Anti-Semitism: A Disease in Search of a Cure?

Rosh HaShana 5780

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

As I was minding my own business last week, reading through updates on my FaceBook, I got a signal that I received an instant message.  The message was sent to me by an old friend from my Jewish Youth Group days in the beginning of the 1970’s.  He sent a photo that he had received from another friend.  It was a picture of the back of a pew in a synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  There, in the book pocket along with a Siddur and a copy of the Torah Commentary was a 5 x 7 laminated card titled: ACTIVE SHOOTER EMERGENCY.  On the card were instructions on how to run, how to hide, how to fight and how to dial 911 on your cellphone.  I am sure that a lone synagogue in Michigan is not the only place where seat-back cards like these are going to be found.

I know that we are all grateful that Sheriff Jim Perelman, whose mother helped found our beloved synagogue, has been seen in front of the building when we gather for services here throughout the summer. I am sure that his presence, as well as his clearly marked SUV, brings comfort to some of you.  We gather here in our space, as do myriads in synagogues around the country, it is impossible to avoid thinking about events in the recent past. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh looms large in our collective memories. Not six months later we were horrified by shots at the synagogue in Poway, California. You don’t need me to recount the numerous incidents that have occurred in the past year to recognize that Anti-Semitism is on the rise.  From racist leaflets and chants of “Jews will not replace us” to physical attacks in the streets of Brooklyn, in this country alone, we have seen a spike in Anti-Semitism that gives even the most quiescent pause.

And the anti-Semitism we are witnessing (and for some, experiencing) comes from both the right and the left.  Author and NYTimes Op-Ed Editor and writer Bari Weiss distinguishes the two vectors of Anti-Semitism as “the Purim kind and the Hanuka kind.”  As you will recall, Purim celebrates the victory of Esther and Mordecai over the machinations of the evil Haman.  But at the root of the story – the focus of Haman’s intent, was the mass eradication of the Jews.  And anyone familiar with the story of Hanuka, knows not just about the little cruse of oil that lasted 8 days, but that the Maccabean revolt was against those who sought to strip away Jewish uniqueness by making us worship like the majority, dress like the majority – give up the very things that make us who we are.  The Selucid (Greco-Roman) intent was not to kill us, but to kill our souls and tear our identity from us.

From the political right, we see the rise of nationalism – and a nationalism that seeks a purity of “whiteness”.  And, despite the skin color of a majority of us from Ashkenazi backgrounds – Jews are not considered white by those who shouted, “Jews will not replace us.”  And it is that nationalism that has inspired the most radical militant adherents of this political philosophy to take up arms and cause bodily harm, death and destruction to our people and our institutions. Likewise, radical Islam sees the eradication of Jews as the only way to “purify” their world. These are the modern-day Hamans.

From the political left we see attacks on our identities.  The old canards dressed in new clothing still accuse us of controlling banking, entertainment, and even the news media. Those of us with fealty towards Israel (even if we might disagree with current Israeli policy) are accused of dual-loyalty or even racism. So now it is “We don’t hate Jews, we hate what they do and what they believe – wouldn’t it be better if they were like everyone else?” And further, with the focus now on “intersectionality” there seems to be  a rank order of oppressions with Anti-Semitism on the bottom of the list because Jews have “made it” and therefore, the oppression of Jews is not as acute as those who experience misogyny, discrimination against LGBTQI, anti-Muslim sentiments.  Again, this seeks to remove Jewish uniqueness. These are the modern-day manifestations of Antiochus.

And Bari Weiss suggests that Anti-Semitism is not racism.  Racism, misogyny, and other prejudices “punch down” the objects of their scorn. The racist thinks those of color are inferior.  Misogynists believe that women are inferior.  But Anti-Semites “punch up” – they rail against our power, our control, our cunning, our ideas, our success.  That is why one find Anti-Semitism in places where there are not even any Jews. Anti-Semitism is the ultimate conspiracy theory – the Jews play whatever role is necessary to foment hatred and place the blame for whatever ills challenge that place, directly at our feet.

Anti-Semitism has become a major focus for many of us. Quite a bit of communal resources are being directed towards academic institutions, communal support organizations, civil rights groups, and Jewish defense agencies. And most see Anti-Semitism as a disease.  And like any disease, we are required to search for a cure. If we can just do A, with a little bit of B and a course of C we might be able to cure it – and if that doesn’t work, we have a whole bunch of other fixes we might try in different combinations, like drug researchers in laboratories.

But maybe the model of a disease in search of a cure is flawed to begin with.  I have been led to rethink many things about humanity after reading Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”  With startling clarity Harari forces us to rethink how Homo Sapiens survived while Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, and the recently discovered Homo Luzonensis and the Denisovans became extinct – how we created community and society. And most troubling, as bad as climate change is, we not only created that, but we have been forcing change on an ever evolving planet since we arrived on the scene.  For example, we think that the dinosaurs and mastodons became extinct because of some outside force of nature, but in fact wherever they have found fossilized remains, they have also found remains of humans. And humans have always found ways to kill that which threatens them, or domesticatingS once threatening animals that could be useful. 

