I Don’t Want To Talk About Antisemitism … But I have To

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Yom Kippur 5782

Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket

The oldest hatred rears its ugly head again.  How I wish there could be a High Holiday season during which the topic of antisemitism need not be addressed.  We don’t live in that world yet and I wonder if we ever will be freed of the need to be on the lookout.  These past two years have certainly offered innumerable examples of antisemitism from every corner of the earth.  Hungary re-elected Victor Orban, a proud bigot.  In Poland, legislation was passed that permits Holocaust denial.  Throughout Europe – from west to east –cemeteries, synagogues and memorials are regularly desecrated and vandalized.  Muslim countries continue to foment blood libels against Jews.  On the streets of the US, far-right nationalist extremists talk of a purge of Jews, who they believe seek to replace the White population.  From the liberal community, Jews are considered part of the forces of oppression.  And throughout the world, Israel continues to be portrayed as an apartheid state, and an occupying power as it continues to avoid dealing directly with the crisis of the Palestinians.  As Rabbi Eric Yoffie correctly pointed out, criticism of Israel continues to grow and “Part of the reason is antisemitism, plain and simple. It is roaring back, everywhere in the world. And in its wake, Zionism, forever and rightly associated with Jews, has become a curse word, a sordid tale of imperialism and exploitation. And with antisemitism all around us, there is a real danger that anti-Israel culture will become the default position of the political left and of the white supremacist right.”  (August 2, 2021)

In our country, attacks on Jews are not just taking place in major urban centers, where there is a concentration of Jews, but even in suburban and exurban places.  Arizona has had over 100 reportable incidents of hatred targeting Jews since the beginning of 2020.  And that is just Arizona! In July, Boston had one of its Chabad rabbis stabbed repeatedly. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 251 incidents in the US, including assault, vandalism, and harassment, from May 11 to May 31, which is a 115% increase from the same time-period in 2020. Incidents occurred throughout the United States, including vandalism of numerous synagogues. In Salt Lake City, a man scratched a swastika into the front door of an Orthodox synagogue, and in Alaska, Nazi imagery was posted on a synagogue. In Bal Harbour, Florida four men yelled “Die Jew” at a man wearing a yarmulke, then threatened to rape his wife and daughter. In Midtown Manhattan a group of people attacked a Jewish man in the middle of the street in broad daylight. The man, wearing a yarmulke and walking to a pro-Israel protest, was called “dirty Jew,” and was told, “F— Israel, we’re going to kill you.” (From the United States Commission on Civil Rights report July 23, 2021) And according to the FBI, hate crimes targeting the Jewish community made up nearly 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes.

Any more citations during this sermon would simply be gratuitous.  The problem is serious, and it is not abating.

Prime Minister In Waiting, and current Foreign Minister of Israel Yair Lapid sparked a controversy in a speech made before the Global Forum for Combatting Antisemitism in early July by broadening the definition of anti-Semitism to include all hatreds. “The anti-Semites are those who hunt people not because of what they did but because of who they are,” he said. “Anti-Semitism isn’t the first name of hate; it’s the family name, it is anyone who hates so much that they want to kill and eliminate and persecute and expel people just because they are different. The anti-Semites weren’t only in the Budapest ghetto,” said Lapid, referring to the place his father and grandmother hid during the Holocaust, “they were also slave traders—the Hutu who massacred Tutsis in Rwanda, Muslim fanatics and those who beat LGBTQ people to death.”

The controversy sparked great cries from the Israeli opposition and then spilled over into the international community – with scholars and pundits duking it out over the definition of antisemitism.  Three weeks later Lapid published an explanatory op-ed in Haaretz (Haaretz Is antisemitism racism? Yair Lapid | Jul. 26, 2021) in which he tried to explain more fully his position (or back off a bit from his original assertion).  He posits that there are two ways of looking at antisemitism: one, the traditional definition, that it is unique in human history, “the hatred of Jews is not only a murderous emotion but also an ideology with deep historic roots. It’s true that there is a racist basis to antisemitism, but it doesn’t involve a universal racism that has by chance targeted the members of a single people. It is a unique form of hatred that can only have one possible target: the Jews. According to that view, the Holocaust – the most horrible event in the history of the nations – was no temporary outbreak of organized hatred but rather the unavoidable manifestation of an orderly ideology holding that Jews have no place in the world.”  The second possible way of looking at antisemitism is as the supreme form of existential xenophobia and hatred that has plagued humanity from its very origins.

