The Return of Anti-Semitism

The Return of Anti-Semitism


If you’ve been here for more than a year,
you know the drill by now. We have congregants for whom a 45-minute sermon
is not their thing. Infants and toddlers on your parents’ lap,
it’s not your thing, trust me. Children who need space and attention, it’s
not your thing. I know; I was once you. This is your time to find another venue for
45 minutes. We have multiple programs and even babysitting
for you. Come back for the Torah service and the shofar
service. Older children, I’d love for you to stay with
us because I think it’s really important for you to reflect on these sermons. But only if you feel that you can withstand
this 45-minute assault on your youthful sensibilities. Parents of children who don’t want to miss
the sermon, we’re streaming it live in multiple locations throughout the building and it’ll
be online in 24 hours. As for everyone else, I know many adults I
know many adults for whom sermons are free time or sleep time. If it’s not your thing, you are under no obligation
to stay. Really. I don’t think we have babysitting for adults,
but it’s a nice day. If you prefer a Rosh Hashanah stroll in the
park to my Rosh Hashanah stroll through Jewish issues, by all means, you and we will be better
off. And one more introductory remark to three
long sermons I’ll deliver over the next 10 days. Somewhere in these, I don’t know, two-plus
hours of preaching, I’m bound to say something that tests our relationship. Some remark, or even the manner that I say
it, will spoil your spiritual serenity. In advance: I’m sorry. Nah, not really. Because, while I’ve always felt that rabbis
should comfort the afflicted, we should also afflict the comfortable. It’s difficult for us because like everyone,
like you, rabbis want to be loved. We want to be admired, respected, appreciated,
praised. Rabbis perhaps crave these things even more
than the average person, which is how we ended up in this vocation in the first place. So if it’s especially difficult for rabbis
to articulate opinions that we know will generate, anguish, anger, annoyance, anxiety… I meet colleagues all the time who tell me
there are now no-go zones for them. They do not speak about contemporary political
events. They do not speak about Israel. They do not dwell on moral issues. “These are too controversial in my community,”
they say. “I stick to the safe things.” What a waste of a pulpit! Rabbis are not politicians; we’re not running
for anything. Our duty is to campaign for righteousness
as we see it. On the High Holy Days, our high and holy task
is to ignite a passion for justice. We seek to provoke, agitate, challenge, and
inspire – to offer a glimpse beyond the horizon of what could be if only we set our
sights on the Promised Land. In that context, we need to speak about anti-Semitism. Reform Jews speak frequently and eloquently
about the Jewish mandate of universal repair. We speak less frequently and less eloquently
about our obligations to fellow Jews. If you look at the agendas of our movement’s
conventions, mass gatherings and public statements – there is no doubt that we are rightly
absorbed with the urgency of social justice. No fair critic of American Reform Judaism
can accuse us of neglecting Judaism’s insistent demand to help make the world a better place. In this synagogue, in the past two years alone,
we have traveled to Germany, Greece, and the American southwest, to learn more about, and
express our moral indignation of, the uncompassionate, unworthy, ungenerous and un-Jewish treatment
of immigrants and refugees. Two large volunteer task forces, representing
hundreds of congregants, work hard every day on social repair. But, candidly, in our movement we do not speak
enough about our obligations to Jews. It is why I spend so much time with you on
this. If not us, then who? If we do not care about American Jews, South
American Jews, European Jews, Israeli Jews, who will? We do not emphasize enough the central Jewish
principle: כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה. All Jews are responsible one for the other. Jewish identity starts there. If you do not feel that, you cannot live a
full Jewish life, and you do not understand Judaism as well as you think you do. The pain of a Belgian Jew is our pain. The fear of an Israeli child terrorized by
rockets is our fear. The insecurity of Orthodox Jews attacked repeatedly
on the streets of Brooklyn is our insecurity. We seem to think that we have defeated history. All those plunders, persecutions, and pogroms
– they are a thing of the past. What folly: There is no past when it comes
to anti-Semitism; only eternal vigilance. Don’t forget – never forget – who we
really are. We are not a powerful majority. We are a miniscule percentage of the human
race. There are 2 billion Christians; 1.6 billion
