Optimism & Antisemitism: A Plan for 5780 and Beyond
Rosh Hashanah 5780
There is an anecdote told about Jews living in Germany in the 1930s. Two Jews were sitting on one of the few park benches permitted to Jews. One of them was reading one of the Jewish communal newspapers; the other, reading Der Stürmer, the virulently antisemitic Nazi publication. “Why on earth are you reading that thing?” the latter was asked. “When I read a Jewish publication,” he replied, “I hear of our woes and terrible fate. When I read Der Stürmer, I read how we control the banks, world media, international governments, and how powerful we are. I much prefer the latter.”
In her recent publication, Deborah Lipstadt, a pre-eminent scholar and professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, shares this as sort of a joke, albeit certainly not a laugh out loud kind of joke. In the sharing of this anecdote about an era we can all reference as perhaps the darkest hour of our collective Jewish memory, we can also recognize a sense of Jewish levity and optimism.
When we recollect the Shoah, the Holocaust, it is our tragedy. And that is our responsibility on Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - to make certain Never Again. And yet, it is bigger than a tragedy that befell one group, it is also a human tragedy…it is a time in the human past that must be recognized as the darkest; it was a time when humanity chose evil over good; it was a time when annihilation was chosen rather than tolerance… But if we only see this with Jewish particularism, we lessen our ability to mold humanity with growing compassion, optimism, love and possibility.
When it comes to the past year, we can point to Pittsburgh and Poway, and to the numerous events of defacement and ridicule, as well as others unfortunately, as events that scream to our Jewish consciousness for our attention. We are uncomfortable in our seats as we recall these horrific events. These, too, are moments in our collective Jewish memory that shock. They certainly cause us all to question, to ponder…to ask: Why? …and even lead towards a lack of understanding, towards disbelief.
It is not enough to think about them, to listen to the news about these horrific moments, but we must take the time to reflect on how to respond. What can change… With all of these horrific moments we must reflect on how we respond. Oh my, another attack, a massacre… Again? Is there something to be done? What should MY response be? What does our community need to do? What is the individual, the collective response? What is the learning, is there learning?
Those two Jews sitting on the park bench in Germany paint a picture for us of the different ways we can discern the realities of our day. Lipstadt also shares in her book, and in numerous interviews since its publication a joke, again one that does not necessarily garner laughter: Who is a Jewish optimist? Someone who thinks things can’t get worse. Who is a Jewish pessimist? Someone who thinks that it can. Who is a Jewish realist? Someone who knows that they are…
So, which one is each of us? Realist? Pessimist? Optimist?
Let us choose none of the above, at least not as described in that joke. Let this moment, this New Year beginning continue to unfold as one that allows us to celebrate our treasured tradition, heritage and shared memory rather than bemoan the countless past injustices and oppressions levied against us as a people. And, let us use it to treasure the richness of all humanity and combat hatred in all its forms. But, this is hard…seemingly impossible and yet, let us allow that adage to remain as such, a not funny joke from which we can capture something to learn.
Antisemitism has been in the headlines again and again in recent years. It has been dubbed “the longest hatred” for its endurance throughout our storied history even before the term itself was coined in the latter part of the 19th century. What is it? What is antisemitism? It is hostility to, or prejudice against Jews simply because they are Jewish. Throughout its history, throughout our own history as a people it has taken numerous forms: Religious persecution and replacement theology, it has become a political argument in past eras and today and it has been about Jewish dominance. And let’s be clear: That in an ever increasingly complex world, full of grey and nuance, antisemitism is no different than any other “ism”, because its complexity and nuanced expressions have evolved as well.
We can decry the rise of it and all forms of hate. We can be the objects of this particular form of “anti” and build up our defenses. We can take active steps towards security, toward safety, we can build layers upon layers of insulation to surround us - we can build walls. Over the past year, members of our own community here at Temple Bat Yam and North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation have participated in webinars, conference calls, in person workshops focusing on the safety of our Houses of Worship. We have learned a great deal about the ways in which we can mitigate the physical threats associated with this hatred directed at us.
Yet, this is not the only way it presents itself. Take the not so funny joke at the outset, and ponder for a moment the non-sensical reality expressed therein. From one source, Jews rule and are in charge of all….from the other, we are doomed. Isn’t the simple telling of this joke a way to perpetuate these age-old myths?
