When I was a child my family was part of a community of boaters. Each summer, we would set out on our twin engine, thirty-four-foot Bayliner to local spots near our port in Barrington, Rhode Island – Newport, Block Island, Martha Vinyard.
On one blustery day, we were heading home with a few other boats who had all vacationed together in one of these place. These fellow travelers were our friends. Together, we had shared Barbecues, and beach outings. They were from a diversity of town, backgrounds, and socio-economic classes. Most were Catholic, Rhode Island being the most Catholic state in America.
Our boat happened to be the first into the dock and since our marina was too narrow to accommodate more than one boat docking into their slip, one of my parent’s friends had to wait for us to finish before he could dock. His boat was pushed around a bit in the wind since keeping a boat steady is basically impossible when waiting in a que. Eventually he did dock after nearly banging into another boat nearby.
When people asked him about it, he turned to my dad and jokingly said, “I would have been fine, but that Jew-boy beat me home.”
My dad pretended to play along with the joke, smiling and sticking out his tongue at his friend before everyone went to their respective vessels to have lunch. Over sandwiches, I remember my dad getting quiet. “These are our friends,” he said, “but remember, as much as you don’t want to admit it, you’ll always be a Jew to them.”
For years, I shrugged off this wisdom. I am young enough to have grown up in an era of calm for American Jewry, where it seemed to me that anti-semitism over. I remember railing against the emphasis on the Holocaust in our education, proclaiming as a strident teenager that we lived in a “post-holocaust era.”
But I also remember opening the door to anti-Semitism during locker room banter with a self-deprecating joke about my Jewishness and reaping the fruits of months of other kids crossing the line with their jokes and observations about Judaism. At that time, I thought that it was my fault that I led them down that path, rather than blaming a society that taught kids it was fine to talk that way.
Today, there is little question that anti-Semitism is back in our consciousness. But there is also little question that it never went away. We don’t live in an era of renewed anti-Semitism; rather we live in an era where it is simply more visible, more violent, and present. Anti-Semitism does not go away – that is why it is called “the oldest hatred.” What changes instead is the ways in which it is manifest.
And for us today, part of the challenge of anti-Semitism is that, I truly believe, never in history has the mechanisms for anti-Semitism been as diverse and confusing as they are right now.
Each era in history, tended to have one identified way that people attacked their fellow Jews
Early on, the criticism of Jews was ideological. Jews did not accept Jesus and were persecuted for it. They resisted converting to Islam at the time of Mohamud, and though were a tolerated minority in the Muslim tradition, they were relegated to second class citizens in many areas they settled.
Soon, the hatred turned from speaking about what Jews believed to what they did. Jews were persecuted for killing Jesus. During the medieval era, blood libels arose, claiming falsely that Jews killed children to put their blood into their Matzah or reconstituted Jesus from the host bread in order to torture him.
In this era and subsequently, Jews became a symbol for everything that people did not like. That why Jews could be called despairingly socialists and capitalists at different eras in history. Judaism does not change, but people’s fears and stigmas do. Socialists hated capitalists, and thus Jews were called capitalists. Capitalists hate socialists, so Jews took on that label.
Eventually, Jew hatred turned officially to anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, when anti-Semitism became a racial designation. During this era, the problem was no longer what we believed, or even what we were accused of doing. Instead, anti-Semitism became about who we were. Anti-Semitism become a political distinction badge of honor for those who sought our destruction, as German propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels proudly remarked after Kirstalnacht: "The German people is anti-Semitic. It has no desire to have its rights restricted or to be provoked in the future by parasites of the Jewish race."
As Jews moved through each stage of history, the anti-Semitism they faced did not go away. Instead it stuck around, moving up through history so that today’s anti-Semitism is very different than anything we have seen in the past, because even with new layers that are fundamentally modern, it retains many of these old forms making anti-Semitism less a fundamental system of belief and more a wide array of loosely related beliefs and prejudices sharing little but the hatred of Jews.