Muslims, 1 billion Hindus – and 14 million Jews on a good day. All of the world’s Jews could fit into one
Shanghai neighborhood. We are a tiny people, about whom much of the
world has ambivalent feelings. We lost a third of our people in the mid-20th
century and, under the most optimistic projections, will not recover that number of Jews who lived
on the eve of World War II until the middle of this century – a hundred years after
the Holocaust. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote: “Before the
beginning of the 19th century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege. Since then most Jews have come to regard it
as a burden.” (Judaism as a Civilization). We need to heighten our sense of the privilege
of being Jewish – of being part of a precious, unique civilization handed down to us from
the mists of antiquity. We need more אהבת ישראל in our movement
– love of the Jewish people – measured, in part, by: what we say and how we say it;
what we teach; what we talk about when we gather together; and what we resolve to do. We need more introspection. We need to learn to love ourselves again. America, this beautiful, generous, free country
has lulled us into a false complacency, convincing us that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past,
impeding us from recognizing hatred of Jews, even when we see it in front of our eyes. Anti-Semitic incidences are surging. As bad as things are getting here, they are
far worse in Europe. France, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Poland
– even a once-great British Labour Party –they are all infected and getting sicker. And, of course, parts of the Arab world have
been anti-Semitic for centuries. Jews are not the only hated group. The very impulses that lead to the killing
of Jews in prayer also lead to the killing of Christians in prayer and Muslims in prayer. The Poway killer was charged with defacing
a mosque a few weeks before his attack on the Chabad center. He hated Muslims as well as Jews. The El Paso murderer hated Hispanics. Jews were lower on his list. That said, anti-Semitism is distinctly and
uniquely different. For sure, it is on the spectrum of racisms
of all types, but it is the most dangerous social virus in the history of civilization. It spreads like a plague. It is highly contagious. It will infect every healthy social organism
within the contagion zone, weakening society’s defenses and devastating the body politic. Anti-Semitism is a phenomenon of both the
right and the left. It has always been that way. For the anti-Semites of the right: Jews invented
communism. For the anti-Semites of the left: Jews are
rapacious capitalists. Both think that for Jews it’s all about
money and exploitation. Both accuse Jews of disloyalty. Both right-wing and left-wing anti-Semites
boycott Jews and Jewish business. Both think that Jews have mystical powers
to manipulate society; that there is some kind of international plot to pull the strings
of the world for the enrichment of the Jews. From the right it is the charge that there
is a Jewish cabal – The Elders of Zion. From the left, it is Israel – the Zionist
elders – hypnotizing the great powers. I have been to meetings of Zionist elders
– those international agencies dedicated to world Jewry, such as the World Zionist
Congress and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Trust me, these elders, these Zionist geezers,
cannot even manipulate their own boards let alone control the world. Both right-wing and left-wing anti-Semites
are convinced that Jews control the media. Both think that Jews have too much influence
over, Hollywood, television, and general culture. I must confess that as I was sitting one day
in Jerusalem in another boring meeting of the Elders of Zion – sorry, the World Zionist
Organization – listening in on this fascinating plan to conquer the world, it dawned on me: “You know what – maybe there is something
to these claims of Jewish control.” Because every time I turned on the television
in Israel, I saw Jews. I saw Muslims and Christians as well, but
mostly I saw Jews. Every time I walked into a cinema, I saw Jewish
actors, Jewish directors, there were Jewish producers. Every time I walked into a bank, there were
Jewish bankers everywhere. Darned Jews. Both right and left-wing anti-Semites hated
us for being a nationless nation, a wandering people with no home. Now they contend that Jewish nationhood is
the reason for Jew-hatred. “Jews will not replace us” from the right
parallels “check your white colonial Zionist privilege” from the left. Both right-wing and left-wing anti-Semites
hate that Jews are part of a distinctive people. They always have. For the racists of the secular and religious
right, Jews murdered God, or they are descendants of apes and pigs. Jews are a parasitical and inferior people
