I am indebted to this powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at New York’s Central Synagogue, from which I borrowed some ideas and several sources.
I have stated, on more than one occasion, that this is the best time and place to be Jewish in human history. We have never enjoyed so much freedom, success, safety, and acceptance by the wider society than we do today. I still believe that.
But last week, we were reminded that antisemitism is very real, and it is not going away any time soon.
Last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue, eleven Jews, men and women between 54 and 97 years old, were murdered while praying. These are their names:
Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfrie, Rose Mallinger—97 years old, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, along with his brother—David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger. May their memories be a blessing.
These were the most dedicated members of their community, the ones who, week after week, showed up at the beginning of services to ensure that there would be a minyan. They are martyrs: Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.
Their murderer, whose name I will not mention, shouted “All Jews must die” as he slaughtered them.
He did not care if his victims were Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. It did not matter to him whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they leaned to the right or to the left.
All that mattered was that they were Jews.
While the shooter seems to have been working alone, his beliefs were consistent with views embraced by those who identify as part of White Power, Neo Nazi, or Alt-Right movements. In an article in the The Atlantic last December, journalist Luke O’Brian summarizes White Nationalists’ fears of Jewish influence.
The Holohoax, as it is known, gives its adherents an excuse to blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews: Feminism. Immigration. Globalization. Liberalism. Egalitarianism. The media. Science. Facts. Video-game addiction. Romantic failure. The NBA being 74.4 percent black. According to the Holohoax, it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.
They see Jews as the top of the pyramid, the ultimate cause of everything that they consider bad.
Saturday’s murderer had been railing against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is one of several agencies that partners with the Federal Government to settle refugees – legal refugees, by the way. HIAS had sponsored National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Tree of Life Synagogue had participated proudly.
In one of his final online posts, the shooter wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people, I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Who is to blame for letting immigrants in the country? The Jews. The ultimate Other.
Antisemitism has a long and terrible two thousand year history. We have suffered countless persecutions: expulsions, forced conversions, torture, massacres during the Crusades, the blood libel, blame for the Black Death, the Inquisition, ghettos, the Chmielnitzki Massacres, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.
All of these and more were driven by hateful, antisemitic lies and stereotypes. Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews are usurers, they are greedy, they have big noses and ears, they run the media, there is a secret organization of Jews that is controlling the world.
While these stereotypes originated in Christendom, they eventually spread into Muslim lands, where blood libels persist to this day and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still in print.
While we seem to have made great progress after the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemitism is still very much with us.
Anyone who has traveled to Europe and tried to visit a Jewish community knows that synagogues there are fortresses. To attend services on Shabbat in many communities, you have to first send a picture of your passport. I attended Tisha B’av services in Trieste, Italy, a few years ago. We barely had a minyan, but we were protected by an Israeli security guard at the door, two machine gun wielding Italian carabinieri, and two undercover police officers.
A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place. It is a House of Worship, a sanctuary, a place of peace. Sadly, antisemitism prevents this. But not in America.
Yes, there are some very large, mainly urban synagogues that employ security, but we take for granted that our shuls are open places. We take pride in it. As Sinai’s Rabbi, I am constantly inviting people to join us on Shabbat for services, and to stay for lunch afterwards. I insist, with 100% sincerity, that we love having guests.
In the last week, we have been questioning this sense of safety and security. We have learned most painfully that antisemitism in not just words and rhetoric.
While Jews in America are trusted and seen positively by higher percentages than ever, we are also seeing increasingly nasty antisemitism on the fringes of both the right and the left. Let me give a few examples. As I do, pay close attention to your emotions. How do you feel as I describe the following examples?
First, the right.
A Republican candidate for State Senate in Connecticut sent out a campaign mailer this week attacking his opponent, Democratic State Representative Matthew Lesser, who happens to be Jewish. The ad depicts a photoshopped picture of Lesser with bulging eyes, a maniacal grin, hands clutching wads of cash — not dissimilar to other antisemitic caricatures of Jews that have appeared over the past centuries.
Last year, White Nationalists held their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer. President Trump infamously told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides… You had some very bad people in that group… but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” The Alt-Right took his words as an endorsement.
Just last week, the President proudly declared himself to be a “nationalist.” And at a rally Saturday night, just hours after the massacre in Pittsburgh, he railed against immigrants, referring to this coming Tuesday as the “election of the caravan.”
Many have drawn connections between the President’s frequent anti-immigrant, anti-Other language and the hate-driven violence that we have recently witnessed, including the shooting of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the mailing of 14 pipe bombs to targets that the President has verbally attacked repeatedly.
That’s on the right. How about the left?
Traditionally, the Jews of Great Britain have been strong supporters of the Labour Party. But its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tolerated and even encouraged antisemitic rhetoric and actions within the party for years. In 2012, Corbyn hosted a panel comprised of a number of Hamas members. In 2013, he suggested that “Zionists don’t understand English irony.” In 2014, he attended a memorial ceremony and placed a wreath for the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Just recently, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative in Minnesota’s House of Representatives. This past August, she won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in Minnesota’s 5th District, meaning she is all but certain to win the general election this Tuesday. In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Liberal Jews should be natural allies for the Women’s March. And yet, three of the Co-Chairs, most notably Tamika Mallory, have refused to denounce the march’s association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has a long history of blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, including praise of Hitler.
Just last Spring, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s annual gathering, at which Farrakhan praised her and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy… the Jews have control of those agencies of government” like the FBI. The Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid,” and they are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.” When confronted with this, Mallory refused to disassociate herself or the Women’s March from him. Quite the opposite, she has often praised and appeared in photographs with Farrakhan.
