How to Fight Anti-Semitism

A sobering realization in the wake of this week’s September 11th anniversary. Today’s political and ideological quagmire is self-inflicted. In the 18 years since 2001, we’ve tied ourselves in knots.Things are so dysfunctional, it’s hard to know where to turn or how to proceed. Those who benefit from such a morass are those who thrive on chaos. 

The timely arrival of Bari Weiss’s new book,”How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” offers a coherent way forward. Classifying the multidimensional nature of the threat is hard to do at a single sitting. She effectively delineates a three-headed dragon fueled by age-old threats from the right, moral contempt from the left, and physical violence from a new generation of pouncing extremists. It calls for a threefold response. We must reconsider how we orient ourselves toward our enemies, toward our allies, and toward ourselves.

She draws inspiration from Ze’ev Maghen’s 1990s historical analysis. Weathering attacks against our people was never helped enough by protesting, screaming, or appealing. Rather, to use Weiss’s words, building works much better than begging. Building more self-respecting Jews yields an authenticity that is admired by our allies. It is also a more enduring vaccine against our adversaries. 

A threefold approach aligns well the threefold repetition of a phrase in this week’s portion of Torah. Memories of three different events are recalled ‘on your way out of Egypt’ (ba-derekh b’tzeitchem mi-mitzvraim): 1) enemy threats represented by Amalek (Deut. 25:7),  2) a failed alliance with one-time friendly neighbors, the descendants of Lot (Deut. 23:5), and 3) internal sibling strife involving Moses’ sister Miriam – the kind of rivalry we thought we had left behind at the end of the Book of Genesis (Deut. 24:9). A safe and successful journey forward depends on recognizing the difference between real threats and self-inflicted ones.  This is the season when we most need to take Jewish renewal personally. It is not merely an election season, as last night’s Democratic Debate and this Tuesday’s vote in Israel remind, but also a season of personal Jewish return in anticipation of the High Holy Days.   

“I stand before the iconoclasm of Abraham and Sarah” writes Weiss. “I stand before the faith of Rabbi Akiva and the courage of Hannah Senesh.  I stand before the brazenness of the Maccabees, before the compassion of Ruth and the optimism of Anne Frank and the audaciousness of Ben-Gurion. That is my proud legacy. That is my inheritance. That is the line I want to be a part of, however tiny my role.”

Faced today by an ‘Olympics of purity’ on the right, of ‘victimization’ on the left, and of rabid ‘attacks’ along our way, Weiss is moved by the journey on another journalist. A younger Herzl had once sought to shed his Jewishness. Yet the ultimate reach of his history-altering vision took shape despite his not being a Jewish professional or public leader. It takes a journalist to recognize the surpassing influence of another journalist. May that influence reach further, into our personal renewal in the New Year that awaits us.

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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