– vermin that threaten the health and hygiene of the world. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “The rats are underneath the
piles; the Jew is underneath the lot.” Their worst nightmare is that Jews assimilate
into the broader culture. For them, Jews need to be suppressed, exiled,
or, barring any other effective solution, exterminated. For the racists of the secular and religious
left, assimilation actually is possible. They want it. But what they cannot abide is Jews who refuse
to abandon their distinctive identity, stubbornly clinging to their antiquated faith, setting
themselves apart from the rest of humanity. As Chamfort said about the French revolutionaries
preaching fraternity. “Be my brother or I will kill you.” Thus, Jews do something that no others do:
We manage to unite the extreme right and the extreme left. They are on opposite sides of the political
and religious spectrum on practically everything else, but fold into each other at the extremes
– overlapping in agreement on their hatred of Jews. One calls it “Jews will not replace us.” The other calls it “Israel will not replace
us.” Let me dwell further on these two sources
of anti-Semitism: The anti-Semitism of the extreme right is
lethal. These are violent racists who hate many people,
not only Jews. They hate African-Americans and Muslim-Americans. They hate Hispanics. They hate immigrants. They hate minorities. They are the ones who burst into Jewish institutions
intent on carnage. It is the anti-Semitism of the Pittsburgh
attack. It is the anti-Semitism of the Poway attack. It is the anti-Semitism of Charlottesville. It is often deadly in its outcome. It is easier to identify. These haters do not attempt to hide their
hatred. To the contrary, they write malignant manifestos
of malevolence. Among the more disturbing trends in the Jewish
community is an effort by some to downplay disturbing dog whistles and sanitize sordid
sentiments because some speakers of scorn are sympathetic to Israel. “Words don’t matter,” they say. “Look only to the policies.” When will we ever learn? Hateful words lead to hateful deeds. We’ve known this for thousands of years. The Bible warns: “There is life and death
in the power of the tongue.” The environment produces, teaches, accelerates,
and normalizes anti-Semitism. Hatred, xenophobia, cultural and racial supremacy
do not spare Jews even if it appears initially that Jews are not the primary target. I don’t care how you voted: The racism,
xenophobia, supremacy, and intolerance invoked by the slogan “send her back,” is despicable
on its face. It is also exceedingly dangerous for Jews
because it coarsens and polarizes American society along racial and ethnic lines. American democracy, pluralism, tolerance and
decency have been good for our people, ensuring and protecting our equal status. Chauvinism, xenophobia, hatred, and bigotry
are never good for democracy and never good for Jews. Even if we are not the immediate target of
prejudice, sooner or later it will come back to the Jews anyway. Does anyone think that that an atmosphere
of intolerance can bypass Jews? Does anyone think that threats against mosques
do not eventually lead to threats against synagogues? Does anyone think that the moral rot of disparaging
the weakest of human beings – “Otherwising Others” – can be isolated and contained? That we can mark the doorposts of our houses,
and that the angel of death can pass over us: That the creeping shadows of intolerance
can bypass Jews? Have we learned nothing from our history? Does anyone think that “send the Somalian
back,” “send the Mexican back,” “send the Guatemalan back,” do not eventually
lead to “send the Jew back?” Does anyone think that talk of an “Hispanic
invasion,” does not lead to talk of a “Jewish invasion?” That describing caravans of desperate refugees
as “infestations” does not license describing Jews as “vermin,” and carriers of disease? If anything, this language started against
us. Does anyone think it will not come back to
us? And worst of all, “send her back” is fundamentally
un-American. In America, where you came from counts for
little. Where you are going is what counts. If you believe in the value of life; if you
are committed to liberty, and seek for others, as for yourself, the right to pursue human
happiness and dignity – this is what counts. In debating Stephen Douglas during the 1858
Illinois Senate campaign, Abraham Lincoln spoke of his disdain for slavery. Here is what moral political leadership on
the race question sounds like. Where are these leaders today? Lincoln said: “I hate [slavery] because
of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican
example of its just influence in the world – enable[ing] the enemies of free institutions,
with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites. [It] causes the real friends of freedom to