As Jews in America we have been blessed with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. Yet, we are discovering, whether it be attributed to new or growing threats or the result of complacency, this age old and baseless hatred towards Jews as Jews is alive. It feels so foreign, yet so familiar. For many of us, the echoes reverberating around us ring of a time we recall living through and hearing in countless stories from our parents, from our grandparents. For others, being hated simply for being a Jew is foreign, for we have been blessed to live now, at this time, at least as some call it: Before Pittsburgh. Are things different now? New security measures, re-formulated education of our community and strengthened awareness are all called for. With antisemitism on the rise, with hate defining our identities, either as the object or even the subject, we increasingly see the world through a lens of what we are “anti”, what we are against. And so, we insulate ourselves and our communities.
But can’t we see these events, the uptick in acts of hate as a blip, an aberration for we do live in America, blessed with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. Over the last fifty years, we, the Jewish people, have attained so much. Some call it assimilation, but others integration - being a part of the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone. Sure, we should be aware and watchful, we ought to pay attention to this virulent hatred, but more so to all hatred, to the baseless claims against any group as a group mis-characterized in disgusting ways.
The statistics may certainly be cause enough to maybe not sound the alarm, but certainly know where the panic button is located. But I am not sure that is the only way to view this new reality: After Pittsburgh. In a poignant moment of her book, Deborah Lipstadt makes a claim that it is not about the numbers, the data, the statistics. She writes, “…numbers should not be what drives us. What should alarm us is that humans continue to believe in conspiracy that demonizes.”
Dr. Kenneth Stern, who currently serves as the Director of the new Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College, has served as director on antisemitism, hate studies and extremism for the American Jewish Committee, recently presented to a group of rabbis in a talk entitled: Old Fears, New Fears: How to Discuss Today’s Antisemitism. He taught about how hate has always been part of the human condition. Understanding this phenomenon is crucial in connecting the dots between these old and new fears. His work presents the reality that our brains, our human psyche identifies a reality about how we see the world often as “us” versus “them” and that antisemitism plays best in this binary world, a world in which sentiment foments an “us” versus “them” attitude.
This leads us to define ourselves dominantly by what we are not, what we are “anti”. It begs us to consider the countless ways identification into one of these groups, the “us” and “them” categorizes, and perpetuates the Old Fears and morphs them into New Fears. “What should alarm us is that humans continue to believe in conspiracy that demonizes.”
In the early 1970s, a teenage boy in a small town in northern Wisconsin had recently been confirmed by his Lutheran Church. About the same time one of his older brothers met a Jewish woman while studying at the University of Wisconsin. Over the following years, this older brother brought his new love home, the first Jew, they believed, to ever visit their home town. Later, that older brother chose Judaism and engaged in a journey of gerut, of conversion. This younger brother, molded by if not a hatred or dislike of Jews, certainly a wariness, he could not make sense of this new reality: A Jewish brother? Some time later, this younger teenage brother was playing pool and drinking beer in the local bar when he heard someone utter the common castigation: Don’t Jew me down! Somewhat surprisingly, especially to himself, this youngster turned around and stood in that other’s face: Don’t say that! It means nothing! Some of my best brothers are Jewish!
That young teenager was my Uncle Mark of blessed memory, and one of his “best brothers”, that is my father.
The evolution from unknown, baseless dislike, maybe even hatred towards Jews in this tiny town in northern Wisconsin needed to be addressed. Yet, it could not have been done if we insulate our communities and only build barriers. Quite the opposite is what allowed that to change…for that town to have welcomed one of its grandson’s, a rabbi, home to eulogize his grandmother.
It is about understanding that these conspiracies, the baseless hatreds, what our tradition calls sinat chinam - must be unraveled and we can only do that through relationship, through connection and through building bridges - whether between “us” - Jews and “them” - non-Jews, or across countless other boundaries, across cultural, ethnic and religious differences. We must discover ways for “us” and “them” NOT “us” versus “them” and this is not only on “them” to reach over those barriers, it lies with “us” too!
