider.
In a supreme irony, we even see political opponents using the accusation of antisemitism as a weapon. I guess we could be flattered by the attention. After all, a world where explicit antisemitism is unacceptable is better than the alternative. On the other hand, our public square today is a bit like the boy who cried wolf – if ANY criticism of Israel is antisemitism, if ANY hard questions of global capitalism is antisemitism, then the effect of crying “antisemitism” is diluted, and real antisemitism gains a cover story. “I don’t hate Jews, I just hate those money-grubbing globalists who dominate the media and financial system.” We know who they mean. And it matters who says what. If someone famous says American Jews not voting with Israel are being “very disloyal”, many call that an antisemitic accusation of dual loyalty. But if the Zionist Organization of America says, “American Jews should vote for what is best for Israel,” we are less likely to cry “antisemitism” even when we disagree.
Today we feel acutely that our Jewish extended family is not the only group facing hatred. The same people who claim religious sanction as they deny Jews and Catholics the chance to care for foster children, they also claim that their religious beliefs let them deny gay couples equal treatment, or deny women pregnancy termination medication, or deny transgender and non-binary individuals basic dignity. You may have seen a story recently about a Mississippi wedding chapel that rejected an interracial couple, saying, “we don’t do gay weddings or mixed race, because of our Christian race – I mean, our Christian belief.” And I have not even touched on treatment of immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, and many others. A rising tide of bigotry lifts all hatreds; perhaps we can find common cause with other “others” also facing this deluge.
Why do they hate us? Beware of simple answers. Some hate Jews because we represent modernity and post-nationalism, breaking down borders and corrupting traditional values. Some hate Jews because we are too tribal and stick together too much in an era of broader sentiment – “why insist on a Jewish state when there should be no borders; why be Jewish and not just human?” Some hate Jews because they extrapolate from personal experience – a recent global survey of antisemitism found the highest rates of antisemitic beliefs in…. the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I will give you zero guesses why. Historically Christians hated Jews because they believed the Jews rejected Jesus and took responsibility for his death.
Many simply find the Jews a convenient scapegoat “other” for whatever they find wrong: communists claimed we were behind capitalism, fascists said we were behind communism, nativists and white nationalists claim we are behind immigration. It’s always easier to blame someone else for your own faults – just like 2000 years ago, today’s anti-Semites claim that all Jews hate all “goyim,” and parts of the Arab world believe the Israeli Mossad caused 9/11 rather than accept any responsibility. After all, Antisemitism is the unusual oppression that claims Jews are MORE powerful than they are – in this way, the disadvantaged may believe that Jews have all the power and are screwing them over, and they do not notice the ones who REALLY have the power and are doing the screwing.
There have been and there are individual Jewish communists and Jewish capitalists and Jewish internationalists and Israeli nationalists, tribal Jews and open-minded Jews, human rights Jews and ethno-chauvinist Jews. But antisemitism is like a psychopathology: a distorted lens through which reality is always sinister and always revolves around the Jews. If we are 2% of the US population and 10% of US Senators are Jewish, we might take pride while others see it as one more proof of Jewish conspiracy. Severe antisemitism has a self-contained answer for everything, and is rarely amenable to argument. Consider the difference between “some Jews have influence in Hollywood” and “THE Jews influence Hollywood” – the first is sociology, the second is antisemitism. And to be very blunt, if there IS a global Jewish conspiracy, this rabbi has never seen a profit-sharing check.
If we see the Jewish experience as one example of the human experience, maybe we have some lessons to share. Recall the Purim story – “having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with ALL the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom.” [Esther 3:6] Esther saves her people by appealing to the king; personal connections at a high level avert disaster. This model of high level, behind the scenes intervention to avoid persecution was basic to medieval Jewish survival – in Eastern Europe, an official shtadlan or intercessor maintained good connections with the feudal lord who controlled how Jews were treated. Even so, sometimes these ‘Court Jews’ were rejected and the Jewish population was expelled or worse. We know the limitations of “one of my best friends is Jewish.” Or Latino or Gay.