doubt our sincerity, and especially because it causes so many good [people] among ourselves
into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty…insisting that
there is no right principle of action, but [only] self-interest.” I hate this xenophobia, the racist dog whistles,
intolerance, anger, and the questioning of the other’s patriotism. I hate it not only because it is unjust on
its face. I hate it because it deprives America of its
just influence in the world. It enables the enemies of freedom to taunt
us, with plausibility, as hypocrites. I hate it because it causes our friends to
doubt our sincerity. I hate it because it polarizes the American
people, pitting one American against the other for reasons of self-interest, not principle. I hate it because it is always bad for Jews. It hardly needs saying that I am a liberal. I have been a liberal for decades, since I
first began studying the great liberal philosophers of the Western tradition. I mean by liberalism, a general mindset that
emphasizes diversity and tolerance, promoting, as much as possible, the rights and dignities
of the individual over the demands of the collective. To the extent that liberalism elevates reason,
logic, and evidence as critical tools to preserve and defend individual and group dignity – in
this way – Judaism is liberalism. As opposed to more conservative-minded people,
who emphasize conserving age-old values and institutions, I am open even to rapid change
that transforms often-entrenched establishments. It is why I am a Reform rabbi. I believe that Orthodox Judaism, while good
for Orthodox Jews, needed a dramatic, establishment-shaking makeover. I believe in moderation. I do not believe that anyone who disagrees
with me, even on critical issues is, transparently, and by definition, immoral, racist, misogynistic,
anti-Semitic, evil, cowardly, fundamentally flawed, or irredeemably stupid. I am a Zionist because I am a liberal. Zionism aspired to give dignity to the Jewish
people, after centuries of oppression. It succeeded, even beyond its founders’
wildest dreams. If you have any doubt about that, try to imagine
the Jewish world today without the state of Israel. Now, if I were to have a purely theoretical
conversation, I could accept a form of anti-Zionism that is not anti-Semitic. First, it goes without saying that criticism
of Israel is completely legitimate. Some of us do not always distinguish between
criticism of Israel, even if harsh or unfair – and anti-Semitism. Denouncing this or that Israeli policy by
anyone, be they Jewish, Palestinian, or other, is not, on its face, anti-Semitic. To the contrary, it is often helpful and motivated
by sound principles. No country is beyond reproach. No government is beyond rebuke. Second, some anti-Zionists, Jews among them,
sincerely believe that they are opposing not Israel’s national existence, but Israel’s
denial of another nation’s existence. They say they do not want to dismantle Israel,
itself, only its occupation of Palestinian lands. I understand how in their minds, this is far
from hating Jews, and how offended they may be by accusations of anti-Semitism. But, in practice, what does anti-Zionism mean? There are 9 million people living in Israel
– over 6.5 million of them Jews. Where would they go? Send them back to Europe, as Hamas demands? That is the very racism, decried by progressives,
about which I spoke earlier: “Send the Jew back to Europe,” as if there is a Europe
to go back to. They do not even realize that most Israeli
Jews today are not of European descent. They are refugees and descendants of refugees
from Arab or Muslim countries that persecuted or discriminated against them. In practice, what does anti-Zionism mean? Create a bi-national state, as BDS demands? Multi-national arrangements between warring
peoples never work. Just look at Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Afghanistan. Even democratic Belgium is at daily risk of
splitting apart. Czechoslovakia didn’t work either, although
the Czechs and Slovaks were the exception to the rule that when separation occurs it
is through violence and bloodshed. To say now – 71 years later – that you
are an anti-Zionist – you are opposed to the existence of Israel – is as ludicrous
as saying you are opposed to the existence of America because there were people here
before the pioneers settled the land. Or that Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California
are occupied territory because they were taken from Mexico by force. Or that you are opposed to the existence of
Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria, because they were created out of whole cloth by the British
and the French after World War I. Understand what they mean when they say they
are not anti-Jewish, just anti-Zionist. They mean that justice requires dismantling
