Let’s talk about anti-Semitism – again. To be honest, I don’t very much want to talk about it. I would prefer to talk about just about anything else. I always prefer to speak about the positive, about what makes us sing rather than cry, what makes us dance rather than what makes us afraid, but this year is different.
How could I not talk about anti-Semitism in a year when not just one American synagogue was attacked but two, when Jews were murdered as they did the most Jewish of things, give thanks for the blessing of the seventh day?
How could I be silent when eleven Jews were murdered as they gathered for Shabbat prayers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue? The sacred phrase, tree of life, now has a tainted resonance.
How could I as well speak about something else when the State of Israel continues to be vilified and even compared to Nazis in progressive, liberal circles?
How can I remain silent when those who murder Jews are praised among those who profess to champion the rights of women and minorities?
How can I talk about singing and dancing when synagogues are vandalized, when Jews are attacked in our city’s streets and the walls of our own nearby park spray painted with swastikas? I could go on. But I need not. The examples come at an almost daily pace.
I very much wish I could pick up the phone and speak with Annie. For those who did not have the privilege of knowing Annie, she was a long-time member of our synagogue who died a little over a year ago. She lived a long life, well into her nineties. She raised a daughter, was blessed with grandchildren and even great grandchildren. But it was not always an easy life. She survived the Holocaust, living – if you can call it that – for nearly a year in Auschwitz. At various times, she hid in a barn, was captured and beaten, and most dramatically of all, jumped from a moving train when her father realized it was headed to a death camp. On that train was the last moment she saw her mother and sister. I can still hear her speak about the feel of her mother’s hands helping to push her out of the train’s small pried open window.
Every year Annie used to come to our sixth-grade class to tell our students about her experiences. She would always remind them that she survived because of the help of friends and even strangers but also because of a lot of luck. Sometimes she would give credit to her mastery of several languages. She would then admonish the students and say, “Remember to do well in school. You never know when you might need that learning.” I also thought she survived because she was blessed with an extra dose of koach, which can best be translated as inner strength and courage. Perhaps it was even more than one dose. She was by far the most courageous person I ever met. I used to joke that even though I had to bend down to hug her, she was also the tallest person I ever knew.
I recall as well how she never failed to tell me when she disagreed with a sermon. I remember one time in particular. It was Rosh Hashanah, during one of my first years at the synagogue, and I gave a sermon that was quintessentially life affirming and positive. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was before 9-11, and I wanted to make the case that our Jewish lives should be built not on what anti-Semites say or do, but on what Judaism inspires us to do. We should be Jewish because we want to be, not because that’s who they say we are. Somewhere in the course of the sermon I believe I said something along the lines of anti-Semitism is a thing of the past or that at worst it exists only on the fringes and that it will never be a worry here in the United States.
I don’t believe the cantor had even finished the last verse of Adon Olam before Annie was marching toward the bima to be the first person to greet meet as I descended the stairs. And there I was confronted with what I came to know as the Annie finger wave. She waved her finger at me as only someone who has lived so many years and who has experienced so many things could do. It was a loving rebuke that came without shouts and screams, without angry words and vitriol. It came as it could only come from someone who had experienced the horrors of what I only read about in history books. She said, “Rabbi, anti-Semitism will never go away. It’s always there. It may not be so loud now. But it’s always lurking beneath the surface. Never, ever let your guard down. It will come back. It always does.” I did not know how to respond to that critique, to one that came from such terrible experiences and so I uncharacteristically said nothing. We hugged and wished each other a shanah tovah. But to be honest I did not believe her.
And so, now more than ever, I miss Annie. I so want to speak with her about what we see happening in our world today. I want her to teach me all over again. I want her to help us understand what’s going on. But I am left without my teacher. And I feel as I imagine many of us do, lost, and perhaps frightened, looking for answers but without a guide. This place, this United States of America, was supposed to be different. And so, what are we to do? How are we to confront this menace? How are we to confront this murderous ideology?
Let me offer a few tentative suggestions. First of all, can we stop pointing fingers at the other side of the political divide and say it’s all because of them. It’s not only an issue for Democrats. It’s not only a problem made by Republicans. There is plenty of blame to go around. Let me be blunt. Republican leaders continue to provide oxygen to ideologies that denigrate minorities. Our president most especially fails to condemn and marginalize Nazis who chant, “The Jews will not replace us.” Make no mistake. The more often minorities are demonized, the more Jews will also be victimized. There is a direct line between Christchurch and Pittsburgh. Read the killers’ hate-filled manifestos. Jews will not replace us and Muslims do not belong here are two sides of the same coin. America will always be a nation of immigrants. Such murderous views are all about some distorted idea of those guys are stealing away from us what is our rightful place.
