Steven Moskowitz
Steven Moskowitz

The Antisemitism Pandemic

For the first time in over a year, many of us now feel like we can see around the bend of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, most especially that many of our children can get vaccinated, and that we can safely get together with friends, and family members, our sense of relief has grown. Light is emerging from around the corner. The plague that upended our lives appears to be ebbing. Just as we wearily begin to emerge from the shadow of this plague, another grows in ferocity.

Antisemitism has once again emerged with a renewed strength that caught many off guard. Whereas several years ago we saw its ugliness, and violence, emanating from the right, now it confronts us from the left. Let me be clear. Anti-Zionism easily morphs into violent antisemitism. Hatred of Israel quickly becomes antisemitic. The evidence lies before us—be it at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles or a synagogue in New York. It is now especially incumbent upon those who call themselves liberal, progressive or Democrat to call out the antisemtism growing from within their ranks.

People always prefer to say, “Look at how bad they are,” rather than “Look at how we have gone wrong,” or, “Look at what we have allowed to fester.” People always prefer to point accusatory fingers at those who stand on the other side of the aisle while making excuses for those who share their political commitments. This is not how we must reckon with such a plague. Call out those who traffic in antisemitic tropes. Make clear that these most recent attacks on Jews, and Israel, are irreconcilable with liberal, progressive and Democratic values. This is what is called for at this moment and in this hour.

Of course, there are legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies and Israel’s government. And it is true, and should be clear to those who have read my writings over the past decades, that I hold Israel, and America for that matter, to higher standards than I do other nations. My love for these countries is bound to their lofty aspirations. Their founding principles aspire to moral greatness. I attach myself not only to these lands, peoples and states but to their foundational dreams.

One of Israel’s dreams, and principles, is that it is a democracy, that it for example guarantees equal rights of citizenship to its Arab residents. It is this principle that binds Israel to America’s democratic dream. Israel has frequently failed to uphold this principle. Israel’s Arab citizens do not enjoy the full benefits of the state’s success.

The racism we saw explode on the streets of Lod, for example, is evidence of how much farther Israel must travel to achieve this dream. Jews shouting, “Death to Arabs,” is a betrayal of the Jewish values I hold in highest regard. Do not make excuses for this behavior. Do not say, “Oh but they are far worse.” If you truly want to combat hate, and this latest outburst of antisemitic violence, then you must call out the hatred that emanates from our own home just as loudly. We tend to minimize hate when it comes from within our own ranks and maximize that which comes from the mouths of our opponents. This is mistaken strategy. It illuminates a distortion of values.

Let me be clear. The Palestinians deserve a state they can call their own. Israel’s continued rule over the West Bank erodes its democratic character and undermines its moral authority. There are countless indignities that Palestinian residents endure—sometimes to guarantee the security and safety of Israeli Jews, but many times simply to expand Jewish sovereignty. Of course, Palestinian leaders have refused many peace overtures, and resorted to violence in countless instances, but the status quo chips away at Israel’s founding democratic dream.

One can say there is no trustworthy partner for making peace. And while this claim may be true, it has also become a convenient excuse to extend Jewish rule over larger portions of the West Bank (and Jerusalem), leading to the diminishment of Palestinians’ hopes of a state of their own. This has become an ever-tightening circle that strangles the dreams of both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the attachments of many American Jews to the Jewish state.

To be sure, Hamas is a terrorist organization that traffics in antisemitism. Its rule over Gaza makes me wonder if there are not many Palestinians who are more intent on wanting to destroy Israel than building a state of their own. Hamas is not a liberation movement. It is instead a genocidal and tyrannical organization who murders those who stand against their Islamist worldview. I have little patience for those who are only able to laud Hamas and vilify Israel.

Then again, the human suffering in Gaza is intolerable. Just because Hamas is more to blame for this suffering—it appears to choose rocket parts over medical supplies for example—does not relieve Israel of its moral responsibility to attend to this suffering on its border. In addition, Israel has a vested security interest in addressing this pain. Does your Jewish heart not ache for the children of Gaza who were killed in this, the latest, round of fighting? Does your soul not pine for peace, and quiet, for Israel and its Palestinian neighbors? Can I not grieve for the children of Gaza as well as the children of Israel?

I desperately want to believe that peace remains a possibility, but every time rockets and bombs are fired at Israel’s cities, my doubts overwhelm my dreams. Then again, I believe that part of the march toward peace is by owning up to our own mistakes. The prophets of old did not castigate Israel’s enemies as much as Israel itself. Why? Because they believed that God wants Israel to do better, “to do justice and love mercy.”

Not every critic of Israel’s policies is an antisemite or a disloyal Jew. We do a great disservice to our cause, and our fight against this current plague of antisemitism, by dismissing legitimate criticism, and even unsettling critiques as antisemitic or treasonous. To be sure Israel has become the Jew among states who is held to the absurdly unique standard of not being expected to use its power to protect its citizenry.

Never forget, however, with great power, and superior military strength, comes even greater responsibility. The State of Israel does a remarkable, albeit imperfect, job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but it can, and should, always strive to do better. It should never give up on its dreams of peace and it must expend as much effort and power in creating the conditions for peace as it does for security.

And yes, the situation, and conflict, between Israel and the Palestinians is complicated. Even though I hesitate to use this word complicated because too often it is used as an excuse to refrain from getting involved, or an apology for why Israel cannot (even now) do better, it is painfully true. Israel’s conflicts, and wars, with Palestinians, are far too complicated to be reduced to memes. What is happening here is not the same as what happens there. George Floyd’s murder, and the resulting justified struggle against systematic racism, is not the same as the war there.

Antisemitism is real. It is not to be excused or brushed aside. Attacking Jews because of what Israel does or does not do, or what Israel is believed to do or believed not to do is antisemitism. No qualifications are necessary. There is no parsing of hatred. Call it out. Hold high your visions, and dreams, for yourself and your people.

I confess. Many of these truths, and beliefs, appear to be contradictory. I have come to recognize that people tend to pick the truths that support their pre-conceived notions and defame those that others prioritize. I have also come to believe this is no way to address complications.

Rather than picking your truth and deciding which of these you wish to hold high, let us try to hold all of them at once and at the same time. Who started it, and who is at fault, might not be as important as how we are going to solve it—right now.

This might very well be the only path around the bend that stands before us. This might be the only way out of this conflict and plague.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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