the one and only Jewish state in favor of a 23rd Arab state. And they say it with such venom. The way they speak about Israel is The Tell
that says more about them than it does about Israel. There is something “canine in the bark and
growl” of so many of these anti-Zionists. It is a primal loathing. Hatred of Israel is so overwhelming, that
it often stumbles into anti-Semitism, even if it didn’t start there. Anti-Israel activism on the campuses and streets
of America and Europe has led to verbal and physical assaults against Jews. Anything goes when speaking of Israel. Israel is never just wrong or mistaken. It is genocidal, fascist, ethnic-cleansing,
apartheid, Nazi, rogue, colonial: the worst malignancy of the world. The worst! Worse than Saudi Arabia; worse than Syria,
Turkey, Russia, China, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan. “But we have nothing against the Jews. Some of my best friends are Jewish,” they
protest. They will go to lengths to demonstrate that
they are not anti-Semitic. They may even raise money to support an attacked
synagogue or restore a vandalized Jewish cemetery. Most anti-Semites of the left do not think
they are anti-Semitic. They consider themselves freedom fighters,
civil rights warriors, humanitarians. They puff and preen in a narcissistic attempt
to showcase their virtue and moral superiority. It is the siren sounds of virtual freedom
fighters – who are always somewhere else when the siren sounds. They “sign their place and calling, in full
seeming, with meekness and humility, but [their] heart is crammed with arrogancy, spleen and
pride.” They hold Israel to standards expected of
no one else. As if there would be no Islamic terrorism,
no ISIS, no Iran, no Syria, no North Korea, no dissension in Europe, no refugee problem,
no inequality, no poverty, no economic dislocation – no problems at all were it not for the
Jewish state, the source of all of the world’s ills. There is one uniquely evil and criminal state:
Israel. All the rest, no matter their crimes, their
illiberal ideology, treatment of their own minorities, their anti-Semitism and racism,
their disdain for women and gays, their lack of pluralism, democracy or freedom – none
rise to the level of criminal Israel. By some kind of bizarre new definition of
progressive, a Palestinian terrorist can never be guilty because he is in an oppressed group
– a victim with no independent moral agency or capacity. Every Israeli response is disproportional,
if not downright evil, because, preposterously, they impute to Israelis – and now all Jews
– the status of white and privileged. Every Israeli action is either immoral on
its face – or whitewashes, “pinkwashes,” or brainwashes a deeper immorality. Even an attack on an Israeli hospital or a
rocket fired at a kindergarten are justified as righteous blows against a racist state. Nuance and context are sacrificed on the altar
of absolutes – and thus does truth die. In this way, they seek to strip the right
of self-defense from the Jewish state alone. No Israeli use of force is legitimate. Every Palestinian attack, even the purposeful
murder of civilians, is justified. It is a kind of moral myopia, sanitizing the
sordid and the sinful. It leads to the absurdity of gay organizations
ferociously attacking Israel while ignoring, excusing or even aligning with those who throw
gays off rooftops. Or feminist organizations ferociously attacking
Israel – while ignoring, excusing or even aligning with misogynistic malefactors who
believe a woman’s place is at home, her purpose: to serve her husband. Or liberal churches that ferociously attack
Israel but ignore, excuse or even align with those who persecute Christians. How sad that these people, so often themselves
victims of oppression, discrimination, and bias should attack with such misguided vitriol
the one country in the Middle East that strives towards – and often achieves – tolerance
and pluralism. I am, of course, aware that some groups that
have the word “Jewish” in their name support and give comfort to left-wing hatred of Israel. That phenomenon, too, has been around for
a very long time. There have always been Jews and Jewish movements
discomforted by the Jewish collective, seeking the acceptance and approval of non-Jews who
likewise disdained Jewish peoplehood. While, of course, I support Palestinian aspirations
to self-determination; and while I still support an independent state of Palestine living peacefully
side-by-side with Israel if the Palestinians ever decide that this is what they want: It
is simply false and morally obtuse to equate the Palestinian liberation movement with the
American civil rights movement or anti-colonialism. Yasser Arafat was not Martin Luther King. Mahmoud Abbas is not Gandhi. Israel is not imperial Britain. And those Palestinians gathering weekly on
the Gaza fence, launching mortars, fire balloons and setting Israeli fields ablaze – are