Then again, Democrats give far too much legitimacy to those who make the absurd claim that Zionism is some terrible injustice, a sinful colonial occupation, or that Israel is the worst human rights offender in the world, comparable to Nazis. Representatives Omar and Tlaib, for example, conjure conspiracy theories in which Jews, or Jewish groups, control American foreign policy. While the deadliest acts of anti-Semitism committed in the past year were perpetrated by far right white nationalists, the anti-Semitism of the left may in fact be more insidious because it creeps into the nooks and crannies of the university; it is discovered in the most rarefied of intellectual circles, and that most certainly spells trouble for the future. On the left, anti-Semitism is not illuminated by Tiki torches. Instead it hides beneath a veil of progressive values.
Make no mistake dangers lurk around every corner. And so on both counts, we must look within and ask ourselves, can I remain committed to my values, whether they be liberal or conservative, without making excuses for the anti-Semitism that hovers nearby?
It’s not just on their side. It’s on our side too. Let’s stop pointing fingers at them and start pointing fingers at ourselves. Stop making excuses for your side and start owning the problems within. So, if you are a devoted Democrat, I want to hear you loudly call out the anti-Semitism in the party you claim as your own. And if you are an ardent Republican, then call out the hate that is given breathing room within your party. It’s all too easy to say, “It’s all their fault.” It’s so easy to send congratulatory emails to like-minded friends that say, “Look at how bad they are. The Democrats are just as bad as Corbyn’s Labour Party.” Or, “Look at how awful they are. Republicans are giving license to racism.” anti-Semitism is found on both the right and left.
Suggestion #2. Just because anti-Semitism is a threat no matter which side it comes from does not mean we fight all anti-Semites in the same way. The anti-Semitism of the right and left cannot be fought using the same methods. Different strategies are required. We should not battle supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as we do white supremacists. The same approach will not work. There are shades within this struggle. It cannot all be portrayed in black and white terms. anti-Semitism is the same – because at its root it harbors some outsized, distorted view of Jews – but then again, not all anti-Semites are the same.
Recently I met Roberta Kaplan. She is a remarkable woman. Again, she appeared a towering figure. She is the lead counsel in a lawsuit filed against those who organized the attacks in Charlottesville. In this lawsuit, supported by Integrity First for America, the legal team is using a law first written after the Civil War that makes it illegal to conspire to do violence. Through the use of a team of computer experts, they are unearthing emails and text messages that prove just that. The leaders of the anti-Semitic violence in Charlottesville meticulously planned their hate filled and violent rally.
And what is the net result? She is tying them up in the courts. So much so that to date they have been unable to organize another similar march. This year’s attacks were committed by lone actors, fueled by online hate. And here, we are making headway in shutting down the forums these anti-Semites use to talk with each other. Tech companies are belatedly, albeit somewhat hesitantly, beginning to join this fight. We have discovered and must now admit that as wonderful as the internet might be such fringe thinkers find common cause online with people who share whatever crazy, and dangerous, ideas they might harbor. The internet has made fringe thinking appear mainstream. These are fitting strategies to fight right-wing anti-Semites. Deny them the funds. Deny them the tools to organize. Throw up roadblocks at every turn.
But it is easy to identify anti-Semites when they wear hoods and paint swastikas. It is straightforward when you can shut down their shadowy ways of communicating with each other. It is much more difficult when anti-Semites hold PhDs and advocate for women’s rights or lead the charge for those in the LGBTQ community. Jews’ faith in the university, in liberal ideals, is being tested. For many Jews, it feels like we have been abandoned. On the left anti-Semitism hides behind a hatred of Israel and Zionism. And here throwing up roadblocks, or in the specific case of Representatives Omar and Tlaib, denying them entry into Israel, does not serve our fight. I recognize that it was emotionally satisfying when Israel did as is their right, and denied these congresswomen entry, but it undermined our struggle. There are Members of Israel’s Knesset who hold equally problematic views. All we accomplished was to amplify their views and make them into even greater heroes. We have to be smart and strategic in this fight.
Here, on the left, the fight is an intellectual fight. I am not so naïve, or idealistic, as to believe that such naysayers will be convinced of the rightness of our cause, and the wrongness of their views, when they are welcomed into Israel, when they see its vibrancy, as well as its pitfalls, with their own eyes, but I do believe that Israel, and the Jewish people, should be first and foremost about hope rather than fear. Israel is strong. It is a great nation. It is a bustling, and at times frustrating democracy – most especially right now – that has a first-rate military working day and night to protect its citizens, as well as Jews throughout the world. We should no longer look at it as the perennial victim.
