Anti-Semitism

In the years before my Bar Mitzvah, I used to attend Junior Congregation every Saturday morning.    I got up early, put on my red sports jacket, my clip-on tie, placed a yarmulke on my head and headed out on the 20 minute walk to my synagogue.  Fifty five years later, I can’t remember why I put the kipa on at home, and didn’t wait until I got to Temple Beth Ami in Northeast Philadelphia.  I lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, those were simpler times, and I was a pretty naïve kid.  One Saturday when I was 10 or 11, I was suddenly confronted by five or six older boys.  They surrounded me, and started taunting me about my yarmulke, about being Jewish and, about the Holocaust (I have a recollection that this was during the time of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem).   One kid slapped my face, and I had a terrible fear that they were going to beat me up- or worse.  Just then, a miracle happened and I was saved.  Back in the day, commercial bakeries used to deliver bread and cakes to people’s homes; a delivery guy in a Bond Bread truck saw a little kid about to be beaten up by a gang of older kids;  he yelled at them and scared them off.   I took my kipa off, and continued to synagogue, fighting back the tears.  That was my only personal experience with anti-semitism.

As those kind of stories go, it’s pretty tame.  I imagine that there are guys here- older than me- who had to run a gauntlet every day after school, going through Irish, or Italian, or Black neighborhoods.  You had to fight if you wanted to survive. I‘m pretty sure that people here of a certain age could also tell interesting stories about the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in the 1930’s and 40’s and 50’s  that kept Jews out of certain colleges, or from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.  The fact that many Country Clubs around here are predominantly Jewish is not because we like to stick to our own kind; it’s because the other clubs wouldn’t let us in.  Hospitals like Mt Sinai, Beth Israel, Long Island Jewish were started because many medical facilities wouldn’t hire Jewish doctors.  Brandeis University was founded in 1948 because many colleges had quotas for Jewish applicants.  Fortunately, that kind of anti-semitism is all but gone.

This year we witnessed- with horror- another form of anti-semitism:  In October, a gunman murdered 11 Jews on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh; this past April, in Poway California, another Jew was killed during services.

And looking out over this congregation, I know that there are Holocaust survivors, and people who lost many members of their families during the Shoah.

These stories represent different degrees of hate, some merely upsetting, some truly murderous.  What they have in common is that since the time of Pharaoh in Egypt, we Jews have had a target on our backs.  We shouldn’t really be surprised; the Hagada has been telling us this for two thousand years:  B’khol dor va-dor, omdim aleynu l’khaloteynu:  In every generation they arise against us to try to destroy us.

One would have thought that the 21st century would have been the end of such hatred and violence.  But if you read history, people said the very same thing at the dawn of the 20th century- and we all know how that turned out.  The Anti-Defamation League reported that in 2018, in the United States, there were 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions.  That breaks down to 1066 cases of harassment, 774 incidents of vandalism, and 59 assaults (which was double the number in the year before).  And of course, 12 deaths.  We are only two percent of the population, but about half of all hate crimes are directed at Jews.

While the victims of anti-semitism are always the same, the perpetrators come in various shades.  Like Cerberus, the 3-headed monster of Greek mythology, Jew hatred today comes in three forms- what scholars refer to as Brown, Red, and Green.

Brown (as in the Brown-shirts of the Nazis), is hatred from the Right.  It could be Religious in nature.  During the Middle Ages, Jews were vilified because they didn’t accept Jesus, or because it was believed that we murdered Christian children to use their blood to make Matza, or because they claimed we Desecrated the Host- stabbing Communion wafers as a way of murdering Jesus all over again.  There is Racial anti-semitism, as when Hitler- and Neo-Nazis today- preach that Jews are of inferior blood, a threat to the purity of the White Race.  There is Political anti-semitism, where Jews are pegged as Revolutionaries, intent on world domination, our loyalty to our own country called into question.  And then there is Social anti-semitism, where we are seen as pushy, or trying to undermine the morals of the society.

The next shade is Red (as in the Communist flag)- anti-semitism from the Left.  This includes hatred for Jews for Economic reasons- we are the greedy capitalists, and Wall Street bankers who manipulate the markets, enriching ourselves at the expense of others.  (One of the great ironies of anti-semitism is that the Left accuses us of being Capitalists, while the Right accuses us of being Communists.  The take-away is that anti-semitism has little to do with the truth).   And the other type of Jew-hatred from the Left is about Israel.  Jews are occupiers of Arab land, the new Nazis, engaging in genocide of the Palestinians.  This past year we saw Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, who on three different occasions utilized anti-semitic tropes.  First, that Jews (with their demonic powers) have hypnotized the world into supporting Israel; second, that U.S. support of Israel “was all about the Benjamins” (meaning that AIPAC and other rich Jews use their money to bribe US policymakers); and third, that the Jewish concern for Israel makes us guilty of dual allegiance, and thus traitors to America.

