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Don't Let Antisemitism Define Us

My sermon about the rise of antisemitic hate and how best to respond.


Four years ago, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was attacked and eleven of its members were murdered. In January members of a Colleyville synagogue were held hostage. Thankfully none of the hostages were killed or even seriously injured. And over the past several weeks, Kanye West has been spewing hatred towards Jews and Judaism to his 30 million followers. And while the motivations for each of these attacks—let’s be clear words can be just as dangerous as bullets and guns—might be slightly different, they are connected by the thick thread of antisemitism. Let us reflect on this rising tide of antisemitism and our response—or better yet, our responses—to it.

First of all, let me state this sad but obvious truth. Antisemitism is never going away. My grandparents who experienced first-hand the murderous antisemitic hatred of the Cossacks and the antisemitic barriers suburban America presented them they were right and my twenty-five-year-old self who experienced perhaps one or two anti-Jewish jokes was wrong. It has been here since ancient times. It exists in countries where there are few if any Jews. It will always be with us. It morphs depending on time and circumstance. Sometimes it metastasizes into something even more lethal. Yet, each passing century has demonstrated that antisemitism remains stubborn and enduring.

Second, today there are three basic forms of antisemitism, and it is important that we understand their differences because the tools we use to fight against these different types should not always be the same. On the one hand there is the antisemitism of the far right. These are groups such as neo-Nazis (although I object to the term neo-Nazi because there is nothing new about it), the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists. Such groups have been active on our very own Long Island since at least the 1930’s. And such groups inspired the Tree of Life synagogue murderer. On the other hand, there is the antisemitism of Islamist groups like Hamas. Again, there is a direct line between the hostage taker in Colleyville and the antisemitic screeds that are part and parcel to Islamist teachings. (Let me be clear I am talking about Islamist not Islamic.) Take even a cursory look at the Hamas charter if you want to find evidence of such thinking. In these two instances the tools of law enforcement are most effective at combating these threats.

And finally, there is the antisemitism of the far left. In this case people often find this more difficult to identify and label as antisemitism because it is frequently wrapped in the veil of progressive politics. And so, combating hateful words such as Zionism is a colonial, racist and oppressive force requires not forbidding such speech or outlawing campus groups but emboldening our Jewish students to engage in painful debates, while remaining forever awakened to the dangers of such speech. Let me again be clear. It is but a small step from these hateful words to attacks on Jewish diners in Los Angeles. And yet, in the case of antisemitism coming from leftist college groups, our response requires more finesse. We must be simultaneously proud of being Jews and Zionists, courageous in the face of hurtful and hateful speech while remaining vigilant and on guard against the potential for such speech to become dangerous. It is indeed a dangerous world, and this requires fortifying our souls as much as our institutions. Outlawing speech is not going to fix this problem. Emboldening our students and better educating our youth are the best answers.

And this brings me to our responses. By all means we should continue our investments in security. By all means we should continue our donations to defense organizations such as the American Jewish Committee who work tirelessly to name and call it out antisemitic incidents. It should be relatively simple to identify an attack as antisemitic. And yet even here we saw difficulty when many people seemed pained to identify the Colleyville attacker as antisemitic. This is one reason why we need defense organizations: to name antisemitism when others shy away from calling it out.

We also need them to identify antisemitic groups and most importantly to name antisemitic speech. Here we tend to trip over ourselves. Calling out antisemitic speech too often becomes wrapped up in our political leanings. We hesitate to criticize when such speech comes from our own political corner. We privately worry about helping to defeat someone who we might otherwise support and so we turn away. The opposite should be the case. If we are Democrats, then we have an added responsibility to criticize and shine a light on Democrats who speak with antisemitic tropes. If we are Republicans, then we have an equal obligation to name and castigate Republicans who invoke anti-Jewish hatreds. Let us not excuse the antisemitism that comes from our own political camp or perhaps even worse, exaggerate the antisemitism that comes from our political opponents. An opponent’s antisemitism should not be used for political gain. Instead, it must be called out. It must be named first and foremost from the politician’s own camp.

Back to Kanye for whom I hesitate to provide any oxygen. It is worrisome that he can reach millions of people with the ease of typing a hundred letters on an iPhone. And yet this week provided an encouraging sign. Look at Adidas’ decision. This is to be commended. We should not dismiss this act or even what too often do, seek to diminish it. It is evidence that Holocaust education works, that the conferences we organize about the dangers of antisemitism can offer positive results. That our investments in museums and curricula and perhaps even the groundbreaking rapprochement between Germany and Israel brokered by Ben Gurion in the 1950’s, and especially the repentance that many German youth now express can have lasting impact and important results. Let us not forget, let us never forget, that having a sovereign Jewish state makes a profound difference here and for us. There was no such state when my grandmother ran from the Cossacks that could help to bolster her resolve. I can tell you this as well with certainty. My grandparents would never have believed that a company would make a decision that might cost it billions of dollars! So, we can fixate on Kanye, or we can highlight Adidas.

And this brings me to my final point. In this place and in this sanctuary even when I talk about contemporary events I am always thinking about our souls. This is my worry. As antisemitism increases—and it most certainly is, and it is coming at us from three sides simultaneously—we will start to make it our only story. Of course, it is part of the Jewish story but it’s not the only story and it must never become the whole story. Antisemitism must not define us.

I take my cue from Noah. This week we read the story of Noah and the flood. Although this makes for great children’s books because you get to have pictures of two of every kind of animal, it is a harrowing tale. God destroys the world because it is filled with lawlessness and violence. After the flood Noah sends a dove out to see if the waters have receded. It returns with that familiar sign of peace, an olive branch in its mouth. Noah then emerges from the Ark. What is the first thing he does?

He offers a sacrifice. He gives thanks. It is a spontaneous prayer. God does not command it. I have often found this striking. Noah could have only seen the destruction. I would have understood it if this is all he could see. Nearly everyone he ever knew and certainly most of everything that ever lived except pairs of animals and his family were gone. We could have forgiven him if he could only see what he had lost. But he instead sees the receding waters and the dry land. He sees the rainbow. You can call him naïve. But the Torah calls him righteous.

Prayer is about perspective. And being a Jew is about having hope. We can perseverate about Kanye, we can dwell on Colleyville, we can become depressed about the lives lost at the Tree of Life Synagogue. And this would all be understandable. We must never forget those who were murdered because of antisemitic hate in Pittsburgh and in far too many places we have called home. But this is not our only story. Their deaths were not their entire stories. Those eleven who died at the Tree of Life synagogue died while affirming this day. And Shabbat is about restoring hope. It is about saying this week can be different and creation can be renewed, and the world can be remade.

Let us be courageous. Let us remain proud of our Jewish identities and bold about our Jewish faith. Let us never shy away from calling out antisemitic hate. Let us not allow antisemites to define who we are or what we are to become. There always remains the possibility that we can make this world into the beautiful while broken place that Noah saw when he emerged from the ark. That is what being a Jew means first and foremost. It is about that perspective.

Never lose hope. Tomorrow can be made better.