In connection with the blog introduced by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Mark Diamond, referencing the dialogue between Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons) and Jewish scholars, recently completed in Israel, such conversations serve to identify our commonalities of interests as well as note the areas of our differences. In this second reflection in connection with our gathering, I want to give specific emphasis to the place of anti-Semitism in the Jewish historical consciousness and its contemporary meaning for both Latter-day Saints and Jews.
In planning any discussions around faith and community, by necessity Jews need to reference the history of anti-Semitism as well as its contemporary impact. While the Church of Latter-day Saints is a relatively new American faith tradition, founded in 1830, the Church’s history is replete with its own stories of hatred and violence directed against its followers.
No visit to Israel with a second faith community is complete without incorporating Yad Vashem. Dedicated to preserving the memory and meaning of the Shoah, this Holocaust remembrance museum pays honor to Jews who fought against their oppressors and to those gentiles who came to the aid of Jews during the Nazi era. Yad Vashem, we are reminded, serves also as a research center studying the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general.
In planning our program, we saw our visit to the Museum as a prelude to engaging with our colleagues around the contemporary issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism as well as to reflect as well on issues of prejudice and hate also being directed against other constituencies. Following the group’s visit to Yad Vashem, I had occasion to lead a session on contemporary anti-Semitism at the BYU Jerusalem Center.
To understand the mindset of today’s Jews requires one to embrace our community’s historical experience with the overlay of anti-Judaism as a core backdrop. In introducing the current focus on anti-Semitism, I suggested the following:
In this age where the political culture has seeded hate, division, and social tension, the Jewish community is not immune from these disruptive patterns of behavior.
As the hate crime reports are being tallied, both the FBI and the ADL are reporting increased incidents of harassment, cyber hate, and physical threats and assaults. The 2018 FBI Hate Crimes Report noted: “Attacks on Jews accounted for 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, the highest of any targeted religious group.”
Jews who were seen for decades as political outsiders are now defined as part of the established power class. As a result, a new “unsettledness” for Jews is contributing to this current political condition. License has been given to our enemies and critics in dismissing Jews as privileged “white” political actors, who are seen by the left as no longer in consort with communities of color and by the right, as mere political imposters, seeking to claim “whiteness” as the Jewish entry point into the circles of power.
Four factors are framing the current political environment:
A New Political Mindset: Organized attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have altered the state of Jewish consciousness. The presence today of groups and individuals who are prepared to impose violence in order to remove Jews but also blacks, Hispanics and Muslims, because these groups don’t fit their racial or religious definition of who is an American and what America ought to represent.
If one looks carefully at the websites of the alt-right, the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis, their unique and particular focus on Jews is striking, if not scary. Hatred of everyone that is non-white represents their generic mantra. Jews are seen as distinctive for being the intellectual outliers, charged with framing the ideas and political protocols for “multi-culturalism, pluralism, and globalism”.
Intersectionality Movement, Jews as White: The term itself, “intersectionality,” has only surfaced within the past decade. Its implications are significant, challenging and problematic for liberal Jews. Here again, the issue of “whiteness” plays a dominant role. Some progressives are seeking to discredit Jewish (Zionist) participation as legitimate liberal actors on the basis that “Jews have become white” and therefore by definition belong to the oppressor class, possessing no claims as authentic political partners on behalf of communities of color. Indeed, if you are categorized as a “Zionist,” then your standing is further compromised as we have witnessed inside both the Women’s Movement and the LGBTQ community.
The very issue of race and whiteness simply was not part of the conversation a decade earlier about how Jews were perceived in the American context, yet today it has become a central tenet of the ideology of the alt-Right and part of the political rhetoric of the extreme left. The “whiteness” of America’s Jews is now a racial barometer of acceptance. For the far right, the Jewish pedigree is defined as non-white and therefore any Jewish aspirations to operate in the political mainstream, as part of the “white establishment” must be rejected.
“Israel Has No Right to Exist”: Under this mantra, the enemies of the Jewish State have bypassed their earlier criticisms of Israel’s policies in favor of seeking an end to the Zionist State. Here, historical realities are distorted to create “new truths”. This is where our enemies are expropriating the imagery of Hitler’s Germany onto the Jewish State, with Jews and more directly, Israelis, are being defined as the new Nazis.
Cyber Hate: This is the fourth and newest form of anti-Semitic practice. Cyber political language permits lies and rumors to represent fact. Of special concern social media has increasingly served as a platform for hate messaging in the form of conspiracy theories and the promulgation of “false facts.” The presence of extremist websites has produced a heightened volume of hate speech. With the marginalization of factual information, it becomes easier to market messages of political hate, creating an environment not only conducive to political rhetoric but also to threats of physical abuse. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that such generic practices as immigrant bashing, assaults on Muslims, and racial profiling has also produced attacks on individual Jews, Judaism, and the State of Israel.
As a result of these emerging realities, one can monitor the emergence of a different Jewish political response-taking root within this country. There is a heightened awareness among Jews of extremist expressions challenging not only the existing democratic norms of the nation but also reflective of how minority communities are being categorized and threatened.
In summary, I hold to the proposition that all forms of political hatred are odious and dangerous. However, anti-Jewish behavior in each of its diabolic forms, whether generated from the right or the left, represents a different assertion, as the end goal here must be seen as a threat to the welfare and status of our people and its nation.
In this new setting Jews must rethink the political propositions that helped shape and frame their rise to access and to influence. Shaped by a changing political culture, America is becoming a different society. How our nation moves forward in confronting this new age of hate maybe its 21st Century litmus test.”
Whether the subject of hate, and more directly anti-Semitism, is introduced into an interfaith dialogue conversation or any other form of public discourse, it is essential to address these distinctive and unsettling issues with our religious partners, if they or the broader society is to fully appreciate the Jewish experience. Indeed, drawing upon the experience of visiting Yad Vashem and in developing a deeper understanding of the place of prejudice and hate within the Jewish narrative, following our session on contemporary anti-Semitism, our Latter-day Saint partners, I believe, had a better understanding of the impact and significance of these issues for Jews, while aligning these concerns with their own historical experience of religious intolerance.