The International Edition of the NY Times published a political cartoon showing a blind Donald Trump, wearing a yarmulke, being led by a guide dog with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was wearing a Jewish Star.  Some people might make a case that the American President is “blind” and is being pulled along and manipulated by the Israeli Prime Minister; you can agree or disagree with that premise.  But why is Trump wearing a kipa? And why is Netanyahu wearing a Jewish star?  Legitimate questions about foreign policy have devolved into illegitimate stabs at the Jews and Judaism.  That is anti-semitism.

The third form of contemporary anti-semitism is Green, the color of the Islamist flag.  There are Muslims who hate Jews because we rejected Mohammed as the ultimate prophet.  Or because we do not accept our traditional position as “Dhimmis”- second class people not allowed equality with Muslims, but who, as a People of the Book, are not forced to choose conversion or death, as infidels are.  Or because we control land which, according to Islam, may belong only to Muslims.

In Toulouse in 2012, Islamists murdered 4 Jews at a Jewish school; in Belgium in 2014, in an attack at the Jewish Museum 2 were killed; in Paris, in 2015, 4 were slaughtered at a kosher supermarket; in Copenhagen in 2015, a Jewish volunteer guard at the local synagogue was killed.

Those of us in New York know that there’s a fourth “color” of anti-semitism:  Blacks attacking Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.  It has less to do with ideology, and more with two communities in close proximity, living in great tension, competing for limited space and governmental resources.  Though this conflict goes back to the late 1960s, the flames of that tension today are fanned by Louis Farrakhan and his virulent hatred of Jews, which is Brown, Red, and Green all at the same time.

In Europe, the three main forms of anti-semitism manifest themselves every day.  A resurgent Fascist, Nationalism on the Right; virulent anti-Zionism on the Left; and a growing Islamist movement made up of radical, disenfranchised immigrants.  After Israel and America, the largest Jewish population in the world is in France with 450,000 Jews.  The kidnapping, torture and murder of a young Jew, Ilan Halimi, in 2006 was the catalyst that sent many French Jews buying apartments in Israel- in case they needed to leave France at a moment’s notice.

In Germany, home to 116,000 Jews, the official tasked with dealing with anti-semitism suggested this past May that Jews not wear yarmulkahs in public.   In Great Britain, the leader of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has done and said several things that make most observers conclude he is an anti-semite- like laying a wreath at the grave of one of the terrorists responsible for the Munich Olympic massacre.

The question that is always in the back of our minds is:  Is America different?  We’ve always believed so.  But in August of 2017 we gasped as we watched marchers in Charlottesville chant “The Jews will not replace us!”  We are both angry- and fearful- when we read about the things that are happening on many college campuses, where Israel is condemned, Zionist speakers are shouted down, and Jewish students are harassed for supporting her.

How do we respond to this resurgence of anti-semitism?

There are three traditional responses.  First, assimilate.  If people hate you because you’re Jewish, stop being Jewish.   Benjamin Disraeli, Heinrich Heine, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendellsohn, Boris Pasternak, Karl Marx-  All were Jews who converted in order to further their careers, or escape anti-semitism.  Here’s the problem:  If Judaism is just a religion, then by embracing Christianity or Islam, you are no longer a Jew.  But if anti-semitism is about something deeper than Jesus or Mohammed, if it’s not about Religion, but  Race, if it’s our blood, our ethnicity,  our culture, our morals- then what? Those are things that baptism can’t wash away.  You can change your name from Issur Danielovitch to Kirk Douglas, or from Emanuel Goldberg to Edward G. Robinson, but everyone knows who you really are.