But it is how he harmonizes these two differing definitions that is at least thought provoking, and ultimately challenging to our heretofore normative responses to antisemitism. “Fear that this unique and traumatic part of our history will be blurred and ignored has caused us to demand more and more relief and concessions from the world instead of stepping up our own commitment to the war against racism…. There is no fundamental contradiction between the two perspectives… they complement one another: Antisemitism is indeed a unique phenomenon in human history, but it can only exist in a world in which racism has not been eradicated. Antisemitism is not just racism, but it is also racism. Its existence in the world presents a danger to the world.”

The conclusion he draws, which is a logical conclusion, is that rather than spending time decrying antisemitism, we should have fulsome involvement in the fight against racism – of any kind. For antisemitism, regardless of definition, can only exist if racism exists.

Instead of pointing out every example of antisemitism, we should be on the front lines of the fight against racism – wherever and however it manifests itself.  And to make any headway in the fight against racism we need allies.  Ally is not a noun – it is a verb (h/t Samantha BG Gordon) – it takes work to create allies.  Jews need to show that we are completely committed to eradicating racism.  If we want others to step up and decry antisemitism (and know that our most pointed criticisms are always against those who fail to step up when Jews are the target), we need to be the vanguard in the fight against any kind of racism. 

Let us also be honest with each other – the majority of those who sit in this congregation (physically as well as virtually) are White cisgender Jews.  But our Jewish community is more diverse than that – there are Jews of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community (and yes, we should identity all within that community, even if it means more letters), members of our community who live at the intersections.  And sometimes, we feel a bit uncomfortable dealing with intersectionality because we might have to ally ourselves with people who hew to different opinions (often about Israel, Palestinians, or wealth, or the elite).  Jewish women walked away from major protest rallies in support of Women’s rights, because some of the leadership espoused views that made them uncomfortable.  But that lack of comfort could not possibly be more important than the reason for the rally. And the only way that we can engage in dialogue and debate is to be present at the table, and to be present in the fight.  That is how we create allies. 

And we can only vanquish antisemitism when we conquer racism – and racism is so powerful we need a vast army to take it on.  We will never be able to do it alone.

Our Torah reading today began, Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Elohaychem…  You are standing here this day before the Eternal your God… It continues, L’avracha bivreet Adonai Elohecha… To enter into a covenant with the Eternal your God.   The first line is written in the second person plural – meaning ALL of you.  The second line is written in second person singular – meaning you specifically.  We learn from this that while we are all commanded to live in covenant with God, the only way that can happen is if each individual takes on that responsibility.  And what is the covenant?  While it may seem to begin with the covenant Abraham enters into with the Eternal, in which God promises the Land if Abram and his descendants follow in God’s ways, there is an earlier covenant, which occurs at Creation.  When God creates the human Adam, the text tells us that humanity is created in the likeness and image of God.  Therefore, all humanity is created in the likeness and image of God.  Martin Buber (I and You) teaches us that when we look into the eyes of another, we see the image of God.

Racism occurs when one denies the divinity of another human.  It is incumbent upon us to remind ourselves and others to treat each person, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, and even political affiliation, with the dignity due another child of God.  By modeling this behavior – as individuals and as communities, we can begin to break down the walls that are erected to divide us.  And we can’t do this alone – we need community.

Our Torah portion today begins with the words, Atem nitzavim – You are standing. Normally the Bible uses the word Omdim for Standing (as in the word Amidah – standing prayer).  But the use of the word Nitzavim makes us take note – the root of this words shares the same root as Matzevah – a memorial stone.  The use of this word doesn’t just command us to stand, but to stand for something.  Let us be exemplars of not just tolerance, but respect.  Let us stand for the divinity within all of humanity.  So rather than crying out when we are wronged, we gather the strength to stand for equality of all human beings.  Maybe this will begin the process that leads to making the world into the world it could and should be. One absent racism, and antisemitism – one filled with respect for one another.  Kayn yehee ratzon – May this too be God’s will.

Tzom kal – may you have an easy fast.

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