Anti-Semitism and radical empathy

For those of us lucky enough to be born in the New York metropolitan area after the end of the World War II, anti-Semitism is more or less an elusive thing, not a memory for any of us, more a bogey than any kind of reality.

It is to our horror that we see that we were wrong; although still most of us have not experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, we know that it has not gone away, that it is not a leftover old European nightmare.

We also know that it is not only anti-Semitism that seems to have resurged, or at least resurfaced from the sewers where it hid and bred and festered here for more than half a century. Racism is back. To be more accurate, racism never has gone away, any more than anti-Semitism has, but it’s become less hidden. Just like anti-Semitism.

Is there any hope?

Yes, there does seem to be.

The murderer in Charlottesville, who rammed his car into people peacefully protesting the moronically evil tiki-torchlit march the night before, when the brave thugs who did not wear masks but still tried to hide their identities (and who suffered repercussions when their IDs hit the internet, because most people are horrified by them) paraded shouting “Jews will not replace us,” the man who killed Heather Heyer, whose presence in the world would have made the world a better place, just was sentenced to life in prison. (To be specific, his sentence was passed down by a jury, as is done in Virginia; the judge has to ratify it. The jury sentenced him to life plus 419 years in prison, along with a fine of $480,000. And I am not using his name because he does not deserved to be called by name.)

When the synagogue murderer killed 11 people in Pittsburgh, the reaction was immediate and overwhelming. It was of grief and disgust and appalled recognition that such evil was possible. It was not positive, except perhaps in the nether reaches of the dark web.

We also know that there are some local institutions, particularly schools, where anti-Semitism is a low-level but hideous, joy-sapping thing, and that there often is discussion about whether it is better or worse to expose it, better or worse to go after the kids who do it, better or worse for their victims to have to deal with the aftermath of the exposure. Because yes, it gets better, but often before it gets better it gets worse.

Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary who also is the provost there, is feeling some hope. It’s a feeling she shared at an open talk with her good friend Dr. Mary C. Boys last week.

Dr. Boys is a professor of practical theology (what a wonderful title!), a dean, and the vice president of academic affairs at Union Theological Seminary, the Protestant school right across Broadway from JTS in upper Manhattan. She is also a Catholic nun.

The two women have taught together many times over the course of just about a decade, Dr. Schwartz said; last spring, they headed a course on Jewish Christian relations to a class divided just about in half between Christians and Jews. All were studying for leadership positions, mainly but not entirely as clergy members. “What grew out of that experience was something very hopeful,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I feel and Mary shares my feelings about confronting the painful experiences and really working through them together.”

Anti-Semitism more or less as we know it is just about as old as Christianity, she said, and grew out of the Christians’ need to differentiate themselves from the religion with which at first it shared so much. “They had a lot of nasty things to say, and once those words were out, they were out,” she said. “Words matter.

“And so it became very much part and parcel of the way the church understood Jews.” Soon enough that base was mixed with the power politics of the medieval period. Nothing good ensued.

“Once those anti-Semitic tropes are there, they are available to be used as the basis for new theories of anti-Semitism,” Dr. Schwartz continued. “Societies are often looking for scapegoats. So all the forms of modern anti-Semitism are overlaid on this foundation.

“Anti-Semitism is like the canary in the coal mine. When societies begin tolerating anti-Semitism, it is a very bad sign.” And it is not coincidental that the upswing in anti-Semitism and violence began with the presidential campaign of 2016 and gone upward ever since then.

Still, she feels hope.

“Part of what gives me hope, and impelled Mary and me to do this, is that thank God there have been decades of interfaith dialogue, not only in this country but particularly in this country.

“When I turned my phone back on after Shabbat when Pittsburgh happened, and texted with my kids and everyone else I know to see how everyone was dealing with it, I found a text from Mary.

“It was beautiful. When there was a memorial service at my shul the next night, she was there.

“I think that the experience of confronting pain together, of being present for one another, of having that kind of radical empathy, really matters.”

We all can use radical empathy, both directed at us and beaming from us. It’s a practice; we can start to work on it now.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)