What would shtadlanut be today? There is no king with whom to negotiate, so we would have to start by getting the Jewish community on the same page. This way progressive Jews could have “the talk” to educate and inform the Left, while conservative or libertarian Jews could highlight problems in their organizations with more credibility than “those crazy socialists.” This step is not working so well these days. There is no Jewish consensus on what COUNTS as antisemitism, let alone the best response, so each side of the Jewish political spectrum BLAMES the other for not denouncing their own, rather than encouraging dialogue. Ilhan Omar and Donald Trump are like Jewish Rorschach tests: which times and how often you have denounced them measures your Jewish character. We Jews contain multitudes, and that makes answering the antisemitism challenge that much harder. Twenty years ago, in the early days of the internet, I found myself on a right-wing Jewish website called the Self-Hating Israel Threatening List (S.H.I.T. List) – when I read the rabbis listed there, I was in very good company! But for the list creator, it was the opposite.
When shtadlanut, high level negotiation, had the goal of avoiding a pogrom’s violence or an order of expulsion, we all agreed. Shtadlanut is not as effective today because we are not all coming from the same place, we do not read the evidence the same way, we agree on neither strategy nor ultimate goals.
Another historical Jewish option to respond to antisemitism: in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith (ADL) was founded. Its charter stated:
The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.
A nice balance of a particularist focus on Jews, with antisemitism as one example of unacceptable hatred. One of the motivations to form the ADL was the trial of Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew accused of killing a Christian girl. Also in 1913, a Russian Jew named Mendel Beilis, was tried for a full-on blood libel of murdering a Christian child to use his blood to make matzah. By 1915, Beilis had been acquitted thanks to courageous non-Jewish prosecutors and journalists, but Frank had been killed by a lynch mob. Listen again to the ADL’s goal: “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.” Rather than negotiate behind the scenes, this strategy publicly confronted antisemitism among the people, in popular culture, and in the courts. Today we have Jewish community relations councils, Jewish Federations, Jewish and Israel advocacy organizations that all use “appeals to reason and conscience” to counteract antisemitism. They have their successes, particularly in reaching their own community. I remember a story of two people lost on a desert island. One runs around frantically building signal fires, creating messages in the sand, while the other sits calmly in the shade of a palm tree. The first says to the second, “How can you sit there so calmly?” The second says, “I’m not worried. I haven’t made my Federation pledge yet this year. They’ll find me.”
After a century of this work, has it changed hearts and minds among the population? If you ask someone NOT involved in the Jewish community, what they think of when they hear the word “Federation,” they are most likely to answer….. Star Trek. In the United States in 1964, after 50 years of work by the ADL, 29% of Americans still held many antisemitic beliefs in the ADL’s first antisemitism survey. However, after 55 more years, today that number is down to 14%. 1/3 of Americans still think Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America, so it is not just President Trump or the Zionist Organization of America. Yes, appeals to reason and conscience. Because sometimes they work: remember the Mississippi wedding chapel that refused an interracial couple? Here’s what the owner wrote on Facebook a few days later:
As a child growing up in Mississippi, our racial boundaries that were unstated were that of staying with your own race….On Saturday my husband asked me to show him in the Bible where it was located as to the content concerning biracial relationships. I studied for a minute and began to think about the history of my learning this and where it came from. I was unable to recall instances where the Bible was used giving a verse that would support my decision… after searching [for two days]….and sitting down with my pastor Sunday night after church I have come to the conclusion my decision which was based on what I had thought was correct to be supported by the Bible was incorrect! …. All of the years I had “assumed” in my mind that I was correct, but have never taken the opportunity to research and find whether this was correct or incorrect until now.
Sometimes minds can be opened. Direct confrontation started the wheels turning for this woman. Sometimes legal action is effective – after a libel suit in 1927, Henry Ford officially retracted his printing of The International Jew: The World’s Problem. In 1997, the chief sponsor of the commercial-free airing of Schindler’s List on broadcast television was…the Ford Motor Company.
