Unfortunately, there are nearly countless — at least, seemingly countless — recent reports about antisemitism. Representative of the current avalanche is CNN’s one-two punch this week of a seven-and-a-half minute segment about antisemitic activity in the U.S., followed by a parallel piece about Europe. I’m projecting of course, but the face of the (often) Jewish anchor when the field reporter kicks the story back to the desk is stuck in I-need-to-be-neutral-but-I-can’t-be mode. Other than the ones living comfortably under a rock somewhere, or those who are ideologically predisposed not to believe the mountain of evidence, there aren’t too many who can claim to be surprised. It would be as if Captain Renault turned to the camera and said, “I’m shocked! Shocked to find that there’s antisemitism going on here.” (Apologies to my favorite movie.)
I’ve added my own share of articles and blogs and classes, everything from this-is-how-bad-it-really-is to facilitated discussions about so-what-do-we-do-about-it. I’m not bemoaning the coverage — sunlight is often the best disinfectant, and the more who know, the better our chances to combat this scourge the right way, with all hands on deck.
At the risk of adding to the teetering pile of unread accounts and exhortations to do something; of pleas to allies and would-be allies to stand together; of hushed whispers to hide or battle cries to resuscitate a twenty-first-century incarnation of the JDL, I’ll add a few more paragraphs to the national conversation, but not about the antisemitism coming from the outside toward us. Rather, this is the softer, let’s-not-even-call-it-antisemitism that starts within – less violent than its mirror image, but far more insidious.
I’ll assume that everyone knows this staple of Borsht Belt humor: A Jewish castaway is thrown onto the shore of a deserted island, and spends his time creating huts and a lean-to and anything else that can be manufactured out of palm branches. A rescue boat finds him, and before his new best friends take him home, he shows them his island. They’re impressed with all that he built, particularly the island shul he created. About ready to leave, they see a second handmade synagogue, just beyond the nearest sand dune. Asked why he made two when it’s just him on the island, he points to the second building and says, That’s the one I wouldn’t be caught dead in. Cue the painful laugh track.
Second really bad joke with an even worse message: Question posed to and from Jews: What’s the closest religion to Judaism? Answer: Chabad.
And the hits keep on coming. True, there’s no more biting humor than family humor — sisters and brothers, literal and figurative, can find the most sensitive buttons to push. But this is more than knowing how to get under our own skin.
In the 60s and 70s, there were some really awful acronyms thrown about, by Jews about other Jews, specifically to and about American Jews and Israelis, by Israelis and American Jews. Davka, these were, by and large, epithets from people who were knowledgeable and engaged in the broader Jewish community, who on the surface worked hard and spoke often about building bridges and working together and espoused we-are-one values. How many times did the speakers and proponents and putative leaders step down from the dais or leave the conference room, only to engage in the not-so-innocent name-calling and stereotype-perpetuation?
In a couple of recent conversations with people who frankly devote their lives — personal and professional — supposedly to building those communal bridges, I was surprised to hear how durable those stereotypes are. Gross misperceptions – from people who really should know better — of American Jews by Israelis and of Israelis by American Jews still dot the landscape.
We know — we should know — about our self-inflicted wounds throughout our history. We often cite the Second Temple period as the model of how not to get along with each other; Sadducees and Pharisees and Zealots and Essenes vied for supremacy, argued with each other and sided against each other, and our Sages famously offered sinat chinam — baseless hatred — as a reason (one of the reasons) for the destruction of Herod’s Temple, and of the beginning of our second exile.
We don’t need to travel that far back to be chastised by our own history. In the Eighteenth Century, Mitnagdim actively persecuted Hasidim, and pronounced unions between the two sects as “intermarriage.” Hasidic Rebbes were even jailed by the Gentile authorities after being denounced by Mitnagdic Rabbis.
Of course in the previous century, the Yishuv was an intra-Jewish battleground, with bitter arguments between the Haganah and the Palmach and Etzel and Lehi. With common enemies in plain view, they chose to fight with each other.
In the States we don’t denounce each other to the Romans or the Polish or Tzarist police, or to the British High Commissioner. Rather, we poke fun at each other’s dress or Hebrew pronunciation or level of learning; we’re incensed that some choose to rise for a prayer while others stay seated – forgetting that doing either is intended to honor the centrality of the prayer itself. It’s not the standing or sitting — it’s the importance we attribute to the words, and the meaning those words have in our lives.
With all of our very real external enemies, we can do without the internal ones. Leave the stereotypes to the antisemites (they can’t tell any of us apart anyway).