Today, I want to talk about four ways that anti-Semitism is manifest in our society today and after diagnosing the problems, talk about how they each need their own, tailor made solutions.
We all feel acutely the first for of anti-Semitism, which is also the easiest to grasp. We live in a world of uncovered White Supremacy. Uncovered because it was always there, but in the past few years, these forces of hatred and bigotry feel able to be in the open. They are the marchers in Charlottesville, the shooters in Pittsburg and Poway. They are the swastikas painted on playground equipment. Slurs etched on synagogue walls.
Last year, Jews faced 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions. In fact, two of the three highest incidents of hate crimes against Jews in the history of the Anti-Defamation League's statistics occurred in the past two years, beaten only by 1994. And New Jersey is not immune. We have the third highest rate of anti-Semitic incidents of any state beside New York and California.
I’ve often been asked why white supremacists chooses to target Jews at such high rates, especially since their hatred is not limited to Jews, but rather also targeted toward blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community. In his groundbreaking essay, “Skin in the Game” Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center explained why Jews are targeted especially by White Supremacists. In an extended quote, he writes:
The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology. White supremacism—inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South—had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could a race of inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone? For that matter, how could feminists and LGBTQ people have upended traditional gender relations, leftists mounted a challenge to global capitalism, Muslims won billions of converts to Islam? How do you explain the boundary-crossing allure of hip hop? The election of a Black president? Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious.
This “diabolical evil,” says the white supremacist is the Jewish community. Wrapped up in the anti-Semitic tropes of old, they believe we are the conspirators, the secret powers. Pulling the strings behind the scenes, we are responsible for the rise of all things hated by white supremacists: multiculturalism, pluralism, globalization. I’ve said this before, but when those marching in Charlottesville called, “the Jews will not replace us” they weren’t afraid that we would become the new power, but that we already were and were scheming to bring in immigrants and bolster minorities to push "the white nation” aside.
This hatred needs its own approach and I’ll come back to what that is shortly.
The second kind of anti-Semitism appears on the far left. Though white supremacy and anti-Semitism on the far left, share the same designation, they manifest in totally different ways. For those on college campuses and in leftist circles, this anti-Semitism appears through the lens of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Now, don’t get me wrong. One can certainly be critical of Israel without being an anti-Semite. The line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is blurry. They are not the same thing, which is what makes this particular kind of anti-Semitism so confusing.
Over the coming months, I want to continue using our Israel speaker series on Sunday mornings to explore this tension but for now a few brief observations. As I’ve mentioned, much of the anti-Semitism we see today has the same basic themes, echoed throughout time: (1) Jews have hidden power and influence they do not deserve; (2) A Jewish person’s right to tell their historical story matters less than those of other minorities; (3) Others have more of a right to define who Jews are (a religion vs an ethnic group vs a nation) than Jews do themselves; (4) One can hold the whole Jewish community responsible for the acts of a subgroup of Jews.
Today, we see each one of these manifests in the popular discourse on Israel.
When someone gives undue power and shadow influence to AIPAC, saying that they pull the strings of Washington, far beyond what most effective lobbying organizations are able to do, that crosses a line to anti-Semitism.
When Palestinian narratives are held up, and Jewish narratives ignored...
When Jews are told they have no historical tie to the Temple mount in Jerusalem...
When groups use our communal traumas against us, calling us Nazis or accusing us of genocide...
When people deny our right to call ourselves a “nation” explaining to us that as a “religion” we don’t deserve a homeland...
When Jewish teens who have never even been to Israel before are told by their professors to answer for the problems of Israeli society...
In all of these cases, these old tropes appear anew. And unfortunately for our young people, it’s hard to know how to answer when they are told that these criticisms are simply against Israel, rather than wrapped up in a culture and climate of subtle anti-Semitic discourse.
Like white supremacy, these behaviors need a response of their own, but the response must be different in each case.
