What follows is my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about the rise of antisemitism in America.
There are many challenges facing our world. I could speak about the hurricanes that continue to batter our cities. We pray that those whose communities were devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and now Maria may recover and rebuild quickly. We pray that this year’s hurricane season ends tomorrow and that those recovering from the earthquake in neighboring Mexico may find strength and solace. I could also speak about the scourge of Islamist terrorism that continues to attack our cities. There are many topics about which I could dwell on this Rosh Hashanah. I could speak about the growing loss of connection between American Jews and their inheritance. That might be fitting on other years, and during different times.
This morning we need to speak about the rise of antisemitism in our midst, in our very own country. Years ago I never would have imagined the need to speak about this. Today, as one commentator remarked, it is as if someone has taken the lid off the sewer. All the hate bubbling beneath the surface has emerged and been given far too much air to breathe. Last month Nazi graffiti was spray-painted on a Syosset school. We can no longer pretend it only happens there, in Europe or the Middle East. In my hometown of St. Louis, after a local synagogue led by a rabbi who is among my teachers, opened its doors to shelter protesters, the hashtag “GasTheSynagogue” began trending on social media. And prior to that there was of course the vandalizing of a St. Louis Jewish cemetery. I cannot avoid talking about this any longer.
To be honest I have not yet figured out if this hate always existed and that all that has changed is people feel freer to express their views, if social media has opened a window to a cesspool that was always present. Here are some sobering statistics. A recent poll determined that 7% of Americans agree with views expressed by white nationalists. 4% agree with those of neo-Nazis. To put that in perspective, less than 2% of Americans are Jewish. What we witnessed in Charlottesville should be a wake up call. For starters can we get one point straight? We should stop using the term neo-Nazi. It is Nazi plain and simple. If people are sympathetic to this evil ideology they are Nazis. There is nothing new about it. This is an old and dangerous hatred.
This is an ideology that believes in racial superiority, that runs counter to the Jewish ethic that all human beings are created in God’s image, that was responsible for the murder of six million of our people, and against whom our country fought a bloody and costly war. I quote from an email from a long-time family friend: “This one hit me very hard. As a veteran of World War II, and a combat soldier, we fought to destroy the Nazis and what they stood for. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women died fighting this ideology. Seeing these young men and women wearing signs of the Nazis and their salute, uttering such hateful statements, made me see red. There is no place in this country for those who parade using the symbols of the very enemy that we fought, died battling against and finally overthrew.”
Social media has provided a forum that Joseph Goebbels (yimach shmo—may his name be blotted out) could only have dreamed of. This wonderful network that allows me to reconnect with long lost high school friends or those who now live in far away countries, allows sinister people with hate-filled ideologies to connect with one another. It gives them a sense that their views are more widely held. It provides them with a forum where not only is their speech unchecked but also affirmed. I have come to feel that conversations on the Internet, if we can even call them conversations, are like those moments in eighth grade when we had a substitute teacher. It is as if we are at the moment after the teacher leaves the classroom in exasperation after struggling for an hour to control the rowdy group. We are now in that middle school classroom without a teacher. And our leaders rather than jumping to the front of the room to take charge and offer direction instead sit in the back throwing things at each other.
The efforts to shut down websites and pages are doomed to failure. But we must do a better job of policing ourselves. We must model what our tradition calls right speech. If it cannot be said in person, if it cannot be said face to face, then it should not be said on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter. Don’t text something that really should be said when looking into a friend’s eyes. Anything that might be difficult to say, or painful, or upsetting, should always be said face to face. Sometimes the old fashioned way is the right way.
Let the rise of hate filled speech be a lesson for how we can correct our own speech. It is the High Holidays of course and these are days when we are meant to look inward and better ourselves.
This brings me to the response of our leaders and in particular our president. President Trump continues to equivocate about the violence in Charlottesville. He continues to equate the violent protestors on the left with the Nazis and KKK supporters on the right. They are not the same. We reject the violence of the anti-fascists, and their methods. They are thugs and perhaps should even be labeled gangs. The police should arrest and jail any protestor who resorts to violence. There can be no war on our streets. But theirs is not the ideology that murdered six million of our people. The line does not get any clearer than that. In a country in which we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and in which people are therefore allowed to rally in support of their hate filled ideology we have but one recourse and that is to say loudly and clearly to white nationalists and their ilk, “This is not us. This is not what America is about.” That is what I expect from our leaders. And this is what we should demand of them. That is what we heard from virtually every other politician, both Democratic and Republican.
It begins with knowing history. There is a direct line, and if this sermon is about one thing it is about making such lines crystal clear, between the Nazi venom we saw on full display in Charlottesville and the adulation heaped on the heroes of the Confederacy. Let us remember that the spark for this gathering was the planned removal of a statute of General Robert E. Lee. Again there is a clear difference between those who owned slaves in the 18th century and those who led the fight to defend slavery in the 19th. Slavery is an ideology whose premise is that other human beings are property, a belief again that runs counter to Judaism’s foundational teaching. In May of this past year, New Orleans took down such a statue. Its mayor gave the most remarkable of speeches on this occasion. He said, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity.”
This moment is about standing on the right side of history and humanity. It is about standing for diversity and standing against hate. One side is right and the other wrong. It is that clear. It is about saying “May Heather Heyer’s memory always serve as a blessing.”
But antisemitism is not only on the rise on the far right. It is also found in increasing numbers of the left. There the forum is often the college campus. It is often disguised as hatred of Zionism and the State of Israel. At a growing number of colleges the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement metastasizes into antisemitism. These movements seek to divest from companies that do business with Israel or sometimes more narrowly those who are located in the West Bank. On the surface they seek to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians and the injustices of Israel’s continued rule over the territories. But if you look below the surface you often find views that demonize Israel and see it as illegitimate.