not disciples of non-violence. They are not protesting their lack of civil
rights; they seek to deny Israelis their rights. Otherwise, they and their Western supporters,
would be turning their ire not on Israel, but on the civil rights-denying Hamas government. Liberals should be focusing on the central
ideological struggle of our times: The clash between democratic pluralists and anti-democratic
authoritarians. We should plant ourselves firmly on this side
of democratic liberalism – supporting those in Hong Kong, China, Russia, Venezuela, the
Muslim world, Poland, and Hungary, and Palestinians – who fight for democracy, tolerance, civil
and human rights, gay rights, minority rights, women’s rights, within their own societies. They are the ones who most need our liberal
support and sensibilities. It is proper to point out that Israel still
has a long way to go. But it is also proper to acknowledge that
Israel’s Arab minorities enjoy freedoms and economic security that can only be dreamt
of anywhere else in the Middle East. It is proper to point out that Israel must
do better in safeguarding minority rights. But it is also proper to acknowledge that
Israel, unlike all of its neighbors, is democratic, pluralistic, multi-cultural, and tolerates
dissent. The message that I want to deliver on this
high and holy day is of the spirit. Fighting back starts in your heart, your Jewish
soul. Stand up and be counted as proud Jews. Do not cower. Do not cringe. Do not crouch. Do not quiver. Do not consider Judaism a burden. It is a privilege beyond measure. Never forget: You are the heirs of kings,
prophets, freedom fighters, poets, teachers, and moral guides who revolutionized human
thought. You belong to an ancient people that changed
the world. Commit and recommit to the future of our people
– to Jewish education, Jewish self-determination, and collective Jewish dignity. Your love of these principles – more than
the hate from those people – will determine the future of Judaism. One summer day I found myself in Munich, and
decided to spend the morning in Dachau. Dachau was an evil place. Not as many people died there as in other
concentration camps, but Dachau became the symbol of Nazi atrocities because of its location
in the heart of a Munich suburb. I was struck by the utter normalcy of the
place. Dachau is a town. It has everything every other town has. It was a town back then as well. To get to the camp you walk about a quarter
of a mile from the parking lot. You cross a street and some houses. I arrived early so everything was quiet, normal. I saw a typical German family walking down
the neighborhood lane. They were young parents. The mother was holding in her arms her bouncing,
bubbly baby, and a shaggy dog was prancing along with them. I spent a long time looking at this family,
just letting my mind wander as they faded away and became small specks in the distance. Nothing was out of the ordinary. From inside the concentration camp, you can
see homes that abut the main building used to process prisoners. You can still see the hooks on which they
hung prisoners for hours, lashing them with whips and canes. Typical red-roofed houses literally overlook
the torture room. The roofs are studded with antennas and satellite
dishes – all the trappings of normal modern life. It is what you would expect to find in any
middle-class neighborhood in the Western world. I am not suggesting that there is anything
wrong here. I am certainly not suggesting that the younger
generations are personally responsible for the deeds of their parents and grandparents. I simply noticed that people are prepared
to live right on top of the place where some 200,000 souls were brutally imprisoned, and
where some 30,000 were killed. Their first view in the morning as they drink
their coffee is overlooking the outer perimeter wall into the concentration camp square where
tens of thousands of starving, bedraggled, beaten, and tortured prisoners lined up every
morning for roll call and selection. And I thought to myself: In the end, life
moves on. Your tragedies are your tragedies, but others
get on with life. Thousands of visitors a day, including group
after group of German youth, visit those twenty acres, shaken and distraught. But the people who live right outside overlooking
that spot, they live normal lives there. They have families there. They raise children there. They have pets. They have satellite television. Your tragedy is not their tragedy. They live as if nothing happened there. After all, it has been 74 years since the
liberation of Dachau. In the end, Jewish history is your history. The Jewish future is your responsibility. Jewish destiny is your responsibility. Jewish life is your responsibility. May we prove worthy; and may we endure, now
and forever.

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