Shavuot: Renewal, Covenant, and the Call to Confront Modern Antisemitism
The festival of Shavuot is a time of great celebration in the Jewish calendar, when we joyously commemorate the revelation and gift of the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. As we rejoice, we also pay respect to the bountiful harvest and the sacred covenant that connects our past to our future, serving as a poignant reminder of the passage of time.
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l noted the importance of acknowledging the passage of time and looking to the past so that we may benefit the future. He remarked: “Today needs a yesterday if we’re to plan for tomorrow. If we, as individuals or as humanity, are to shape a better future, we need to take time to remember the past.”
A decade after he spoke those words, as we enter Shavuot in 2023, I heed Rabbi Sacks’ advice and look to the past – and am reminded of the resplendency of Jewish innovation throughout history. From the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, to the Maltz Museum in my hometown of Cleveland to The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, vital institutions serve as living testimonies to our rich heritage and preserve the memories of the past. I anticipate that the opening next month of the Capital Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, will further preserve and highlight our collective contribution to the political and social fabric of the nation.
All these efforts are lifted by the communal organizations, including the Conference of Presidents and its members, working to shape a better future, united by the need to prevent past atrocities from manifesting in the present.
Yet even as we revel in the progress made, we cannot ignore the challenges that persist. The State of Israel, the modern-day embodiment of the covenant between God and Israel, continues to face deadly threats in the form of rocket attacks and terrorism from violent extremists.
It has been particularly disheartening to witness the United Nations continue to flourish as a vehicle to attack the Jewish homeland, all while antisemitism continues to menace world Jewry. Efforts to combat internal antisemitism face intense opposition, including resistance by anti-Israel and anti-Jewish elements within the body to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
By defining the hatred that has plagued the Jewish people since ancient times, we are better equipped to fight it head-on. The IHRA definition of antisemitism is one of several necessary tools in this battle and a beacon of hope against hate. The IHRA definition provides a clear explanation of antisemitism and several examples of behaviors that constitute antisemitism. It is used by the White House, the US State Department, European governments including the United Kingdom and Germany, sports teams, and many other groups and organizations.
By adopting the IHRA definition, we gain a framework to identify and address the complexities of antisemitism, including when anti-Israel rhetoric devolves into antisemitism. It is essential to recognize that criticism of Israel can often serve as a smokescreen for antisemitic sentiments or provide a platform for those who promote hate against Jews. The IHRA definition empowers us to distinguish between legitimate criticism and the dangerous scapegoating of Israel and her people.
While we commemorate the covenant of the Torah, let us reaffirm our commitment to combating antisemitism in all its forms. By nurturing the flame of memory and safeguarding the values that define us, we honor the sacrifices of our ancestors and illuminate the path forward for generations to come.
The timeless message of Shavuot teaches us that the Torah, the voice of heaven on earth, can act as a beacon of light that dispels the darkness of hatred and ensure a world where freedom, justice, and kindness prevail. Let us embrace the call to renewal, reinvigorate our covenant, and join hands in the face of modern adversity.