So let me ask a question. Over the last four minutes, I spoke about antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left: A Republican ad depicting a Jewish opponent with classic antisemitic imagery; President Trump’s divisive rhetoric encouraging right wing extremists. I spoke about the leader of the British Labour Party’s tolerance, and even encouragement of antisemitic behavior. I mentioned a soon to be elected Democratic Congresswoman who made references to global Zionist conspiracies. And I spoke about an organizer of the Women’s March who has refused to renounce Louis Farrakhan.
Which made you more angry? Be honest. Who did you find yourself trying to excuse in some way?
My guess is that those who consider themselves to be politically liberal got angrier about the antisemitism on the right, while those who consider themselves to be conservative got angrier about the antisemitism of the left. And both sides probably found themselves minimizing, dismissing, or even rejecting the antisemitism on their own ideological side, or getting mad at me for even suggesting it.
I have been looking at myself this past week, and I have found that I have done all of these things.
On the Conservative Rabbis’ listserv, less than 24 hours had passed, and there were already arguments raging over who was to blame for the rhetoric that encouraged the shooter. Of course, there were those who placed responsibility on President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred. But in response, there were accusations that it was in fact President Obama who started the divisive language that led to Trump’s election and Saturday’s tragedy.
Here is what I have observed about how Jews react to antisemitism. We blame the antisemitism of the other side. It makes us so mad. “Why don’t other Jews see it?” we ask in exasperation.
And then we ignore, excuse, or minimize the antisemitism on our own side. “Those are just a few fringe elements,” we tell ourselves. “They don’t really matter.”
What is the result? A few things. No antisemites change their minds. Jews on the right and Jews on the left get angrier at each other. We widen the rifts within the Jewish community.
Right now, there is a small window of cooperation in our grief. I was impressed by a joint editorial written by the ideologically opposed Editors-in-Chief of the Forward and The Algemeiner, and signed by a dozen leaders in Jewish journalism. It was titled #WeAreAllJews.
We […] join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of antisemitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed antisemitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.
I think we can all agree on the following: Antisemitism is evil, whether it comes from the right or the left. I can accept that you have a different opinion than me about taxes, or health care, or immigration policies. But if there is one thing that ought to unite us, it ought to be our Judaism. We have got to be united in opposing anyone who expresses hatred against the Jewish people, or who stokes that hatred.
What is more important? Being a Democrat or Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, or being Jewish? Why would we ever let political affiliation to drive a wedge in the Jewish community?
Don’t just blame the other side. From now on, I want all of us to commit to calling out the antisemitism that persists on the fringes of our own political perspectives. Those who are active in progressive causes need to stay engaged. And similarly with those involved in conservative causes. Do not allow the organizations and movements that you care about to get hijacked by antisemitism. Do not allow antisemitic—or any hateful language—to go unchecked.
Racism and hatred should not have a place in our politics. If we do not call it out, then we are responsible for allowing it to grow.
This past week, our wider Jewish community gathered together on two occasions. The first was a service of mourning on Sunday night. It was attended by more than 400 people who felt an urgent need to come together to express grief and offer each other comfort.
The second gathering was an Interfaith Vigil of Solidarity Against Hate, which took place on Tuesday.
It was a special event. More than 600 people assembled at the plaza in front of San Jose City Hall. Mayor Sam Liccardo and the entire City Council attended, along with Joe Simitian, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and many of our other local elected officials.
There were also dozens of clergy, and laypeople of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds. Protestant Ministers and Pastors, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox Priests, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. These religious leaders brought their congregants with them.
We came together to say that we will not succumb to hatred. Despite many differences, we are united as human beings, and as Americans. While the need that brought us together was tragic, the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder was so reassuring.
How did such a diverse crowd come together?
On Saturday, as soon as news about the shooting emerged, I started receiving personal emails from interfaith colleagues and friends. They expressed their sorrow to me and offered condolences to our community. They said that they would be reciting prayers and lighting memorial candles during their worship services the next day. They offered to help our community in any way possible, including standing outside our entrances during service so that we would feel safe while we prayed.
Who was it that sent these messages? Some were members of a small interfaith group of which I am a member. We have met every month for the past couple of years to study and learn from each other.
One email came from a representative of the Evergreen Mosque. Last year, when that community received a bomb threat, I was one of several dozen people of different faiths who stood outside the entrance to support their community during its Friday prayers.
Another came from a leader in the local Hindu community, who I have gotten to know through a different interfaith organization.
When we decided to hold the Interfaith Vigil, I immediately sent out the notification to my interfaith colleagues, and many of them came, on very short notice.
All of my local Rabbinic Colleagues had the same experiences. And this is true of the countless other interfaith vigils, services, and rallies which have taken place around the country this past week.
A threat, or God forbid an attack, is uniquely personal to the community that experiences it. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh. All Jews are interconnected with one another. At the same, how remarkable it is that people from extraordinarily different traditions feel such profound empathy for one another.
Can you imagine this happening in any other time or place in history?
I suspect that many of you had experiences this week in which non-Jewish friends, acquaintances, or co-workers reached out to express their condolences and sorrow. Why do you think they did that?
Because they see you as a whole person, and they know that being Jewish is an important part of who you are. And they value you for that. That is what makes America so special. And that is why I do not think we are facing the same situation as Germany in the 1930’s, or even contemporary Europe.
Antisemitism will certainly continue to exist. It may even turn violent. But I have faith in the goodness of most people.
I was reminded this week of a letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Road Island in 1790. While his address is specifically addressed to the American Jewish community, it really expresses the best of what pluralism and religious freedom is supposed to be in America – for people of all faiths. I would like to conclude with these words by our Founding Father.
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.