Avi Weiss
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Jews do count: Stop anti-Jewish hatred

I look to political leadership and grassroots activists, to pulpit rabbis and the general public to make so-called antisemitism utterly and always unacceptable
Hoboken Police officers stand watch outside the United Synagogue of Hoboken, in Hoboken, New Jersey, November 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Ryan Kryska)
Hoboken Police officers stand watch outside the United Synagogue of Hoboken, in Hoboken, New Jersey, November 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Ryan Kryska)

In recent weeks, major Jewish organizations convened rallies, raising a voice against the growing antisemitism throughout America, and in particular in the New York/New Jersey area. (The NY Police Department reports that through November of this year, there were 278 incidents, 53 percent more than last year.) The organizers deserve credit for their effort, but something is amiss.

There are two kinds of rallies: a rally in which politicians speak to the people, and then there is a rally where the people speak to politicians. The rallies just held fall into the former category. Politician after politician spoke of their commitment to eradicate the scourge of antisemitism, and Jewish community leaders exalted their efforts.

No doubt, thank yous are in order — but there need to be voices, strong voices who directly challenge the politicians, telling them, “You must do more.” Platitudes and well-meaning statements are not enough. Leadership is assuming responsibility; the recognition that the buck stops at the top. And it is under the watch of our elected officials that antisemitism is spiraling out of control.

Where are the voices demanding that district attorneys and attorney generals explain why the vast majority of antisemitic assailants never serve time? (Americans Against Antisemitism documented that from April 2018-August 2022 in New York City, only two cases resulted in prison sentences.) There must be zero tolerance for antisemitism. The long term emotional and psychological impact on the Jewish victims and their communities lingers on and on. Being soft on antisemites sends the message that one can beat up on Jews with impunity — that Jews don’t count.

What is needed too are the voices of the amcha, the grassroots, who do not wait for national representatives to lead, but become leaders themselves. Today, we need women and men, ready to rally, relentlessly, tenaciously, without stop, engaging when necessary in nonviolent civil disobedience in front of government offices, courthouses and at community board meetings, demanding more be done to educate the community, patrol the streets and punish the offenders…insisting, Jews Do Count.

We need rabbis to lead the way. It’s their synagogues that have too often been under attack and are under threat. It is they who can be most influential, rallying their constituents to “gather round.” Rabbis need to show the way, calling out, “Acharai after me.”

We need to leave our safer communities to express solidarity with our Hasidic and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sisters and brothers in their communities, where the vast number of attacks occur. This means visiting for Shabbat, standing vigil where attacks have taken place, drawing attention, making sure antisemitism is never normalized. We must loudly and clearly declare that we are one: an attack against any Jew because he or she is a Jew is an attack against every Jew, against all people of moral conscience.

The time has come to call out antisemitism whether from the right or left, for what it is: acts of anti-Jewish hatred. The term antisemitism is too general. Even gentile Jew-haters have pushed back against critics, insisting they could not be antisemites, as they are semites themselves. Anti-Jewish hatred says it as it is.

Deep down, however, Jews are afraid to call out acts of anti-Jewish hatred. Jews often do better speaking out for others, as doing so carries relatively little risk and, moreover, brings the acclaim and approval of the larger community. But speaking out with equal intensity on behalf of our own interests touches upon our insecurities and heightened sensitivity to what others may think of us — insecurities and sensitivities that we, as Diaspora Jews, have acquired and absorbed over the years.

While we must speak out for humanitarian concerns, we dare not give lesser priority to Jewish ones. Our guiding principle should be that, as Jews, we should demand no less for ourselves than we demand for others.

Today, more than ever, Jews need to respond to sinat Yisrael (anti-Jewish hatred) with hadar Yisrael (Jewish pride). Rather than cower in the face of anti-Jewish hatred, we should more than ever proudly identify as Jews. All of us might consider becoming kippah-wearers, donners of Magen Davids — where we work, where we shop. And yes, we should proudly display Israeli flags at our synagogues, Hillels, schools, and community centers.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, visionary activists like Jacob Birnbaum and Glenn Richter inspired the masses to speak out for Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The clarion call was that our community, too silent during the Shoah, will never be silent again. Indeed, if somebody would have told us then that in 50 years, the Jewish community in America would be under attack, we would have responded — impossible. And yet here we are.

My sense is that post-Holocaust, anti-Jewish hatred was, by and large, held in check. It wasn’t polite, on the heels of the murder of six million, to be anti-Jewish. But we are now 80 years after the Holocaust. The Shoah is receding from memory. For many, it is at best a footnote in history. The Jew-haters are now coming out of the woodwork.

It will not be easy to eliminate anti-Jewish hatred. It is tragically embedded, a malaise that has carried through history forever. To stop it in its tracks requires more than words. It requires that we each speak with our feet — showing up, standing up, declaring: Stop anti-Jewish hatred!

Jews do count.

Many thanks to Glenn Richter for his input in framing this piece. Glenn, the “tzaddik” of the Soviet Jewry movement, served as National Coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) from 1964-1991.

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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