The oddest antisemitic experience came in federal prison in Petersburg, VA, where I served 11 days with four other rabbis. We had been arrested and refused to pay a $50 fine for illegally demonstrating within 500 yards of the Soviet embassy.
In prison, the most menial and demeaning jobs were prized, for they relieved incipient boredom that is a real danger. On the first day, I was assigned to a five-person work detail to clean bathrooms on the second floor of our minimum security “facility.”
We used a fire hose, brushes and cleanser, and made sure to do a thorough job in order to secure reassignment the next day. But I was removed from the work detail. The chore-leader hated Jews and wanted me to suffer.
Growing up, I was beaten, stoned, and graded unfairly because I am Jewish. As an adult, I experienced antisemitism working in Mississippi, Appalachia and even Short Hills, New Jersey. Like everyone else, I’ve watched the rise in antisemitic incidents over the past several years with growing concern and fear.
What I haven’t seen is a coordinated communal response.
We five rabbis were in prison because the Rabbinical Assembly requested the Washington Board of Rabbis to coordinate monthly arrests in front of the Soviet embassy in Washington. We were part of 24 rabbis and one minister arrested in the first demonstration. We had the support of many organizations across the spectrum. For this issue we were almost “one.”
Now I don’t know how we can rid the world of antisemitism, but I do know that in our history as a people, we’ve overcome obstacles and dangers more insidious and all pervasive than the world we face today.
When we work on common cause we have achieved the impossible. It may take decades (or centuries), but when we act (mostly) together, we have created miraculous results. Lessons learned from the Soviet Jewry movement, Zionism, and saving endangered Jews around the world can be applied to modern issues.
Does this mean combating antisemitism doesn’t occupy as high a priority on our historical agenda, or that we just haven’t been given sufficient motivation to set aside our ideological differences to work together? If it did, we would all be working at strategies and solutions free of ideological and organizational divisions. Perhaps it seems too daunting — an unreachable goal.
What would Theodor Herzl say? Let’s start the conversation. Let’s look for a direction.
We have to decide if we are fighting antisemites or antisemitism. Are we trying to change people or the system? We know that antisemites are irrational. No amount of programming is going to deny them their hatred. Hatred is where they live.
We act as though a rational solution would solve an irrational hatred. What is the definition of insanity? When you repeat the same actions expecting a different result. We have had rallies, legislation and dialogue and for some reason find ourselves mired in the same swamp.
And we must understand that this is a societal issue, not a Jewish one. While specific legislation and action are necessary, we must also attack the foundational hatred at the roots of our society. We can’t afford to focus on antisemitism alone — rather, we must attack hatred in all its forms and functions. We must combat the hatred instead of the haters.
This means creating dialogues and alliances with groups and in places we have spurned, and making common cause on issues we’ve ignored. This harkens back to the Biblical command to be a “light among the nations,” and reminds us of the photograph of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr.
Somehow the Jewish community was able to put aside most of our differences and coordinate our efforts to work for the freedom of Soviet Jews. Somehow we recognized that unity of purpose could unite us for at least this one goal. If we are to have success against antisemitism, we must unite again, put our differences (mostly) aside again and coordinate effort. Otherwise, all we are doing is paying lip service to an ideal that can never be realized.
The second oddest persecution I suffered was the response of Jewish leadership to our protest and imprisonment.
Before we five were sentenced, we were pressured by Jewish communal and clergy leadership to pay the fine and not go to prison. And in prison, two groups refused to publicly support us: The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (we were told this was because they would have to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (because we were in prison for a cause that was distinctly Jewish, not global).
Do we wait for Jewish communal and clergy leadership to pick up the cudgel or must this endeavor come from the ground up? Either way it’s time for the community to determine priorities.
“Tikkun Olam” means “fix the world,” not just our small corner of it.