Is Antisemitism the Real Problem?

Is Antisemitism the Real Problem?

I am not usually contrarian on major issues, but I do think that the Jewish community is making a false investment in ‘Antisemitism Education.’ It’s the wrong focus to bet on for our future. Antisemitism is a problem for the Jewish community; no question it’s on everyone’s mind. But the recent 50 years, which saw significantly less overt and covert antisemitism, have been the anomaly of Jewish history. The recent months are more the norm. We are not going to ‘educate’ antisemitism out of existence. Hallevai! If only it were so. But we do have some traditional advice.

Antisemitism is not a fight we can win. The numbers are simply not in our favour. We Jews are approximately 15,000,000 in a population on Earth of 8,000,000,000. There appear to be far more active and potential antisemites in the greater community than we will ever be able to reach with any education program. Antisemites and antisemitism are problems, no doubt, but we Jews are another real problem. The Jewish condition today and our future suffer from the malaise caused by ongoing disengagement with Judaism, lack of connection to our people, and ignorance about our history and tradition. No wonder we are dismayed at the current antisemitism! As a people, we really don’t know of such periods free of antisemitism. Our current situation is what we are left with from, amongst other things, mediocre Jewish education. We have a generation of Jews who don’t know enough about what being Jewish is. This is a problem in the community ‘laity’ (amcha) and in its leadership.

Jews need to be aware of what makes them Jewish, whether they are religious or not. Navigating and responding to antisemitism and other heinous aspects of our current culture as a Jew requires knowing more than just a childhood little about our history and wanderings. We need to educate for Semitism so that we can stand strong and be proud Jews regardless of threats from antisemitism. We firmly believe there is Jewish learning for everybody, through which knowledge and understanding of Judaism can be nurtured. There is a vast sea of Jewish content from which to choose.    

Much is said about most young people who get their awareness about the world, Israel and other current events from social media. Surely, because they don’t know our history or literature, etc, they, in turn, don’t understand why there is such a negative focus on the Jews in society, i.e., antisemitism. Our vast heritage and tradition, literature and lore are closed books to most Jews. This needs to change. Understanding and appreciating who we are and how we got to where we are is critical to understanding daily current events and establishing an identity with our people.   

We must focus on what Jews have used to survive throughout the centuries. Jewish history tells us that our people’s survival through the myriad of difficult trials and tribulations of Jewish communities over millennia is based on what we broadly call “Jewish education.” Jewish education builds a viable and flourishing Jewish identity, that is fundamental to survival. Our Sages taught that the learning of Torah was a deed that could stand in apposition (k’neged) to all the other mitzvot of the Torah (Pe’ah 1:1). (Torah here is a very big tent.) Perhaps this means that Torah study is fundamental to all of them. Without an appreciation of and engagement with our fundamentals, the other mitzvot are not complete. Engaging in the broad world of Jewish study enhances not only our ability to defend ourselves but also builds strength in supporting community and personal identity.  

Since October 7, there have been endless stories about disengaged Jews for whom something inexplicable happened. On that day, many felt a deep need to reconnect with their Judaism or the community. Sadly, many don’t even know how to begin that process or about the vast range of Jewish content available in large Jewish communities and the sea of material on the Internet covering the total spectrum of Jewish identities, practices and affiliations. There truly is something for everyone to choose.

Andres Spokoiny of the Jewish Funders Network (Sapir Winter 2022) advocates for a ‘moonshot’ program in Jewish education. We must invest in an all-out effort to increase everyone’s Jewish awareness through education. Only through steady engagement with our foundational texts, history, values and traditions can our people survive.

As with planting trees, the best time to start is 30 years ago. The second best time is now.

About the Author
I am retired from a career in public and Jewish education. I have an MA in Jewish Studies (McGill) with a focus on Bible Interpretation. I'm a founder of an online Jewish high school - - and Adult Education Chairman at my synagogue.
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