But, to be honest, we have been doing “appeals to reason and conscience” for a long time. 2000 years ago, Josephus answered the story of the man fattened up for Jews to eat with these reasons: “how is it possible that all the Jews should get together to these sacrifices: and the entrails of one man should be sufficient for so many thousands to taste of them?” Yet the blood libel legend lived on, long past Josephus, like a prejudice vampire continuing to draw blood.
By 1948, some Jews were just sick and tired – tired of being a minority, tired of hatred. They hoped that creating and living in a Jewish State might solve antisemitism. The Jews would be like other nations, with a government to advocate for them and armed forces to defend them. And if being a normal nation did not solve antisemitism, a Jewish State could be a crisis refuge, unlike the gates slammed in our faces in the 1930s. Israel did not work as planned either – it has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution, especially from Arab lands and from the Soviet Union, yet Israel has also become another trigger, or another excuse, for antisemitism. Creating Israel made justice for some at the expense of injustice for others. In the endless ironies of history, Israel in its current right-wing trend is now used as an example of the ethnic-exclusive state white nationalists want – they might want to ship American Jews there, but for them, tribalism is an ideal, even Jewish tribalism. There are times criticism of Israel is fair, and there are times it crosses the line to antisemitism. We will explore how to distinguish this and respond on Yom Kippur.
That vampire of antisemitism lives on – no one solution will stop a problem with many causes and little reason. Quiet government influence, public confrontation, appeals to conscience, deploying words as a defensive army, even deploying an army itself. We have to keep trying all of these because sometimes they work – we are not giving up our 10 senator shtadlanim or closing the ADL or abandoning Israel as a refuge. What else can we do?
I will talk more about what we can do, what we can always do no matter how large the problem, on Yom Kippur, but I want to give you two ideas tonight. First, there’s another way to win the battle of ideas. Recall the episode of two Jews traveling on a streetcar in Vienna around 1900 – one is reading the local Jewish paper and the other is reading the local antisemitic paper. The first says to the second, “How can you read that trash?” The second replies, “When I read your paper, everyone hates us, we’re so oppressed. When I read my paper, we own the banks, we run the government – it’s much more inspiring!” Never underestimate the power of laughter – in 2006, after the controversy about printing Mohammed cartoons, Iran held a Holocaust denial cartoon contest. In response, a Israeli Jewish illustrator announced his own antisemitic cartoon contest. He said, “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!” I have seen clowns as counter-protestors to white nationalists, artists adding to swastika graffiti to turn them into silly cartoons. In response to a provocative call to “Draw Mohammed” that encouraged people to draw stick figures with sidewalk chalk and label them Mohammed, some Muslim student associations took their own chalk, drew boxing gloves on the stick figure, and wrote “Ali” – now it was Mohammed Ali! No problem! Not everything is laughable, and we should not make light of what is deadly serious. At the same time, Jewish laughter, and our ability to make others laugh, should be in the arsenal.
Laughter is just one piece of a wider strategy – confidence. Even as they chant “Jews will not replace us,” we chant, “We will outlive them.” For Jews this is not 1939, because the police are protecting US. But we must consider what we can or should do when the citizenship, safety and human dignity of others is in danger, even if WE feel secure. If there is a political civil war brewing, can we argue for civility or do we need to pick a side? We turn to that question tomorrow morning.
From confidence comes hope. Hope is not a utopia, imagining a future without hatred. Hope is a positive view of what could be different, what can be better. Some of you may recall the last scene of Fiddler on the Roof – a moment of sadness, or maybe not. The Jews of Anatevka have suffered pogroms and are finally expelled by antisemitic decree. Tevye’s family is scattered – Sibera, Poland, he himself is going to “New York, America”. As he slogs through the mud, dragging his wagon, he hears a high pitched violin. It is the Fiddler, playing his simple tune. Tevye looks back at this echo of his past, he gives a wry smile, and an invitation to join him. With humor, and confidence, and our depth of history, we know what happens next because WE are what happened next – a brighter future across a great ocean. L’shana Tova, wishing us all a hopeful new year.