Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

We Were Wrong

This article is co-authored by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Dennis C. Sasso

Sometimes something happens that shatters your assumptions, that makes you question long-held beliefs. We were educated in the history of antisemitism, the longest hatred. In fact, we have taught about it for decades. Nevertheless, we naively believed that in America, in the 21st century, antisemitism was declining and was limited to some right-wing fanatics. But we were wrong.

This past week, we have talked with friends and congregants who are trying to decide whether it is safe to wear their Jewish stars in public, whether they should take their mezuzot off their doors for fear of being targeted as Jews.  Our grandchildren have had to consider whether it is safe to wear a t-shirt they recently bought in Israel. Some parents have kept children home during the last few days, rather than risk sending them to their Jewish schools.  Jewish families are wondering whether it might be better to watch congregational services and programs on zoom, rather than risk going to the synagogue. Jewish institutions are increasing security. When at Shabbat services, we have become more aware of our surroundings, watching who enters the sanctuary and wondering if someone might come to do harm. Antisemitic literature is showing up on the driveways of Jewish homes with links to antisemitic websites. The flyers feature headlines declaring that “Jews wage war on American freedoms.”

Some of our liberal colleagues in the interfaith community and many university leaders are reluctant to condemn the worst terrorist attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, the deadliest anywhere in the world proportionately to the size of the country.  They issue morally ambiguous and lukewarm statements about peace in the region that do not mention Hamas or condemn the kidnapping and murder of innocent civilians, men, women, and children of all ages. They speak of being conflicted about making statements that might stifle academic freedom and the diverse range of thoughts in their communities.

When we ask them why they cannot unambiguously denounce Hamas’s brutality, some say they also support the Palestinian people. When we answer that we too, along with most Israelis and Palestinians, care for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict and for the safety and lives of innocent Palestinians and Israelis, but that Hamas does not, they say nothing. When we remind them that Hamas seeks not coexistence, but the destruction of the State of Israel, that their attack was intended to invite a strong defensive response, they blame only Israel for the humanitarian crisis.  They fail to understand the history, the issues, and what is at stake. And so, the cycle of death and the death of hope prevail.

At the end of the day, there will be differences of opinion about the history and solutions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  However, such disagreements should not result in the resuscitation of antisemitic tropes, hatred of Jews, and the negation of Israel’s place among the nations. This is what is happening today.

So, we were wrong.  Antisemitism is alive and well in 21st century America. In 2022, the ADL reports, there were nearly 3,697 incidents of Jewish hate incidents in the United States, the highest since ADL started tracking this in the 1970s.  Antisemitism comes from the right, because Jews are not white Christians.  It comes from the left, because Jews are seen as white and privileged. Where is the place from which we can speak out for values of justice and compassion and not be excluded because we are Jews?

We have stood alongside many on the left in outrage against racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, and so it is painful and surprising that there are few who will stand at our side against terrorist attacks on Jews.  They say it is not antisemitic to be anti-Zionist.  We have joined with others, including many Israelis, in criticism against policies of the present Israeli government. But to believe that only Israel does not have the right to exist or bears sole responsibility for the Palestinian conflict, is antisemitic.

It is time for Americans and the West to confront the legacy of antisemitism, even as we reckon with a history of inexcusable bigotries against other peoples.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis after serving for 36 years. Rabbi Sasso is the Director of Religion Spirituality and the Arts at IUPUI, Co-Founder of Women4Change Indiana and an author, having won the National Jewish Book Award and Indiana Author's Award.
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