The third way that anti-semitism is manifest is very problematic, but often something we do not talk about. We are living through a spate of some of the worst violence against ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Queens than at perhaps any other time in our country's history. In one week in early September, four specific acts of violence were perpetrated against this community, including one incident when Rabbi Avraham Gopin, age 64, was attacked with a brick in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
Delving into the racial and economic tensions between the different communities who live in places like Crown Heights that has led to this level of violence is outside the scope of this sermon. And it is something we should acknowledge and think about. But that is no excuse for the violence we see. Anti-Semitism anywhere, breads anti-Semitism everywhere. Though these Jewish communities may feel a world away they are in fact not. When, for example, elected officials work in north Jersey to keep certain ultra-orthodox communities from moving into their towns, likening them to “vermon” and speaking of them as if they are an “infestation” they perpetuate the same images and language that plagued the Jews throughout our history. When we say nothing in the face of this hatred, we allow these officials to become practiced in speaking and acting this way, laying the groundwork for a culture where it becomes acceptable to hate members of the Jewish community.
Finally, we have to talk about the truth in the witty retort by Franklin Foer that “Philo-Semites are anti-Semites who like Jews.”
A little over a decade ago, Foer’s comment became clear to me in an interaction I had with a candidate for the 2008 elections. Since he was a former cabinet member, the Reform Movement had invited him to speak at our social justice conference, the Consultation on Conscious. While speaking to us, he began praising our community:
“I’m sort of a reform public servant, 38 years in the government,” he said. “(Now) I’m in the private sector and for the first time in my life I’m earning money. You know that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that. I enjoy that.”
Later, after being pulled aside and told that what he said was wrong, he decided to clarify:
“I just want to clarify something because I didn’t in any means want to infer or imply anything about Jews and finances and things. What I was referring to ladies and gentlemen is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. You have been outstanding business people and I compliment you for that and if anybody took what I said wrong I apologize. I may have mischaracterized it. You are very successful. I applaud you for that.”
Needless to say, his Presidential candidacy did not last long.
In a way, I would take these anti-Semitic attitudes over White Supremecy, hostility on college campuses, and violence toward the ultra-orthodox any day. But they are still insidious.
Last year, the Community Securities Trust, together with the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), produced a report on antisemitism in Great Britain. What they found is that although 2-5% of people are consciously hostile toward Jews and have a definite system of hatred against us, another 30 percent claim to like Jews, even love us, but yet still hold one major anti-Semitic view which they share with those who truly hate us. From these researchers coined the term “elastic anti-Semitism" to show just how wide the phenomenon can stretch.
The problem is not that these people love us for our perceived skill with money or power or loyalty to Israel. The issue is that the more we are loved for these things, the more they will appear to be true, and thus the more fodder those who truly hate the Jewish people will have to claim that their view are mainstream and right.
So, after spending as much time as I have diagnosing the problem, the question remains: what can we do about anti-Semitism?
In essence, our approach to each of these sub-categories, must be distinct, but they all have things in common, each form of anti-Semitism will be fought by relationships, truth, and doubling down on your own identity. The key is knowing which how to pursue each.
Indeed, relationships matter, but we need to know which to foster. Unlike some of the other categories of anti-Semitism, it won’t work to try to build bridges with white supremacists. Conspiracy theories are hard to break and stories like the Nazi last year who was invited to Shabbat dinner in Florida and reformed his views are anomalies. Instead we need to build bridges with other faith communities and with law enforcement.
After Pittsburgh, I was heartened by the outpouring of support from local Christian and Muslim communities. These neighbors showed up. And God forbid if anything were to happen in their communities, we need to show up for them. This year, we took steps toward continuing to build these bridges. We have two inter-religious dialogue groups happening at TNT, including one specifically for women. We join together to work on immigrant justice, feed the hungry, and hold vigils for trans lives. Though these don’t seem to be overtly connected to anti-Semitism, they are. Any work together means that our relationship is stronger, and we will show up for one another in a time of need.
Also, over this past year, the Bloomfield police have been true friends to TNT. And the more connections we make around the community, the more vigilant eyes they have to rely on to keep us all safe.