Sure, we must still take measures, and we have and continue to, in order to ensure our safety, personally and communally. Yet, it cannot, it must not stop there. There is a different response that is possible in 5780 than we have ever experienced. Because of countless stories like my Uncle Mark’s we know that exponentially more relationships exist between Jews and non-Jews than arguably ever before in history. And, it must step beyond this paradigm of and through only the lens of antisemitism. It must, and is upon us to recognize the human tragedy that hate creates again and again. We must understand ever more the realities of the rise of antisemitism AND THE RISE OF HATE IN GENERAL. We must understand that there are real and present dangers tearing at the fabric of our humanity and we have a responsibility, informed by our Jewish identity, to every other being. Last year at this time, I spoke about overcoming “otherness”, and that work may not be realized in our time, but we must try.
In June of this year, when antisemitic graffiti was discovered under a bridge in South Lake Tahoe we could have insulated ourselves, we could have asked for the scourge to be cleaned up and moved on. But, this would likely have been another moment of raising those barriers. So, rather than this route, we chose something different. We engaged in the bridges that had already been built and stood in solidarity to say Not In Our Town, Not in Lake Tahoe. With clergy of all stripes, with elected officials and educators, with business and non-profit leaders, we stood together against this blatant antisemitism, but not only as antisemitism, but as hatred. It was more, though. It was not so much about what we were “anti”, it was about what we stood for as human beings sharing this world. In that moment, we stood in celebration of all that we are: A rich tapestry of cultural, religious and ethnic identities.
In 1946, the German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller made a confession which has become a call to all humanity to recognize what may set us apart and use it to bring us to a common fate, that of human:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
Sure, we must recognize and identify that antisemitism is alive and therefore we must take steps to counter. Yet, IT CANNOT STOP THERE. It is our Jewish, and even better, our human responsibility to recognize hatred in all its forms, and to stand up to the “conspiracy that demonizes.” Let us live Pastor Niemöller’s words differently:
When she is denied respect because she is a she —
Let us make sure she is given a podium.
When our neighbor is slandered because they do not look like us —
Let us set the record straight and make them whole.
When our fellow is demonized for his beliefs —
Let us show the world his humanity.
Then, just maybe then, our tapestry of what makes us human will be displayed in all its brilliance.
I am a Jewish optimist. Not because I don’t believe it can get any worse. Nor because I am blind to this wave of antisemitism. But, I am a Jewish optimist because I am Jewish and because I know that we have a rich heritage that guides us to believe that we can continue the work before us. That we can strengthen the relationships that link us to those around us.
Following Pittsburgh, my friend and colleague Rabbi Micah Lapidus penned a powerful blog post entitled: An American Pogrom: An American Response. No he does not equate the events of recent years to the state sponsored pogroms of Eastern Europe. Rather, he is arguing that these antisemitic acts of hate require a response borne out of our American Jewish reality, identity and existence and one that is correctly situated for this time, now in our world. He argues that we must continue the work of interfaith solidarity and action to bolster and lengthen the reach of our communities. We must engage in Jewish solidarity and action to ensure that we convey to our children, and to one another, the unique value of Jewish teaching and tradition. It is incumbent upon us to raise the Jewish Voice in American Life because Judaism, he says, is a tradition founded upon a belief in human dignity. And we must teach, model and show our children that they can be kind to one another and they can make an effort to get to know people who are different from them.
To Rabbi Lapidus’ words, I would add that we also need to discover the American Jewish Response. This begins with us. It begins by looking in the mirror. As our religious school students have experienced and explored in recent years, the mirror is one layer of looking at ourselves.
Hold Up the Mirror! And you may notice upon this mirror are words scribbled to inspire.. It says: Kindness, compassion, love, care for our world….
There is more to each of us than what is reflected in this simple glass. There are layers to our character… what do we want to write on these mirrors to remind us of our aspirational selves - the person we want to continue becoming.
We must ask ourselves in what ways do we perpetuate these myths? What “jokes” do we tell that open the doors for others to continue these baseless hatreds and keep them on the human psyche?
As we look in this mirror, we also know that there are others standing with and behind and around us. There is more to combating “conspiracy that demonizes” and we must reach out to build those relationships so that we no longer build tribes of insularity, but rather a growing tribe of humanity, and one that celebrates the richness of the human tapestry
May we all experience a year of health and growing humanity. May we write on our mirrors the character we aim to see in ourselves, be part of others journey towards the same and may it lead to a Good Year and Good Years ahead. Shanah Tovah!