Let me be clear. That does not make all critics of Israel antisemitic. I have many disagreements with Israel. It is not always right. And that should not make others call me an Israel hater or a disloyal Jew. Loyalty, and devotion, is not synonymous with agreement. It is not treason to raise my voice against what I see as the growing anti-democratic tendencies of the State of Israel and the Netanyahu government. I continue to believe that for Israel to more fully realize its founding dream it must adhere to both its Jewish and democratic principles. The less democratic it becomes the more it will lose the devotion of young American Jews. So one can be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and be supportive of the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood and remain a lover of Zion. Love is not the same as agreement. (Just ask Susie.)
However too often those who support these BDS movements take on antisemitic tropes. Roger Waters, who will be playing at Nassau Coliseum and who I will not be buying a ticket to see despite the fact that I believe Pink Floyd to be one of the greatest rock bands ever, is an ardent supporter of this BDS movement. He recently compared Israel to Nazi Germany and said, “I’m not sure there are any more harsher regimes around the world.” Such exaggerated demonization of Israel qualifies as antisemitism but it’s also just plain old ignorance, given that in neighboring Syria Assad continues to use chemical weapons against his own people and where 400,000 people have been killed. We have to learn how to draw clear and unmistakable lines.
When someone says that Israel is illegitimate or that there is no Jewish connection to the land of Israel this is clearly antisemitic. The attempt to portray the modern state of Israel as a European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East whose existence is only justified as recompense for the Holocaust is antisemitism because it flouts history. To say Israelis are interlopers and are not in fact Jews who have returned to the place from which they were exiled millennia ago, that we are not bound to Jerusalem because our King David first established a capital there, is to deny the historical legitimacy of Zionism. That does not mean, however, we cannot share Jerusalem with our Palestinian brethren. I will leave that arrangement to what I continue to hope will one day soon be the job of peace negotiators who will figure out how to share a place we both call home and how we each can have safe and secure borders.
Those discussions begin with each of us acknowledging the legitimacy of the other’s claim and for Palestinian leaders and their supporters to affirm the Jewish people’s rightful inheritance. “We have returned.” sums it up. That phrase should constitute the beginning of our discussions. A line can be drawn between those who saw this country’s first African American president as illegitimate and those who call Israel illegitimate. The delegitimization of the other, the portrayal of those with whom I disagree, or those with whom I quarrel, as illegitimate is not how arguments are won or even more importantly how compromises are hammered out.
On the left, and on college campuses, there is a growing tendency to shout down speakers with whom students disagree. I cite an incident involving one of my teachers from Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. Moshe Halbertal’s lecture at the University of Minnesota law school was repeatedly interrupted by the shouts of protestors who called him a war crimes apologist. And what was the title of his lecture? “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetrical Warfare.” Disagreement does not give one the right to interrupt such a speech. And yet what we are witnessing is the elevation of feelings over thoughtful reflection. My feelings are offended so I will shout and scream. Colleges rush to protect its students’ feelings. They cancel controversial lectures.
Sure students can protest, and they should protest. But everyone gets heard, most especially in the university. There the goal is actually not to affirm my feelings and my convictions but to confront different ideas and have my beliefs challenged and even my feelings unsettled. As American Jews we have placed great faith in the university. Now it seems as if it is abandoning us. In too many instances those who wish Israel be wiped off the face of the earth are given louder voice than those who have spent decades studying history and a lifetime asking challenging questions of ethics and morality. It behooves us to open the dialogue and debate, and listen to those whose views we find unsettling, but whose expertise derives from scholarship.
I fear that that the eighth grade teacher-less classroom so prevalent on social media has found its way into the university. Friendship is not synonymous with like-mindedness. My feelings are offended so I will un-friend her; I will turn my back on her ideas. I will scream at the top of my lungs so that no one else will be offended and only the ideas that affirm my preconceived feelings can be heard.
There is a line between honest debate, between sitting across the table from those who hold diametrically opposed views and those who think that only their truth is legitimate. There is a line between those who support Palestinian’s aspirations for statehood and those who seek Israel’s destruction, whose antipathy towards Israel is tinged with antisemitism and filled with hate, and those who love Israel but are critical of it.
And so what are we to do? What should be our response? I can tell you what I plan to do. I am going to double down on the American dream. I am going to further embrace American pluralism and diversity. I am going to seek out not so much those who say, “Rabbi, I could not agree with you more,” but those who held different ideas and beliefs. I am going to seek out Jews who think my views are leftist, and Muslims who do not share my love and devotion to Israel, and Christians who believe that I am missing out on an even greater part of the Bible.
This place called America is not so much defined by borders and geography. It is not about religion or ethnicity. It is about an idea. It is a sanctuary for all those who wish to embrace this idea, and who come here like my grandparents did, with dreams of a better life for their grandchildren. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I was reminded of this idea when I saw the pictures of the sailors killed on the Navy warships John S. McCain and Fitzgerald. They were a tapestry of immigrants. There I could see the diversity that makes this country great.
And I am reminded of this idea when I recall the ten years I carried church keys in my pocket. What was normal for a good part of my rabbinic career was extraordinary in the history of religions but then again ordinary for the history of America.
I recall this as I remember my son’s long time friendship with Huey O’Connor. I used to look out of my window and see them sitting on the curb after a playing a game of one on one. I would often ask Ari what they were talking about. I assumed sports. He would often say matter-of-factly, “Religion.” And then he would head up to his room as if this was the most typical and ordinary of things, that two young boys would play basketball together and also teach each other about their differences and most importantly never stop calling each other friends. That is what I am going to hold on to. And that is what I will forever defend.
This is what will strengthen this great nation of ours. And this is what will forever safeguard us against hate.