However, I think in those other cases of anti-Semitism, our relationships can be direct. In the spring, after Ilhan Omar’s series of anti-Semitic tweets, rabbis who she was in relationship with got on the phone with her and began the process of educating her about the impact her words had. Though a slow process, I believe these steps were in the right direction.
In truth, Omar would never have even taken their call if they had not already been working together. And because of this, the answer to anti-Semitism on the far left and on college campuses is not to criticize from without, but to teach from within. We faced this issue when I was working in Brooklyn. We had been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and after they came out with their platform calling Israel a “genocidal” state, many of our congregants asked us to pull out. If we did, we might feel that we were protecting our integrity, but if we didn’t, if we continued to engage, we would be in dialogue with them and perhaps make sure that next time, these statements would not appear.
Relationships are the means to fostering understanding. When a town council member compares the ultra-orthodox moving into their town to vermin, we can leverage our relationships with them to educate them that this language will not be tolerated, even at the same time as acknowledging that there are challenges to changing demographics. Likewise, when our allies praise us and simultaneously offend us, playing into tropes of duel loyalty and Jewish power, we can pull them aside. Explaining the danger of their statement is much more helpful than issuing a press release. Historically, the teacher was always better at changing hearts than the prophet.
But as much as relationships matter, so does the truth. Whether in the public square or the college campus, shutting down discourse has never been the answer. Stopping inflammatory speakers only emboldens them more. Instead, we must fight ignorance with knowledge.
If anti-Semitism is indeed elastic, our goal should not be to change the hearts and minds of the 2-5% of people who have a full formed picture of Jews in their head. Rather we need to educate the 30% who are in the process of moving there. The number of white supremist are small; we need to show the larger group who are within shouting distance of them that they shouldn’t listen.
In 2015 when Rachel Beyda, a Jewish student at UCLA was asked when applying to be on her school’s student Judicial board, “ Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” and then subsequently denied a place on the committee because of her faith, the problem was less with Fabienne Roth who asked the question and pushed the issue, but with the rest of the council who voted against her. It was only when their faculty advisor admonished them, that they realized what they did and voted again to let her in.
Part of teaching the truth is knowing who to entrust it with. For example, many students may not realize that the campus rabbi may be the most visible voice for them, but they are not the most powerful. In fact, it’s more beneficial, say many administrators, to go to Jewish studies faculty with problems. This year, I hope to gather parents of teens together and teens themselves to talk about strategies to deal with anti-Semitism that may arise on their campuses.
Part of being able to speak the truth is also having access to the history and language to talk about anti-semitism, Israel, and other issues that may arise. There have been a number of wonderful books that have been published in the past few years by Deborah Lipstadt, Bari Wiess, and Phyllis Goldstein that can help us to educate friends and allies about the nuances of “the world’s oldest hatred.” I hope to have many of these conversations here to give you the tools as well.
I also hope to be an ally as you look at the education your children are getting. How is the Holocaust taught in our local public schools? How is Israel presented? What role does Christmas play during December? Since attitudes start young, we can make a local impact by addressing these questions early.
But as important as building relationships and the seeking truth are, the most important thing you can do in the face of anti-Semitism is to not give up on yourself. In the face of anti-Semitism we might do one of two things. Out of fear, we might sacrifice our Jewishness to fit in or we might embrace our Jewishness but pull away from things that we are passionate about because we face anti-Semitism there. The key is to not let anti-Semitism define you.
People hate that which is elusive, that which they do not understand. The more open we are with our Judaism the more we defiantly laugh in the face of those who seek to undermine us. Showing up at Temple Ner Tamid after Pittsburgh is an act of defiance. Walking into social justice spaces as a proud Jew even if we might be asked unfairly to answer for every action of the Israeli government is an act of defiance. People should know that their neighbor, their customer, their friend is Jewish. For if they do, it will bring into focus the personal costs of ignoring anti-Semitism.
One of the most important things to know in the face of anti-Semitism is that we have agency. We are not powerless. How we own that power, what we do with it, will hopefully bring us one step closer to creating a future, much different than our history.