Lazer Gurkow

Antisemitism Rears Its Ugly Head

Antisemitism has reared its ugly head again. It is no surprise. Antisemitism never really went away. Our sages taught that antisemitism is an unchanging, intractable scourge. Esau will always hate Jacob. The only question is how close to the surface it lies.

The story of Esau and Jacob appears in the Torah portion we read this week. Esau was furious with his brother Jacob for absconding with their father’s blessings. Isaac had offered to bless Esau, and Jacob, dressed up to look like Esau, appropriated the blessings. Jacob fled their home to escape Esau’s wrath and returned thirty-four years later. But Esau was still angry.

When Jacob learned that Esau was marching against him with four hundred mercenaries, he prepared in three ways. (A) He sent a generous tribute to his brother to arouse his feelings of kinship. (B) He prayed through the night. (C) As a last resort, he prepared for war.

It turned out that war was unnecessary. Softened by the tribute, Esau was further moved when Jacob bowed before him seven times. Esau experienced a moment of mercy and chose to offer clemency. He hugged and kissed Jacob, and they then cried together.

Our sages were flabbergasted by this story. Esau had nursed his hatred for more than three decades. He was Jacob’s sworn enemy. What happened? How did he change overnight? They explained that nothing really changed. Esau’s hatred is an established, immutable fact. He was just overcome in the moment, and his heart was stirred. Nothing really changed. Underneath, the antisemitism remained.

A Statement for Generations
Our sages were not just talking about Esau; they were talking about antisemitism across the generations. The author of this statement, Rabbi Shimon, was the same rabbi who spent thirteen years in a cave hiding from the Romans who wanted to kill him. He knew and understood antisemitism. He also knew that though antisemites can be overcome in a moment of compassion and be nice to Jews, it doesn’t change their underlying antisemitism.

The same Rabbi Shimon traveled to Rome after returning from the cave and prevailed upon the emperor to rescind a series of decrees against the Jews. The temporary reprieve did not get his hopes up. He knew who he was dealing with. Antisemitism can be tamped down sometimes, but it is never really gone.

Contemporary Antisemitism
The antisemites who railed against Israel on October 7, absolving the savages and blaming the victims for the monstrous massacre of children, the elderly, families, and infants, are pure antisemites. They surprised some of us because we hadn’t seen such virulent antisemitism since the Holocaust. But it was a mistake to think that antisemitism was gone. As Rabbi Shimon declared all those years ago, antisemitism is an immutable fact. As long as there will be Jews, there will be antisemitism.

This includes those who spoke compassionately about Israel on October 7 but have since changed their tune. Today, they rail against Israel and call them baby slayers while giving Hamas a pass for the many hostages they continue to hold. They rewrite history and call Jews occupiers and colonialists. It is the greatest joke in the world. Jews are indigenous to Israel, yet having fulfilled the prophecies of yesteryear by returning to their own land, they are derided as occupiers. This revision of history is pure antisemitism.

The United Nations 1975 resolution declaring Zionism as racism is also antisemitism. There are more than twenty Muslim countries, most of which don’t permit Jews to live among them. If they do live there, it is under duress and with second-class status. Yet, Israel, the one country in the Middle East where Arabs can live alongside Jews, is deemed racist. That is antisemitism.

Criticizing Israel is not antisemitism. But criticizing Israel while giving others a pass for the very same behavior is blatant antisemitism. The unwillingness to admit it doesn’t make it less so.

Israel is derided for killing innocent civilians. Yet, Syria targeted and murdered more than 200,000 of its civilians during the uprising in 2011. Nearly 23,000 were children, and nearly 16,000 were women. They also tortured more than 15,000 of their own citizens. This is in addition to the thousands killed by Russia. No one demonstrated in the streets against Syria or Russia—no one called for gassing Syrian nationals around the world. More than half the Syrian population was displaced in that war, and no one demonstrated at the White House in Washington on their behalf. Yet, when Israel urges civilians to leave the battlefield for safer places, they are accused of displacing civilians.

I don’t recall angry demonstrations on college campuses when Russia carpet-bombed Ukrainian civilians or when 15,000 Yemenite civilians were targeted and murdered by Saudi-led coalitions. These demonstrations against Israel prove only one thing. That antisemitism is alive and well. It is shocking only because many were lulled into the illusion that it was gone. Antisemitism is never gone.

Don’t Change a Thing
The moral is that we ought not to change a thing to placate antisemites because haters will always hate. They don’t hate us for defending ourselves. They don’t hate us for living on our land. They hate us for being us. We can twist ourselves into ten pretzels, and they will still hate us. Let’s not allow the haters to determine our self-worth. Our value doesn’t depend on their approval or acceptance. They will never approve, anyway. Our value is intrinsic. We are valuable in G-d’s eyes, and that is what counts.

In the days of old, they hated us for our religion. When that went out of vogue, they hated us for being Capitalists. Then they hated us for being Communists. After that, they hated us for our race. When racism went out of vogue, they hated us for our land. If we give up our land, they will find another excuse. Even in this war, they hate us for shooting civilians and for moving civilians out of the line of fire. They hate us both ways and leave us no way out. They don’t have a legitimate reason to hate us. They hate us simply for being. We can’t mitigate their hatred by giving them what they want because what they want is our utter annihilation.

Don’t Give Up
On the other hand, we also don’t give up on the nations and even the antisemites. Jacob demonstrated that Esau’s heart could be softened on occasion. Rabbi Shimon secured the goodwill of Rome, though he knew that their hatred was implacable. The same is true for us. Though they hate us and always will, we can have little breakthroughs. Not by kowtowing to them but by remaining true to our values and identity. By speaking calmly, proudly, and without apology about who we are and what we stand for.

We can tell them that the IDF does more for enemy noncombatants than any other army in the world. We can tell them about our legitimate Jewish right to our Jewish land. We can speak without apology and without reservation about the wickedness of Hamas and the need to dismantle them.

We can’t make antisemitism disappear, but we can sway key people in key moments to support our cause. That is how we respond to the unending scourge of antisemitism.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at