Swastikas painted on synagogue buildings, machine guns trained on Jewish souls, pogrom style marches and hate-filled speech about Jewish “termites” all are familiar-sounding alarms that put us into a defensive posture that we have been accustomed to for centuries. We bend our knees, with the balls of our feet planted firmly for our defense, yet ready to pivot 180 degrees to allows us to run away quickly, should we need to flee.
The only problem is that today’s anti-Semitism is not the same as what our ancestors endured. Yet, we are assuming a position that we are familiar with, even though the circumstances are wildly different.
Make no mistake about it, this is not your grandparents’ anti-Semitism.
Last week I had the opportunity to be in Berlin for the 80th commemoration of Kristallnacht. I was an invited guest of the German government, along with a dozen other rabbis from across the United States. In Germany I witnessed a sense of ownership and responsibility from the people of Germany — both elected officials and common folk — that was uncanny.
High school students asked for forgiveness for crimes they knew nothing about. One 12th grader said to me, “I do not feel guilty because I did nothing wrong. However, I do feel ashamed for the inheritance my ancestors left me.” With tears in his eyes, he then asked for forgiveness.
Elected officials of all levels spoke with a sense of disgrace for the history of the homeland that they were born into, each making it a priority to express his or her sorrow at the Jewish fate because of Germany’s predecessors. We also learned that Germany has some of the strictest laws in the world against Holocaust denial and has the soundest curriculum incorporated into the state-run educational system on teaching the Shoah. This is something for which our history has not prepared us.
On the anniversary of the massive pogrom of November 9, 1938, a march goes from the former SS and Gestapo headquarters to the museum dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust in the center of Berlin. Everyone nearby stops work, puts down their forks if they are at lunch, and joins the silent march. The irony was not lost on me that police were escorting all of us during this march, protecting us from traffic and from anyone seeking to do evil. Eighty years ago, the police were the accomplices. The Gestapo arrested Jews for their religion alone. Now, community leaders, residents of Berlin, and Jewish children read each of the names of the 55,696 Jews from Berlin who were murdered during World War II, just 70 yards from what once was Hitler’s bunker, on a site that was Goebbels villa.
How the winds have changed in a relatively short time.
Of course, there still is anti-Semitism in Germany. Some is old-fashioned Jew hatred from neo-Nazis. Hatred also is spewed by anti-Zionists, mainly from Arab countries. A few years back, a kippah-wearing man in Berlin was jumped at night while walking home. The next day, German leadership were shown on the cover of the German newspapers. All were wearing kippot, even though they were not Jewish. The campaign was called Berlin Tragt Kippa — which translates to Berlin Wears a Kippah.
After the attack in the Hypercacher supermarket in Paris in 2015, France’s President Emmanuel Macron declared that France would not be the same without a Jewish presence. When have we ever heard that in Jewish history? Government officials were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish people in a moment of need and attack.
Ponder this: we live in a time when some people passionately love Israel, because of its role in fighting radical Islamic terror, yet some of those same people despise Jews. At the exact time, there are large masses of people who love the Jewish people and their drive toward social justice, yet loathe Israel and its political positions. This is a brand-new phenomenon that we have never encountered in our 3,500-year history.
Linda Sarsour has been an outspoken voice on liberal issues; on many her positions align with those taken by Jewish activists. Linda Sarsour spearheaded a fundraising campaign in the wake of a spate of anti-Semitic events at Jewish cemeteries in St Louis, Missouri, and Lakewood, Colorado. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised, thanks to Sarsour’s efforts. Sarsour, however, has been hypercritical of Israel; salting that wound, Sarsour has not hidden her admiration and support for Louis Farrakhan, who is rabidly anti-Semitic and recently called Jews “termites.” How do you solve a problem like Linda Sarsour?
The latest threat to Israel is the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions efforts that are incubated on college campuses. To date, not one of the country’s 4,000-plus four-year degree-granting universities have divested from Israel. Still it is reason for concern. These efforts are being launched without bombs, guns, or jihadists. It is a form of civil unrest. And while I find it wickedly unbalanced and unfair, the tactics are new, harder for the Jewish state to deal with, and free of violence. This is a relatively new chapter in the book against the Jews.
The attack in Pittsburgh forever will be a moment of history in America that will remind us simultaneously of Jewish vulnerability and of support for the Jewish community. During our worst moment we received the most beautiful gestures of support, love, and healing. Imams and ministers and priests joined hands with hockey players and football players. Governors stood with mayors and public officials in solidarity. We understood that all of our tears taste the same, and we all cried together.
In our congregation, Governor Phil Murphy chose to worship with our synagogue, along with New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. They stood with us, cried with us, mourned with us, and offered hope to all of us. We were not Catholics and Sikhs and Jews. We are humans united in grief and fortified in love. Both the attorney general and governor said there was no place they would rather be than in our synagogue on that Shabbat.
In 1492 we were expelled from Spain by the King and Queen. The turn of the 20th century was filled with pogroms in Russia and nearby areas all focused against Jews with protection to the assailants by the Czar and the police forces. From 1935 in Nuremberg to the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland in 1945, Jews were systematically targeted, tortured and killed. 6 Million of our brethren were slayed under the guise of war by the Nazis. On July 4, 1946, after WWII, a pogrom erupted in Kielce, Poland that targeted Jews with an old-fashioned blood libel. In 1946 Kruschev, the Premier of Russia and leader of Communism closed more than 400 synagogues. Israel was subject to attacks from the moment it declared statehood and it continues today. During 1972 in Munich Germany, when athletes were tortured and then murdered for being Israeli, the games went on, and no elected officials stood with the Israeli delegation as we grieved.
These examples were from our history. What we face today is different. Radically different.
I am not suggesting that there is no more anti-Semitism today. I am however, proposing that today’s anti-Semitism, and the surrounding challenges for the Jewish people across the globe, is nothing like what we have been accustomed to. Therefore, we should treat it differently. Our response should not be the same as it has been since 1492 and after. The circumstances and responses are fundamentally different. Better in some ways, worse in others — but dissimilar.
I am keenly aware of similarities from our worst times that are sprouting in the United States today. Disgust for the other, vilifying minorities, politically motivated attacks, large rallies and mob mentality, with blind support for leadership and intolerance toward people who are different or think differently. These ingredients make a toxic brew that causes fear and panic. In no way should we be cavalier about these threats and behaviors. If we do not remember our past, indeed we will repeat it.
I do propose though, we come up with a new response. We shouldn’t pretend to be Teflon, as if no harm can come our way. Like all new things, this is hard, and will take some tweaking, serious thought, and calibration. But our children deserve it, and the strides we and our ancestors have taken, along with the bridges others have crossed for the sake of bettering the world, cannot be jettisoned to serve our familiar posture or to make us comfortable.
It is not our grandparent’s anti-Semitism. It is ours. Different, yet real. It is our challenge to make a new posture today make sure that our kids will not inherit hatred for tomorrow.