Zionism is about transcending Jewish victimhood. The anti-BDS legislation will backfire. I realize this is an unpopular and contrarian, view. This fight is instead in the marketplace of ideas. You can, as I am sure a great many will, dismiss my idealism and my single-minded devotion to opening the table to those who hold views I abhor, as well as views that might even be dangerous, but please heed my strategic concerns. Our efforts have served to amplify these hate-filled voices. These laws have allowed BDS supporters to portray themselves as victims of those who wish to suppress free speech. And I worry this will only gain them more followers. The leaders of BDS, and the congressional representatives who support their cause, are not the same as Hamas terrorists. So yes, shut the doors tight against Hamas and other such enemies. But open the doors to BDS supporters. I recognize this is a scary idea. Have strength. Have faith in Israel’s might. Summon the koach – the inner resolve.
Let Israeli innovations speak louder than the anti-BDS legislation. Let the naysayers try to drive through New York’s streets and highways while not using Waze; let them forgo immunotherapy treatments developed in Israel; let them not find inspiration from some of Israel’s great writers, like David Grossman or actresses, like Wonder Woman (aka Gal Gadot). Sure Israel is imperfect – it is made up of human beings after all. And there are legitimate critiques to be made, and debates to be had, about its policies and decisions. Of course, Israel can do better. But in this case, that is beside the point. The anti-Semitism of the left does not see the occupation, or the settlements, or the denial of Palestinian rights, as the problems but instead Zionism itself as the problem. It sees Jewish power as a sin. It is not. Its view is that Jewish victimhood is the only appropriate reality. Again, it is not. So how do we fight this hate? Locking the doors will not work. Instead, we must not be cowed by fear. That’s what the State of Israel truly means. That’s what it means to be a Jew in the twenty first century. That is what it means to be raised in an age when there is a sovereign Jewish state. We will never be victims. And that is more a statement about how we should view ourselves rather than what happens to us in the world. It is a state of mind. We will never again look at ourselves as victims.
Be unafraid. Call out anti-Semitism. And be smart and strategic. What might work against one anti-Semite does not necessarily work against another. Do not ever allow these hatreds to dissuade you from your love of being Jewish and your belief in America. Do not ever allow hatred and violence to stifle your singing and dancing. America is different. Why? Because we want it to be so. And because we make it so.
After the graffiti was spray painted in our own backyard local lawmakers needed little prodding to stand up against it. No one dismissed it as benign. And after the massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue I received condolence notes from all manners of people. I received messages of support and offers of consolation from all corners. Friends, and strangers, reached out to the one rabbi they know to say they were saddened and horrified by what happened.
Our local clergy, and their congregants, joined us in prayer. They stood by us and offered their solidarity. I was actually in Israel during the time of the shooting and so, late one night, I quickly emailed Reverends Jeff Prey, Michael Piret, Kevin Smith and John Yenchko, the local clergy with whom I get together for lunch every few months, and said, “I don’t know what I am going to say, but I know we will need some extra prayers and songs at this coming Shabbat service. I also know I would like you to be there. Can you come? Will you be able to attend?” And they each responded, “Of course, I will be there.” And then one after the other added, “Can I bring my congregants?” I only realized later what did not need to be said, “I need you there.” I did not have to say that. My friends, and colleagues, understood this. That is what is different about America. It was as easy as email to ask for support. They all said an attack on any house of worship is an attack on us all. They all pledged that we will stand together.
But if you think that this difference happens by accident then you are mistaken. It requires hard work and devotion. Friendships that transcend religious differences, relationships that reach across political divides, must be nurtured and cared for. America is different only if we make it so.
Annie always concluded her talk with our sixth-grade students with the words, “Do not judge a person by how they look. Treat every person as an individual. Don’t treat people as categories. There are good and bad people in every group.” I think of her teachings now. I need to hear her voice in my ear. And to be honest, I misspoke at the beginning when I first said that she did not shout. There was one thing she always said with a raised voice. And it was this, “Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel shall live!” She would point that finger in the air and shout so loud that sometimes our students became startled. And she would scream, “Am Yisrael chai.”
On this Rosh Hashanah, as we enter a new Jewish year, we need to summon Annie’s koach, her inner strength and courage. We need to emulate her stature. We need to hold our heads high and shout, “Am Yisrael chai.”
Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel shall live.