Delivered on Kol Nidre 5773 | 2022
On May 3, 2019 following the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and subsequently the attack at a Chabad in Ponway, California, I gave a sermon during which I announced that we would hire an armed guard to protect us. May 3rd, 2019 was the day after Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Halfway through the sermon, I paused when I saw that a student who had recently become a bar mitzvah, just a 13-year-old, was starting to cry. His cries grew into sobs, and eventually I watched as his parents asked if he wanted to leave, and then they left.
I imagined that my words were so painful, talking about the Holocaust, synagogue shootings, the 2016 Charlottesville marchers, and more, that it was too much for him. Immediately after services I went back to my office and called his parents. I’m so sorry, I started to say, is he OK? Yes, they told me. But it wasn’t you. They explained that he had been a victim of antisemitism recently at school and my words had reminded him that no amount of antisemitism should be tolerated. He remembered how much those words hurt him and he had yet to tell his parents. Tragically, I wasn’t teaching anything new to this thirteen-year-old. I was reinforcing how pervasive antisemitism had become even here in New Haven, CT. The situation has only grown worse since that day.
Speaking to CMI member Diane Orson on PBS a few weeks ago, the director of the Anti Defamation League, the ADL, of Connecticut noted that there has been a 20 fold increase in White Supremacist Activity over the last 4 years in CT. That’s a 2000% increase. While for most, flyer-drops represent a minor inconvenience, they foment hate and support those who harbor even the slightest bias. Ultimately, they result in more antisemitic attacks, from a swastika on a high school desk to an attack on a Jew or synagogue.
According to the ADL, which has been tracking antisemitism in the United States since 1979, “antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism.” This number represents a fraction of all cases, most of which, especially harassment, go unreported. While assaults and vandalism command the greatest attention, the staggering figure in the ADL’s report shows that harassment is up 43 percent year over year. Some may argue that Jews have started reporting harassment more, however we know from our lived experiences that antisemitism is reaching record highs.
Antisemitism, of course, is not new. For over 2500 years people around the world have targeted Jews based upon stereotypes, prejudice, and false beliefs. Tropes such as Jews controlling the media, Jews controlling the banks, or even Jews controlling the world have been circulating for centuries. While all of these are egregious and cause for concern, a new form of antisemitism has prevailed in the last decade and is beginning to find firm footing not only in the minds of White Supremacists, who have always hated Jews, but in those on the left fighting alongside us for many social justice causes. People whom we consider friends and allies.
This newer antisemitism is veiled under issues from the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank that I spoke about last week. Similar to other false beliefs, people develop the idea that Jews in the United States, no matter our age, somehow have control over Israeli politics. Jews have been asked not to participate by the leaders of marches and rallies with Jewish symbols, such as kippot and tallitot. Jews have been asked not to participate in racial justice campaigns unless they disavow Israel entirely. Teens have been asked not to join certain college campus clubs. People who are fighting to free the oppressed have convinced themselves that Jews, because of the behavior of a few, do not deserve to be free from discrimination.
The internet exacerbates these problems. Online, anonymity, perceived or real, exacerbates these attacks. Stacy Sobel, the director of the CT ADL noted that in places on the web there “is a 24-hour White Supremacist rally.” Social media has provided another opportunity for kids to bully each other, often with even more tenacity than in person. Antisemitism has flared among young people who target their Jewish “friends” under a misguided social justice zealotry. Educator Jennifer Anolik writes that “there is a new form of cyber-harassment wherein Palestinian flags are being posted in the comments section of Jewish people’s social media posts, regardless of the content of the posts. This has left many young American Jews asking, ‘why aren’t my non-Jewish friends showing up for me?’”
We are working hard to show up for others. As our congregation has confronted modern racism toward Black, Brown and Indigenous people over the past several years, we have intentionally distinguished between racism and antisemitism. Our amazing confronting racism team has taught us about intersectionality, the perception that “systems of inequality based… on forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects.” As we work to become anti-racist, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that antisemitism is not the same as anti-black or anti-brown racism. While my grandmother’s narrative as a holocaust survivor motivates me to fight for liberation, it does not mean that I understand the experience of a person of color in this country. Conversely, others do not understand the Jewish experience of antisemitism. The time has come to ask who is going to fight with and for us?
We should continue our anti-racist work AND as my colleague Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum suggested recently, we and others need to work to become anti-antisemites. I conflate these two issues not to diminish the effects of ongoing systemic racism in our country, but to remind us that their intersection is more than a perception by Jews. Racism and antisemitism intersect overtly in White Nationalism, which at its core blames Jews for the ills of the world and even purports that Jews are working to overturn a white, Christian majority in this country. We remember Charlottesville marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us,” while many of our allies remember the incident as simply another racist rally. Embracing anti-antisemitism means learning about and choosing to actively fight hateful rhetoric and actions toward Jews.
Eric Ward, “a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a nationally-recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements,” writes that “…over the past fifty years, not coincidentally the first period in U.S. history in which most American Jews have regarded themselves as White, antisemitism has become integral to the architecture of American racism. Because modern antisemitic ideology traffics in fantasies of invisible power, it thrives precisely when its target would seem to be least vulnerable…This means the notion that Jews long ago and uncontestably became White folks in the U.S…is a myth that we must dispel.”