In Harari’s explanation of the development of societies, he points our that when we lived in small enclaves, humans would know one another.  In groups of up to 50 individuals, it was easy to keep that group together.  When communities became larger they needed structure to keep them together – that is where common beliefs became central – whether it was faith in a leader or in a super-natural being people followed order that was imposed, a failure to follow that order resulted in consequences.  But what was apparent in Harari’s explanation of the growth of society, hard-wired into the human psyche was a suspicion of those who were outside of the group.  In ancient times the outsiders posed a physical threat as resources were precious and there was always a chance that others would try to take those resources by force.  Xenophobia is part of the human make up – it is part of who we are – our fear of “the other” is hard-wired into us.

One might argue that children are naturally curious and often seem to be “color-blind” and that would lead one to conclude that prejudice has to be taught. But I am not sure that isn’t just liberal hopefulness – as history is rife with human conflict – and not a lot of hand holding and singing “We Are the World.”

Political scientist and military historian Edward N. Luttwak picks up the idea that Anti-Semitism is not a disease in a recent article in Tablet Magazine (August 15, 2019 “A Misunderstanding About Anti-Semitism”).  His article begins:

“Only diseases can have cures, and anti-Semitism is not a disease: It is a perfectly normal human reaction to an anomaly that has persisted for just over 2,000 years, ever since starving Jews migrated in great numbers to food-rich Roman Egypt and its splendid capital of Alexandria, where they quickly outmatched the local Greek-speaking elite not only in Greek philosophy but also in Greek athletics—and in business too, no doubt. The Greeks reacted not by competing harder, but with murderous mob attacks. Thus, anti-Semitism was born, already so fully formed that nothing has been added by all the anti-Semites in history ever since.

For two millennia, Anti-Semitism has existed as a special brand of xenophobia.  Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, or the waxing and waning of the moon, we have experienced times of rampant hatred directed towards us and we have lived in moments of relative calm, with Anti-Semitism roiling beneath the surface.  This moment is no longer one of calm.  So we ask ourselves, what do we do about it?  Weiss continues: 

Does safety come from contorting ourselves to look more like everyone else? Or does it come from drilling down into the wellspring of what made us special to begin with?

The first line of argument insists that safety for Jews comes by accommodating ourselves to the demands of our surrounding society. If we can just show we are perfect Greeks, patriotic Germans, and so on, then they’d love us. (Or at least not kill us.) I think here of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party, who did Lenin’s bidding with particular zeal to prove they were loyal Communists. Until, of course, the regime rounded them up, too.

To the opposing side, this political and cultural strategy was only a recipe for delayed humiliation and pain. Lasting security for Jews, this counterargument goes, was always saved by leaders and movements, from the Maccabees to the Zionists, that urged us to be our fullest, freest selves — even if doing so made us deeply unpopular or despised.

So what are we left with? If Anti-Semitism was, is and until the coming of the Messianic Age always will be, what are we to do?  First, we accept that it is there – treating it with a magic pill will not make it go away. It cannot be cured – but it can be countered.

Second, as Weiss suggests:

The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us. This is not an exhortation to embrace religion in all its strictures. It is a reminder that Judaism contains multitudes, and that anyone who points the finger at other Jews as a way to keep the target off their own backs — insisting that real problem are those with their kippot or their Zionism — at once distorts our history and the fact of our peoplehood.

In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul — and in the souls of everyone who throws in their lot with ours.

And third, that we make alliances who those who realize that Xenophobia in any manifestation is detrimental to society as a whole.  There are many natural allies, but unless we reach out and struggle together to make our communities more tolerant, we could potentially isolate those who would come to our defense and call upon us when they experience oppression.  Yet, our natural allies are low-hanging fruit. The challenge is to respond to those who make up the rank order of oppression under the umbrella of intersectionality and teach the lessons that we have experienced and learned.  When a Women’s March – which rightfully protests against society’s continued oppression of women is riven from within over intersectionality – and Jewish leaders can no longer make common cause with others who experienced oppression differently than we do, we have failed engage in the necessary work of listening and educating, of empathizing and learning.

Harari points out that Homo Sapiens are ever evolving – and we are capable of adapting and harnessing everything and anything at our disposal to advance ourselves.  There will always be someone or some group over the rise that fears us or hopes to dominate us.  During the Yom Kippur War the most popular song in Israel (and later the whole Jewish world) was based upon a saying of the great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov: Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’faheid k’lal.
“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” 

But that isn’t exactly what Nachman of Bratzlov said. In his great work, Likutei Moharan (II:48), he writes, k’she-adam tzarikh la-avor gesher tzar m·od, ha-k’lal v’ha-ikkar shelo yit-paheid k’lal.  “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.” (n.b. – I am grateful to Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Congregation Beth David, Saratoga, CA who points this out in his Erev Rosh Hashana sermon for 5770)

Anti-Semitism exists, it will wax and wane.  But we must accept that it is present.  We counter it by continuing to build and strengthen every manifestation of our multifarious Jewish community. We must forge alliances dedicated to fighting prejudice and injustice and seeking to diminish the volume and reach of those who peddle in hatred.  And we must not be afraid.

Shana tova u’mitukah!

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