I have a confession to make. I don’t know when it started, but it has been going on for several years in my head. Every Shabbat morning, or any early morning that I arrive at my synagogue (PJTC) before anyone else, I have a fear/expectation that there will be some sort of anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on the outside of our building. I don’t know why this started, but with the increased level of anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity around the world, I can’t seem to get this fear out of my mind. Even though, thankfully, we have never had anything of the sort happen at PJTC in any recent history, the fear lives inside of me, and that is a newer feeling for me. My question is this: what is the difference between anti-Semitism of today, where it exists, and anti-Semitism of earlier ages?
In a long and detailed article in The Atlantic, writer Jeffrey Goldberg posed a similar question this way: “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” (Atlantic, April 2015) He spent many months traveling through Europe, was in France during the time of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks, interviewed local Jews and non-Jews, as well as high-level European government officials. At one point in the nearly 8,000 word article, he writes:
“Things have gone terribly wrong for the Jews of Europe lately, but comparing 2015 to 1933, the year Hitler came to power, is irresponsible. As serious as matters have become for European Jews today, conditions are different from 80 years ago, in at least two profound ways. The first is that Israel exists, and has as its reason for being the ingathering of dispersed Jews…Today, of course, the Jews of Toulouse and Malmö [France] understand that Israel will take them without question, and many thousands of European Jews—mainly, though not exclusively, French—have moved to Israel in recent years.” The first reason that things are unprecedented today is the existence of the State of Israel, which we will celebrate next week.”
We will come to the second reason shortly. For the first time in my life, and I was born in 1970, I understand and feel what people have spoken to me about for years: anti-Semitism. Never in my life, never, have I felt threatened, bullied, or unsafe because I am Jewish. I have never known anti-Semitism personally, even as I have teachers, friends, and our own cantor now, who can tell me about what its like to live post-Holocaust in places where anti-Semitism truly threatens Jews, in the recent past and today as we speak. It is a fact, even as we shouldn’t take it for granted, that the United States has been the safest and most prosperous place for the Jewish people in our history. Tonight, we honor those souls, the ones who knew the worst place in Jewish history. Watching ‘Schindler’s List’ with the USY this week, it really drove home how much we have not only survived, but thrived, in the 70 years post-Shoah. That is a remarkable fact, and will be one of the most remarkable pieces of our history, I imagine, when Jews 1,000 years from now, please God we are still here, will read about the 20th century and what happened to our people. It will be discussed at Passover Sederim and maybe even added into the Haggadah.
And yet, as we know well, it is not safe for many Jews again in Europe, and in other parts of the world, which is a horrible fall just a mere 70 years after the Shoah. Noted British author, Howard Jacobson, tells Goldberg in an interview, ‘“It will never go away, this hatred of Jews … and the proof of this is that barely 50 years after the Holocaust, the desire for Jewish bloodletting isn’t over,” he said. “Couldn’t they have given us a bit longer? Give us 100 years and we’ll return to it.” The rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, again.
And, while the overall picture I painted about the United States is mostly true, disturbingly, many of our college campuses are becoming deeply affected, mostly around Israel, but the blurry line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism could now be a dissertation topic. UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Cal Poly Pomona, Stanford, just to name a few locally. I cannot adequately address this situation here, but my community will be having a major program in May, co-sponsored by the Federation, where we will have the ADL, Professor David Myers of UCLA and we hope some local students, to address this important and unfortunate tension on campus.
What are we to do with Europe? What is the right thing to do? Many Jews, especially from France, are making aliyah and moving to Israel. However, when Prime Minister Netanyahu recently said that Israel was the true home of all the Jews, and in the face of the rise of attacks in Europe, all Jews should now come to Israel, many in the European Jewish community bristled. Many said that they wanted France to be there home. Is that what German Jews in the 1930s said? Are we being mistaken, again? Because Israel exists, the European Jews, and Jews everywhere, know that we have a place to ultimately go. That allows for a longer period of tolerance, and a perpetuated desire to believe that it is going to be ok in France and Sweden and England. Interesting, and now we arrive at the second reason in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article, it is precisely what has happened in the governments of many European countries that makes today’s anti-Semitism different than before.