We must dispel this notion, first of all, because not all Jews are white. Jews are white, black, brown, Asian, Indian, and more, often in far greater percentages than we see represented in “Mainstream American Judaism.” We must also dispel the notion that Jews are “White folks” because Jews do not fit the traditional definition of whiteness based upon a white nationalist view of the world. This isn’t about the box we check on forms, but about what Whiteness means in America. History has taught us over and over and over again that Jews can never become too comfortable because inevitably we will become the scapegoat. Even worse, the ascension of the Jew into positions of power, in the United States, abroad, and now in Israel, bolster those who believe in the conspiracy of the powerful Jew. Thus when Ibram Kendi teaches that to dismantle racism toward Black and Brown people we must “focus on power, not people,” the hairs on our necks begin to bristle. Not because Kendi is anti-Semitic, but because antisemites will interpret his message as a siren call.
The modern anti-racist movement offers two important lessons as we work to eradicate antisemitism. First, it reminds us that each and every action matters. We know that the 2,717 acts of self-reported harassment represents a small fraction of the total antisemitic incidents in the United States, especially faced by our teens in high school and college who are reticent to report. Just as Kendi teaches that every action can help eliminate racism, people need to react to every instance of antisemitism, both the victims and the bystanders. No matter the intention, we transgress when we stand idly by when someone hurts another.
Megan Black, the Program Director of the Western States Center where Eric Ward is a senior advisor, speaks about the “Unexamined Antisemitic Bias” in our country, even by friends and allies, and perhaps even within Jews themselves. Speaking with Diane Orson, she challenges people to examine their assumptions behind seemingly harmless comments, such as the stereotype of a cheap Jew, or overstating Jewish power. Many people repeat these claims with an attempt at humor, often unaware that they are rooted in vicious antisemitic tropes and embolden those who believe Jews are undermining the government and democracy. Eradicating this prejudice, even when it appears harmless is necessary to eliminate antisemitism.
Second, the modern anti-racist movement has shifted the responsibility of eradicating racism from the victims, Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples, to those who perpetrate and do not fight to end systemic racism. From this we can and must learn that eradicating antisemitism is not on Jew’s shoulders alone, we need everyone ELSE, our allies and friends, to fight antisemitism. Eric Ward goes so far to say that “Antisemitism…is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win [their] freedom without tearing it down.” We are blessed here in Connecticut that our associate director of the Anti-Defamation League is a United Church of Christ Minister, the Rev. Jake Joseph.
Rev. Joseph spoke to our community over Selichot and if you didn’t participate live, I hope that you will take time to watch our full conversation online. Rev. Joseph offers a singularly unique perspective in the fight against antisemitism. Growing up the son of an orthodox Jewish father and Christian mother, Rev. Joseph experienced antisemitism, even as he began to practice Christianity and embark on a path to become a minister. As the associate director of the ADL, Rev. Joseph appeals to his peers, progressive Christian clergy, our allies, to fight antisemitism. He is able to show them that sometimes and often unknowingly, they might use translations that perpetuate antisemitism or simply do not show up in an authentic way for their Jewish friends or local clergy partners.
The Mishkan Israel community is lucky to have allies to help us fight antisemitism. For generations the Rabbis of CMI have worked hard to maintain these relationships. Four years ago everywhere I went people welcomed me because they were close with Rabbi Brockman, and I continue to work hard to carry on this legacy and foster relationships of my own. We are also blessed to have a such a strong ADL in our community fighting not only antisemitism but bigotry and hate of all kinds.
Our own CMI member Marji Lipshez-Shapiro has served as the Deputy Director of the Connecticut ADL where for 32 years she has worked creatively to foster more peace. For several years, Marji has brought a teen panel, including some CMI teens, to speak about their experiences of bigotry and antisemitism to thousands of their peers across our state. We hope that when teens understand the harmful consequences of their seemingly innocent words and actions that they will think twice in the future. This year Marji will retire from the ADL, and while we are sad to see you leave, we know that everyone in our state is safer because of the work that you have done.
All of us, no matter our religion or age, can learn from these teens to openly discuss antisemitism with both our Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Making an antisemitic comment or joke is never appropriate because someone else believes these comments to be true. When we teach others how hurtful words can be, we inspire others to choose peace over hate. The ADL offers wonderful resources if you need some help teaching about or confronting antisemitism, and I am always here to listen to your stories and to speak at schools.
We, you and I, cannot eradicate antisemitism. We, all of us, can try. We, as a strong community with true partners, can. We pray for the tenacity to be proactive and discuss antisemitism with those who might not understand or know that it is real. We pray for the courage to speak out if we are victims or witnesses of antisemitism. We pray for the wisdom to know that we stand together and that none of us is alone. Together we will teach, speak up, stand up, call out, and never allow hate to prevent us from bringing more peace and light into our world.
Gmar chatima, tova, may we all be written for blessing in the book of life.
CITE this, or: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/the-fight-to-redefine-racism