Responding to Anti-Semitism

Responding to Anti-Semitism
By Rabbi David Zaslow

Anti-Semitism, like all prejudices, is an equal opportunity yetzer ha-ra, “ evil inclination.” Today it afflicts people on the far left as well as the far right. This has, in fact, been the historical pattern of prejudice against Jews. Before World War II Stalin and the Communists claimed that the Jews were capitalists trying to take over the world. Hitler and the Nazis claimed that the Jews were communists trying to take over the world. The language is a little different today but the beliefs coming from both extremes of the political spectrum are the same.

Two years ago our synagogue put in an alarm system and cameras surrounding the building because of threats we perceived to be coming from anti-Israel activists in our town. For the past 15+ years I have seen an uptick in anti-Semitic attitudes arising from the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) movement that we’ve heard so much about especially on college campuses throughout the country.  Threats from the radical left really doubled in 2015, mostly as threats to the safety of Jewish students on college campuses. According to AMCHA, nationally there were 467 anti-semitic incidents in 2015, and 618 in the election year of 2016. In 2017 so far 97 incidents have been reported. From news reports in recent days it seems that another 200+ threats and incidents have yet to be recorded for this new year. There has been a clear increase in the number of incidents of threats, grafitti and cemetery desecrations in the last few months. And there was a clear underreporting of incidents in recent years because the incidents were focused on Israel rather than directly on Jews and Judaism, as we are witnessing today.

As a rabbi I don’t care where the prejudices are coming from –  hatred is hatred, and hatred breeds more hatred. Yet it’s important to understand the roots of anti-Semitism. As Easter is approaching many of us recognize that the Passion story told on Good Friday in almost all churches squarely puts the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jewish people – the New Testament clearly says of the Jewish people that Jesus’s “…blood is upon us and our children.” The scapegoating of Jews can be traced farther back to the story of Esther that we’ll read about on Purim. Haman was upset by immigrant Jews who were living in the Persian Empire.

In the book of Exodus Moses was being trained by God to realize that the emancipation of the slaves from oppression was not enough. More than seven times God expresses concern to Moses about the liberation of the Egyptians from their oppressiveness. The liberation of the oppressor and the liberation of the oppressed go hand-in-hand. This is the very same teaching that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted in the civil rights movement. He taught that it wasn’t enough for African-Americans to be freed from oppression, but that white Americans needed to be also freed from being oppressive.

On May 17, 1956 in NYC at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City Rev. King declared:

“Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love. Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”

In a wonderful book written for Christians called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the authors offer these wise words:

“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.”

I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring these words are to me. We must act on behalf of of the immigrant who wants to come to the United States to be part of a democratic society. We must act on behalf of minorities who are mistreated; on behalf of the LGBT community; on behalf of transgender youth; on behalf of our police who risk their lives to serve us; on behalf of African-American young men; on behalf of women’s safety and rights; on behalf of our environment; and on behalf of our own Jewish community that is now being threatened much more than in the recent past. But let’s not settle for easy scapegoats. Let us analyze the situation today with nuanced analysis rather than simplistic, easy answers that we get from the internet.

In the past three months I’ve been chanting the words from King David to a melody by Rabbi Menachem Creditor – olam hesed yibaneh, “the world is built from love.” Olam hesed yibaneh does not mean that we are not to be activists, but it means that our activism must be informed by prayer; must be informed by kindness; must be informed by compassion and love. This is what Moses taught. This is what Martin Luther King taught. This is what the Dalai Lama teaches. And this is what I am trying to practice myself.

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