Goldberg writes, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech at a 2013 rally against anti-Semitism, standing in front of a backdrop that reads, “Stand up! No more hatred against Jews!” (Associated Press) “The second reason—and this is a historical astonishment—is that in 1933, the new leader of Germany announced himself as the foremost enemy of Jewish existence; today, Germany’s leader is among the world’s chief defenders of Jews. Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the defense of Jews a principle of the nation: “Germany’s support for Israel’s security is part of our national ethos, our raison d’être,” she said in 2013. At a rally against anti-Semitism held last September at the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, Merkel said: “Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society.” (ibid)
“In France, Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, is, if anything, an even more ardent defender of Europe’s Jews. He argues that the French idea itself depends on the crushing of anti-Semitism. The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens…” “To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.” (Goldberg, The Atlantic, April 2015)
The president of France, at the memorial for the victims of the kosher marketplace terror attack, and in response to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks, said that if the French Jews leave, we will not be France. While there may be swaths of people in these countries that are anti-Semitic, the fact that the leaders are not, and are willing to speak so forcefully in support of Jews, is a huge victory. Issues, remain, to be sure, but I agree with Goldberg: this is not 1933. I don’t believe that Iran and its leaders are the next Nazis and Hitler, even as they need to be stopped from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and they need to end their support for Hamas, Hezbollah, terror and their calls for Israel’s destruction. Yet, as Goldberg astutely points out, “…what makes this new era of anti-Semitic violence in Europe different from previous ones is that traditional Western patterns of anti-Semitic thought have now merged with a potent strain of Muslim Judeophobia.” There is danger, but not 1933 danger. What do we do now?
The Torah tells that in every generation we will face an Amalek, an enemy of wicked and horrific proportions. We are called upon to defend ourselves, to not stand idly by, to not retreat in fear, but also not commit national suicide. We have people who hate us still, that is true. Our fellow Jews in Europe are facing a very difficult and dangerous situation to which we need to remain vigilant and vocal about. And, we are called upon to recognize the amazing status and success of Israel, what it offers us as Jews, as well as what it might be doing that is affecting the Jewish people worldwide. We should vote in the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections, and we should know and care about what is happening in Israel. Questioning Israel’s right to exist is unacceptable and anti-Semitic, but challenging policies of the government, out of a desire for an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is justified and part of the democratic process. I am known for challenging policies that I, and many Israelis, feel are detrimental to Israel’s safety and security, but I never, ever question Israel’s right to exist or my belief in the Zionist dream of a homeland for our people. I will not associate with any groups that speak otherwise. Yet, I will also not stand quietly when Israeli policy, for which Jews worldwide are associated with whether we like it or not, don’t resonate with the values and way of our Jewish tradition, or when they endanger the safety and security of the Jewish homeland. The intimate connection between Israel, diaspora, and particularly, American Jewry, and post-Holocaust trauma remain to be fully examined and resolved.
I hope and pray that I never ride up to find PJTC defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. But I am comforted knowing that so many members of the larger Pasadena community, including our many interfaith friends and partners, would come to our aid and support. As we honor our survivors tonight, I want to take a moment and say: I stand with my Armenian friends and colleagues who have reached 100 years since 1915 and their genocide still goes officially unrecognized; I stand with the people of Nigeria and other places being tormented by the inhumane terror of Boko Horam and ISIS; the innocent people in Syria, being decimated by war and hate; and on Sunday, we in Los Angeles, will walk with Jewish World Watch to end genocide in Darfur and Congo. We Jews have been saved, but our work is not done as long as others in the world are not safe. I learned that from my rabbi, teacher and friend, Rabbi Harold Schulweis z’l.
I close not with my words, but with the words of our own PJTC Helen Freeman, Holocaust survivor and still active educator and speaker at the ripe age of 94. She closed her remarks at LA City Hall’s Holocaust Commemoration this week, where she was honored, with these inspiring words:
We, the living survivors, entrust the legacy of the Shoah to you, the second and third generation, and thereafter to all generations.
We want you to vow that the sacred memory of our suffering and martyrdom shall never be erased.
We want you to recall the heroism of Jewish resistance; remember the shining examples of sacrifice and kindness from the Righteous Gentiles.
Remember the racial prejudice and discrimination that led to the Holocaust.
By not forgetting, you will pay tribute to those that were destroyed. By not forgetting, you will ensure for those who live, and those who are yet to be born, that we intend never to allow such an insanity to happen again.
This is the heritage, we the survivors, entrust to your custody for safekeeping for all generations to come.
(Helen Freeman, 2015)
That is our challenge. May we merit the strength, courage, vision and wisdom to rise up and meet this challenge, now and forever. Amen.