Defying the Anti-Semites of Our Day

A few months ago, I told a story about a group of semi-affiliated members of my previous shul in London. We started meeting up once a month for a chat and Sarah’s chocolate cake and some beer. And I began by asking them what they most disliked about being Jewish. When they answered me “going to shul,” I was crestfallen.

But that night, I asked them another question. “What does being Jewish mean to you?” The first person to answer said, “It means always knowing where you passport is.” I didn’t understand, so I said, “You mean going on vacations abroad?” And he said, “No, I mean being able to get out when they come for the Jews.” Half the men in the room nodded in agreement. I’ve gotta tell you. At the time, I thought they were crazy. Now I realize that I was the crazy one.

For the past week, in particular, but for much longer I have been transfixed as the existence of anti-Semitism has been exposed in all its terrifying fury in the United Kingdom.

The new leader of the Labour Party, an extreme left winger who has regularly marched alongside supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas, has presided over an increasingly vocal series of attacks against Jews from his own party members.

Calls to exterminate Israel, forcefully transfer Jews to America are commonplace. Under intense media scrutiny the Labour Party has been forced to suspend well over 50 members, many of them elected officials to town councils and even members of parliament, for statements that accuse Jews of controlling the media, the banking system, America and the British government, inventing the holocaust and much much more.

And just to put this in perspective, right now England is considered the safe place to go for European Jews — from Paris, Marseilles, Brussels and other parts of Europe where anti-Semitic physical attacks have become so threatening that Jews are abandoning them as quickly as possible.

But matters went from awful to absolutely unacceptable over Pesach when in an effort to support anti-Semites in his party, the former mayor of London took to the BBC to proclaim to the nation that Hitler was a Zionist.

Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

And that comments, smacking of the vilest anti-Semitism, inverting history, placing the Jewish victims, about to be destroyed  as the perpetrators, the conspirators, the guilty.

But that vile comment places us exactly in this time of year we find ourselves in today. Mishoah L’Tekumah. The Shabbat between Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day this past Thursday, and Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day this coming week.

Thanks to a member of our shul, Howard Weiser, I have been learning about an organization called Toldot Yisrael. Like a Steven Spielberg foundation for the creation of Israel, the organization records video testimony of thousands of people involved in the founding of the state of Israel.

And this week an interview was published that brought a fascinating story to light.

It is 1942. The Germans are barrelling through North Africa. If Egypt falls to the Nazis, Palestine is next. So sure were they of victory, that the SS had already dispatched a einsatzgruppen (death squad) unit to Athens to join the forces heading toward the Holy Land.

The Haganah decided that if the worst came to the worst there would be a last stand. The Jews of the Yishuv,, as many as possible, would be taken to the top of Har Carmel, and they would defend themselves. Perhaps help would come, perhaps it would not.

An elderly man describes on a video how, as a teenager, he was called to a meeting between Levi Eshkol and all of  the teenagers of the Jezreel valley kibutzim. Eshkol told them that boys and girls over the age of 14 were to be trained to fight the Nazi invaders, and they should be prepared  to die, in Eshkol’s words “al kiddush Hashem”.

That is what Hitler, should there be any doubt, thought of Zionism. And so, the question is not, as the anti-Semites of today insist, whether the Nazis were really Zionists, or that Zionists are really Nazis. The question is what causes this obsession, this hatred beyond all bounds of reason, logic to persist.

As Jonathan Sacks has written anti-Semitism is the longest surviving ideology in the world — its roots go back to the Ancient Greeks. It is also the most contradictory. The Jews were hated for their lack of a state, and for having a state. For having a religion and for being secularists. For being communists and for being capitalist. “Jew, go to Palestine,” they used to shout, now the call is, “Jews out of Palestine.”

How are we to process — intellectually and emotionally — these events?  That 70 years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is roaring back in  terrifying and dangerous ways.

I want to suggest that what is happening in the world should fill us not with doubt but with pride, not with despair but with confidence.

