The following is a speech delivered on erev Shabbat 11 September 2015 at a synagogue in Sydney, Australia.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are upon us. The preceding month of Ellul is traditionally a time for introspection, to consider where we are, where we are going, where we want to go.
I was asked to speak tonight because of my work within the Jewish community. I work for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the elected national representative body for the Jewish community in Australia. I am the Research Officer.
I monitor and document anti-Semitism and the anti-Israel movement.
In my work I encounter a great deal of hate. I read it. I analyse it. I write about it. I sometimes even hang out where the haters are in order to see and hear first-hand. Sometimes people ask me — how do you deal with it, how do you cope with encountering so much hate?
There are two answers to this. Firstly, because I am doing something about it, my work empowers me rather than diminishes me. I am doing something constructive and effective in the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.
Secondly, I put up a barrier. I numb myself. I don’t feel. I distance myself from it. And I can deal with the hate, the constant stream of hate. But at a price. The deadening of my soul. Yet my soul struggles to be free.
And so, as we come to the High Holy Days, I yearn to return to G-d. Tshuvah — returning. It is said that tshuvah, tefila, tzedakah, repentance, prayer, and charity can temper judgment’s harsh decree.
But tshuvah is far more than repentance. It is a return, return to our true selves, return to the right path, return to G-d.
In my work, I have deadened my soul, I live in my head, suppress my feelings. How can I return to G-d when I cannot feel? I can read Torah, Talmud, midrash, but can I let my guard down and let G-d in?
We Jews do not talk very much about G-d. We prefer to talk about Torah. It is much more comfortable. It has different connotations for our enlightened, scientific and increasingly secular age. Torah is about people and their stories; it is about life, and ethics, and laws, lots of laws, mitzvot. And G-d? G-d is.
Anne Frank made a brilliant analysis of anti-Semitism. In April 1944, three months before she was arrested, Anne wrote:
“Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up until now? It is God who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. Who knows? It might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and only that reason do we suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English or representatives of any country for that matter. We will always remain Jews, but we want to, too.”
This 14 year old Dutch/German girl knew something quite profound as she hid in that attic trying to survive the onslaught of murderous hate.
But these words were left out of the 1955 Broadway version of the Diary of Anne Frank, which is still played to this day, and were replaced with these words which Anne definitely did not write: “we are not the only people that have had to suffer… sometimes one race sometimes another.” This denies any reason for the suffering, for anti-semitism, as though anti-Semitism is just another bigotry. It says that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with being Jewish.
As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager explain in their book “Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism,” anti-Semitism has been de-Judaised. What they mean is that the explanations for Jew-hatred mention nothing specific to Jews. To say that Jews are hated because we are rich or because we are poor, or because we are too assimilated or segregate ourselves, or because there is a high proportion of us or very few of us, or because we are too religious or too secular, or that Jews are a convenient scapegoat, all suggest that anti-Semitism is no different to prejudices against other groups.
To say that anti-Semitism is no different to any other form of bigotry fails to explain the longevity of anti-Semitism and its unique ability to mutate into virulent new forms in order to adapt to changing realities.
Prager and Telushkin conclude: “the Jews are hated precisely because of the Jews’ unique role in the world.” It is this that Anne understood and wrote about, she understood that anti-Judaism was at the root of Jew-hatred. Anne wrote, and I repeat: “It might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and only that reason do we suffer.” What does this mean?
If we look at anti-Semitism over the millennia, and the 70 year reprieve we have had since the Shoah, and now its resurgence, what do we see? Why is there anti-Semitism? More importantly, what is anti-Semitism?
Jews are the catalyst for laying bare and purging the evil that exists in society. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reiterates – Jews may be the first victims, but are never the last. In societies where Jews are stereotyped and scapegoated, delegitimised and demonised, ostracised and persecuted, there is a deep sickness at their core.
What are we Jews? Who are we? As individuals, we are just ordinary human beings. But as a people, we are carriers of something, something that is so profound and so powerful, that those who prefer to live by brute force will oppose and try to destroy at all costs.
And what is this that we carry, that we have? It is the message contained within the Torah. The message that there is another way to live. Torah brought these values and ideals to the world:
• ethical monotheism
• a G-d-given universal moral law
• the sanctity of human life
• rule of law
• brotherhood of humanity
• care for the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable
• rights for workers, women, children, strangers, and animals
• peace as an ideal
• a vision of a society founded on justice
and much more. All these Torah values have been, and continue to be, revolutionary ideas throughout the span of history, from Abraham and Moses through to today. As Rabbi Sacks says of Torah — it was “Radical Then, Radical Now.”
Jews are called upon to be “or lagoyim”, a light to the nations, and called to be “kadosh hagoy”, a holy nation, and “mamlechet kohanim”, a kingdom of priests.
We talk of tzedakah, mitzvot, tikkun olam. We each have a conscience, and the ability to do our share in bringing these to the world.
And how does this relate to my job, to anti-Semitism?
Because the anti-Semites, the Jew-haters, want the light of Torah extinguished from the earth. They cannot destroy Torah, they cannot destroy an idea, this message, so they target the messengers, the Jews, as the bearers of Torah.
By living as Jews, by bringing light to the world, even one candle lights up a darkened room, we fight and defeat those whose hearts and minds are full of hate and destruction.
I and others will still be monitoring and documenting anti-Semitism, in all its various forms, and working to counter it. But we are also lighting candles in a darkening world.
As we enter this period of tshuvah, of returning to G-d, to Torah, to Klal Yisrael, to ourselves, let us also remember that there is cosmic purpose in what we do, what we say, what we think, how we treat ourselves, how we treat each other, and how we treat G-d.