There’s a second response to anti-semitism.  In France, in 1894, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus of the French army was falsely accused and convicted oi treason- of passing military secrets on to the Germans.  Covering the public ceremony that drummed Dreyfus out of the army was an Austrian journalist, an assimilated Jew, named Theodore Herzl.  He witnessed the bloodthirsty crowd scream at Dreyfus: “Kill the Jew!”  Herzl was shaken.  That moment was to change the course of history.  Herzl suddenly realized that no matter what the Jews did, they would always be hated, because they were Jews.  Assimilation wasn’t the answer.   Zionism was.  Herzl wrote a pamphlet called “The Jewish State” in which he called for the Jews to have their own country.  For the next ten years he travelled  tirelessly throughout Europe seeking the help of world leaders to make his dream come true.  He died in 1904 at the age of 44 from a heart attack.  But in 1948, the State of Israel was established.  Too late for six million Jews of Europe, but in time to gather in 800,000 Jews from Arab countries, one million Jews from the Soviet Union, one hundred thousand Jews from Ethiopia- not to mention Jews from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa.   The thing about Zionism is this:  It doesn’t eliminate anti-semitism.  There are hundreds of millions of Arabs who still want the Jews in Israel dead.  The difference is, that now the Jews have an army to protect themselves, and now their government doesn’t say: “You’re not welcome here; go back where you came from.”

Suppose you don’t want to convert your way to safety, but you’re not prepared to pack your bags and make Aliyah.  There’s a third response to anti-semitism- maybe not for those in France or Germany or other places in Europe, but certainly for those of us in America.  It consists of these elements:

First, Know yourself.  Know who you are. Know your history.  Be proud to be a Jew.  Just as animals can smell fear in their prey, abusers and bullies can sense who the potential victims are.  The same is true of anti-semites.   There are two stereotypical images of the Jew from the 20th century:  The first is Holocaust-related- Jews as Victims, a weak people who went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter.  The second is Israel-related- a tough people who will go to war to defend themselves.  Those are the images of the Jew that our enemies hold.  They’re constantly probing to find out which Jew stands before them.  We should always present ourselves as filled with pride and confidence, so that our enemies know that if they mess with us, we will exact “an eye for an eye.”

Second, Know you enemy.  The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have identified over a thousand groups out there who are committed to destroying us- from the Ku Klux Klan, to Neo-Nazis and Holocaust Deniers and Skinheads, Christian Identity organizations, Anti-Israel and Pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions groups.  We need to keep abreast of who’s out there, where they are, and what they are planning.  Supporting organizations like ADL, the American Jewish Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are critical.  And supporting your Temple is another thing that is necessary. When a gunman attacked a synagogue on a Shabbat morning, we said to ourselves: “How is this possible?  It’s an anomaly.”  We told ourselves:  “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.”  But then it did.  We have to accept that this is the new normal- or at least, the “always possible.” We’ve spent quite a bit of energy, and quite a lot of money here, trying to make sure our our congregants are safe:  Ex-cops and SWAT team members as guards; locked doors; security cameras; bullet-resistant windows; hardware to prevent intruders getting into the Sanctuary and Social Hall; panic buttons; a phone app that alerts police of an emergency; additional fences to restrict access on the holidays; lock-down drills and evacuation exercises during Hebrew School; and additional security charges on your bills.

Third, Know your friends.  The Nassau County Police Department has been wonderful- coming down to inspect our building, offering suggestions, providing emergency training, hanging around our parking lot, and covering us on the holidays.  We also need to be able to count on our representatives in government, be they in Oyster Bay, Nassau County, New York State or Washington D.C.  When we realize that our government in America is so much more responsive to our concerns than are those in Europe, we understand how blessed we are to live in this country.

The world we American Jews live in was forever changed on October 27, 2018, at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh.   This is the world we live in.  I wish that we could spend all our resources on making the synagogue a Bet Midrash (a House of Learning), a Bet Tefila (a House of Worship), and a Bet Knesset (a House of Assembly).  Instead, we have to spend a significant effort on making the Temple a Bet Mivtzar- a fortress.  So be it.  We will rise to the challenge.  We will not run away.  Our response to “The Jews will not replace us” is  “Anti-semites will not deter us!”

When Moses was about to take leave of his people, he called in Joshua and gave him this blessing: “I am leaving the fate of the Jewish people in your hands.  Hazak v’Amatz.  Be strong, and courageous!”    During his lifetime, Joshua faced many enemies intent on destroying the people of Israel:  Amalekites, Amorites, Midianites, Moabites, Jebusites, Perrizites, Hivites, Hittites, Canaanites.  The price of survival was eternal vigilance.  But he prevailed.  And that’s why we are still around today, three thousand years later.  What was true in Joshua’s day has been true for all of Jewish history; the same is true for us, as well. There are many enemies out there.  But if we are courageous, if we are strong-  “Am Yisrael Hai”- The Jews will survive, and the Jewish people will thrive!