It is unquestionably true that the Holocaust shakes everyone’s faith, how could it not? How can our belief in good and evil go unexamined in the light of Auschwitz?

But speaking for myself, it also strengthens my faith. Because how can this hatred of the Jews be so prevalent? How can it take on so many guises — be so illogical, so mystifying, so out of place in our modern, politically correct world  and yet so accepted?

To me, the persistence of anti-Semitism is because of one thing that our enemies realize that we all too often forget. That Judaism matters. That the Jewish people matter.  That what we do, what we stand for — our way of life, our beliefs and values that we are keeping alive and bringing to humanity —  all of that is far, far more important than we sometimes realize.

If Hitler, Stalin, the far right and the far left and the most evil forces in world history for thousands of years, who would destroy human rights and good values, agree on only one thing, namely that Jews are evil, then that reinforces my belief that Jews are good – that  we carry G-d’s message of hope and faith to all Humanity.

And if that doesn’t give you faith — just — please — look around shul today. Look at us, every shul in America, around the world — look at the State of Israel — flourishing beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.

Nothing makes me stronger as a Jew than to consider the fact that I and my children study the same words of Torah, “amar Rava amar Abaye”, as have been studied for thousands of years. Despite Hitler, despite pogroms. Despite everything.

And that’s our response, our only response. Not to despair, and certainly not to hide our identities. But to strengthen ourselves and continue to build our Jewish world.

We are — as we reflect on this week — the people that marched from the concentration camps to build the most miraculous country the world has ever seen.

I always wondered why our parsha begins

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD, and died.

Why reference this tragedy? The Torah doesn’t usually say, for example that Hashem spoke ‘after the Sin of the Golden Calf” or ‘after the sin of the Spies.’

So why now?

I believe the answer is as follows.

G-d has a commandment for Aharon.  “Bizot yavo el hakodesh” — every Yom Kippur, you as kohen gadol, and after you, your descendants — will go into the Holy of Holies — the most special moment and place in the world, and get atonement for the Jewish people.

How does Aharon feel at that moment,  when G-d informs him of this holy, eternal mission? His sons have died. He is in deep mourning. How will life ever go on? Who could possibly recover from this?

I always share the following story with mourners at the end of Shiva. Two days after I got up from Shiva for my late father, I was taken to meet Rabbi Sacks. I was 26, still a rabbinical student. He had just been appointed Chief Rabbi. And he said to me “Paul I have heard great things about you. We are looking forward to your getting smicha, you will be such an asset to the rabbinate.”

And I looked at him uncomprehendingly. My father had died. I didn’t know what way up I was standing. And I just thought — “not now, not anymore..that used to be my future. Now I haven’t got one.”

Such is grief, and such is loss.

And Aharon stands, shattered. He and his remaining children at this shocking bereavement.  And precisely then — acharei mot — after the death, the terrible dislocating loss, Hashem says to Aharon once a year the whole Jewish people’s fate will be in your hands.

And Aharon could be forgiven for thinking “not anymore..I don’t have a tomorrow anymore, I don’t have a future, not now”

But he does not. Because that’s not the Jewish way.

Acharei mot — bizot yavo el hakodesh.

The Israeli poet Tzur Erlich put it so poignantly;

שְנֵי יְמֵי זִכָּרוֹן סְמוּכִים כָּל שָנָה

לְטוֹבַת הַחִישוּב הַכְּלָלִי

כַּמָה עוֹלֶה לָנוּ עִם מְדִינָה

וְכַמָּה עוֹלֶה לָנוּ בְּלִי

“Yom Hazikaron (memorial day for fallen Israeli soldiers), is about the terrible price we pay for having a State of our own; Yom Hashoah is about the terrible price we paid for not having a State of our own.”

May Hashem send His people Strength and Peace, and may  welcome Moshiach Tzidkeynu speedily, in our days. Amen.

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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