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Confronting American Anti-Semitism

Excerpted from a sermon by Rabbi Weintraub on Shabbat T’tzaveh 5779, February 16, 2019

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

Dear friends,

Increasingly, the topic of domestic anti-Semitism is the subject of my conversations with you, at Kiddush, at social gatherings, at our committee and Board meetings. Especially since the Pittsburgh tragedy, we feel suddenly vulnerable in the Sanctuary, even on Shabbat. I want this Shabbat to reflect on this and try to find a positive way forward.

American Jews over the last two years have experienced an uptick in fear and anxiety.

We have witnessed anti-Semitism across the political spectrum, from neo-Nazi demonstrations to the original refusal of Women’s March organizers to recognize anti-Semitism as a real, persistent form of oppression.

Still, I want to underscore one fact shown by the investigations of the ADL and other long time observers. Targeted, physical anti-Semitism—murders, violent assaults, bomb threats, and vandalism—is overwhelmingly the result of activity by right wing, especially white nationalist groups.

In a celebrated, recent report, the ADL found that over 2016 and 2017 our country saw the largest one year jump in anti-Semitic incidents than in the entire forty years of ADL recording.

These two years also coincided with the campaign, election and Presidency of Donald Trump. President Trump did not invent American anti-Semitism, which has been with us since the founding of our Republic. But even as he boasts of his support for Israel, our President sends dog whistles to anti-Semitic white nationalists, insinuates that wealthy Jews are to blame for the struggles of American workers, and tweets repeated, bizarre, and unsubstantiated attacks on George Soros, the noted Jewish philanthropist.

As Emory Professor and anti-Semitism scholar Deborah Lipstadt comments, “I never say that President Trump and those around him created this. They didn’t. But they lit a fire under it”.

In my attempt to understand these matters, I have found helpful a book entitled Hatred, by Columbia Medical School Professor of Psychiatry and Hastings Center co-Founder Dr. William Gaylin. Dr. Gaylin tries to understand psychologically how groups descend into violence. He distinguishes between two cultures, the culture of hatred and the culture of haters. A culture of hatred is a “natural community” that breeds and encourages hatred. It is a group with a shared history and usually a shared locale, such as a country or a subculture. Nazi Gemany was a stunning and full-fledged example.

A culture of haters is an artificial community created when individuals who have a common hatred join forces to ally against their enemy. They don’t need to have a shared culture, history, language or locality. Members of the group may even have different values. They also do not require indoctrination. They come together for only one reason, and with one powerful, overriding passion, and that is to join forces against their shared enemy. The Aryan nation is an example of such a group in the United States. Internationally, Al Qaeda is an example.

Dr. Gaylin notes that culture of haters exhibit on a broad, social scale the same features that in an individual would define paranoia. They sharply divide “us” from a “them”. The “them”, the other, is defined as an enemy, and in a way which is so obsessive that it becomes part of the hater’s daily life. Also, the culture defines the enemy as life threatening, thus justifying his eradication as an act of self-defense.

Although cultures of haters are artificial, they are still profoundly affected by external forces. Religion in particular can exert great power. Historically, religions have provided fertile ground for the definition of enemies. Religion also adds the element of passion to a cause, as the name and power of G?d are invoked to justify extreme actions and to inspire personal sacrifice. So, religious prelates, from Bishops during the Crusades to Mullahs behind Al Qaeda, promised absolution of sins and financial support for the families of heroes and martyrs.

The history of anti-Semitism has shown one other powerful religious influence, which is relevant to our situation today in America. In medieval and modern Europe, the Church, by sanctioning anti-Semitism, offered civil authorities stability. As scapegoats, Jews became enormously useful in diverting the tormented masses from the real sources of their poverty and despair. The misery of peasants in Germany or Poland was channeled away from imperial, feudal or papal abuses, and onto the perceived greed of Jewish tax collectors, money lenders or liquor merchants. Similarly, today, Al Qaeda channels the rage and envy of Arab masses not against the despots and corporations who monopolize their resources and stunt their development, but against America or Israel.

With such cultivation by powerful political and religious authorities, a collection of haters can grow form a ragtag and marginal group to a legitimate and lethal social force.

To me, the most frightening aspect of the rise of the far right in this country is its succor and encouragement by mainstream leaders, such as our President. Through his statements, we are seeing again the manipulation of popular and often justified grievances onto scapegoats: immigrants, refugees, people of color, transgender people, and us, Jews.

So how do we respond?

The good news is that just as religion can tear people apart, it can also bring them together.

In Judaism, for example, we believe that G-d is universal, compassionate and true. Rabbi Chanina in the Talmud, (Shabbat 55a) teaches, “Chotmo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emet. G?d’s seal is Truth”.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs of London, of blessed memory, in his commentary on Proverbs, explains “In ancient times, a man would append his seal to a document as evidence of its authenticity…the seal bore some distinguishing mark for identification purposes. Where truth is found, there is evidence of G?d’s Presence”.

Because every human being bears the image of G?d, we also have an innate impression of truth. We may draw that up to fight against falsity.

We may fight distorted religious passion with authentic religious passion.

We may fight craven ideologies with compassionate ideologies

We may fight divisiveness with inclusiveness

Just as religious institutions can legitimize racism and anti-Semitism, they can also promote prosocial behavior.

Our country is now starved for purpose, for meaning and as Jews we have much to bring to the table. We know for example ways in which different groups can debate and pursue robust but civil arguments. We can share our Talmudic tradition of dialogue, wherein disputants and commentators engage in an often-messy conversation that eventually increases knowledge and progress.

We need to live our Judaism publicly. The famous, apologetic slogan of Yehuda Leib Gordon, the Jewish Enlightenment thinker, “Be a Jew at home and a man (e.g. Gentile) outside” may have made sense in 19th Century Europe, but is useless today when Jews are accepted, and when our wisdom is so vitally needed in the public sphere.

Our prophets, sages and Rabbis taught not just in theory but in powerful narratives and laws directives for a just society.

From the Tanach, we have the stories of Shifra and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s genocidal decrees; Rahab the prostitute who resisted the Jericho secret police to hide Hebrew spies; Natan the prophet who confronted King David over his adultery and murder; Abraham who argued with G?d to protect even the guilty citizens of Sodom and Gemorrah; Moses who consistently defended the people against G?d’s outbursts, and more.

From Rabbinic Judaism, we may share the prosocial value concepts and practices of brit, joining with other citizens for sacred social purposes, tzedakah, mandated sharing of financial resources, lifnei iveir, refusing to take advantage of another person’s ignorance or vulnerability, ba’al tashchit, avoiding destruction of natural resources, hochei’ach to’chi’ach, courageously and tenderly confronting even our loved ones and superiors over wrong conduct, and more.

We can teach all this in and to America. It is not by accident that we have found a home here. We have always fared better in lands of tolerance and liberty than in autocracies. More than in any other country in our 3000-year-old Diaspora, we have found security and opportunity here. Let us not take it for granted, and let us work with others to give it to all.

Rabbi Weintraub

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