William Hamilton

‘Anti-Semitism did not really succeed until Jews began to sponsor it’

Many are caught off guard by the dizzying surge in attacks on our people. We’re midstep on our life-journeys, and then, all at once, we’re rattled by its cold slap across the face.

Gifted journalist Matti Friedman’s new piece, takes us on a required Viennese visit to the 1890s. It is eerily current. The most chilling conclusion he draws from the book he reviews is that “anti-Semitism did not really succeed until the Jews began to sponsor it.” Herzl, of course, responds differently. He does the unexpected. Friedman sums up his choice: “He doesn’t invent a story about why none of this is about him.”

We’re witnessing an alarming increase in self-identifying Jewish voices who brazenly condemn ‘those kind of Jews’ as the source for anti-Semitism’s surge. Alas, existential division among our people is not new. One of its origin stories arrives in this week’s portion of Torah. Its lessons could not be more timely.

The story may be familiar. Ten of the twelve scouts denounce plans to settle the covenanted land. The consequences will be forty years of wilderness wandering, a year for each of their forty-day expedition (Num. 14:34).

A few noteworthy points hold our attention this year. 1) God still nourishes the condemned generation daily with cloud-shelter and manna. As worthy as they are of punishment, they are not abandoned, defenestrated, or canceled. 2) All ten spies, whom Caleb and Joshua try to talk some sense into, speak in a single voice. Mob-like defamation coagulates. 3) The gigantic inhabitants that threaten settlement of the land are real. They get an early biblical introduction and then re-appear in the book of Joshua and in Goliath (Gen. 6:1-4, Num. 13, Josh 11, I Sam. 17:4). This is no excuse for the scouts’ collapse of self-esteem. Particularly given that they just saw first-hand how the God who still leads them, defeated a much mightier Egyptian empire. But real dangers ought not be waved off as optical illusions.

From these points we can learn a few things. First, there is nothing wrong with self-criticism. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Wise criticism begins with self-criticism.” Regrettable wrongs committed by Israelis in recent weeks collect rebukes like bees collect honey. Still, it’s telling that when Israel is on the verge of seating the most diverse governing coalition in her history – one that would include an Islamist Israeli Party and future Prime Minister who attends a Reform synagogue – headlines reduce this to ‘Bibi to be displaced by right-lurching Bennett’.

Secondly, flashmob mentality has horrifying consequences, particularly when it’s incited online. Look no further than Myanmar.

Lastly, problems for which there are no solutions are unattractive. We’re raised to be unaccepting of wrongful trends, to rail against them, to struggle to reverse them. This applies to unremitting violence as it does to scorching Jew-hatred. Still, we’re also raised not to renounce history, particularly not to disown our own.

Our tumultuous portion of Torah concludes with a practice to tether fringes with tassels that tie us to holy precepts. Such sacred attire seeks to curb wandering eyes and hearts. May internalizing past lessons with present practice, help us find trusted fellow-travelers on the journey to a brighter future.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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