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Antisemitism – It Should Not Have to be This Way in America Today (Erev Yom Kippur, 5780)

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

G’mar Chatimah Tovah! May your new year be one of safety and peace.

In “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye bemoans the announcement brought to him by the town constable – and unofficial leader of the Cossacks – that a pogrom was going to be declared on the shtetel of Anatevka. In his one-way dialogue with God, Tevye complains, “It's true that we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can't you choose someone else?”[1]

Tevye’s dry remark was intended to bring forth a sympathetic, maybe even a comedic moment, but this past year, nothing has been more exhausting than dealing with antisemitism. We American Jews hurt. We ache. We are confused. And we are frustrated and angry over the vitriol and violence perpetrated against us. Antisemitism has raised its horrifying head, and this is my chief concern on this Night of Atonement.

Normally, when we engage in strategic discussions of the Jewish virtue of tikkun olam and actions we take to struggle for human rights, we include all those suffering pain, all those whose lives are endangered by haters. Our dignity and security are wrapped up in theirs; we advocate emphatically that none is free until all are free.

However: On this night of Yom Kippur – the most sacred and important night of our religious calendar – it is about us. Tonight is a night when I invite us to think of how to confront our unique situation.

Antisemitism in America is on the rise, the evidence is real, and our freedoms – and perhaps our lives – are at stake.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic activity in America rose 57% from 2017 to 2018. A reporter for the New York Times, notes that in New York in 2018, there were four times as many hate crimes against Jews as against blacks.[2]

We are obviously unnerved by the most egregious occurrences: violent, premeditated murders in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, CA; a Racine synagogue, just a few weeks ago, where neo-Nazi slogans were painted on the walls; a shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Rosh Hashanah day last week, where there was vandalism while worshippers were still inside the building; and in recent years, blows against our own Jewish community in Madison, including threats, tagging, and antisemitic taunting of students in our high schools.

Are these increased occurrences the canaries in the coal mine, alerting us that Jewish existence in America will not be as comfortable as our parents and grandparents had hoped? Will we continue to be welcomed here?

* * * *

I am grateful for you members of Temple Beth El – and others – who have supported our security enhancements here, measures that provide our staff, and members and guests, with a greater degree of security when they’re in the building.

But it should not have to be this way today.

Shver tsu zayn a yid, as my parents of blessed memory would resignedly say: “It’s hard to be Jew”.

But that was a century ago. It should not have to be this way today.

Antisemitism lives as a virus in the bloodstream of humanity, sometimes dormant, and sometimes not, but is activated in every generation by the introduction of some new pathogen: a pathogen like white nationalism, or activists in other racial communities who adopt antisemitic tropes unknowingly or with intention. So why can’t our scientists develop an effective anti-viral treatment to save this body?

Despite years of suffering antisemitism; regardless of the toughening we have received; our body’s response to anti-Jewish attacks in America are always anguish and confusion, even though we appear to be tough.

But it should not have to be like this today.

In almost every generation, the Jewish community has learned to combat the forces of bigotry arrayed against us. We have struggled to achieve equality – both for us and for other victims of persecution – in all the places we have lived. This approach has been instilled in our Jewish DNA, and we teach it to our children, so that each generation understands its history as well as the responsibilities of the future.

But knowing these things; struggling and fighting for our very existence: It should not have to be like this today.

So perhaps, in the future, this is the “talk” that Jewish parents, teachers, and leaders have with Jewish children:

Never forget the past.

Be careful and wary and not too comfortable in the present.

Be optimistic – and cautious – about the future.

And always have a valid, up-to-date passport. (I am serious about this.)

But it should not have to be this way today.

* * * *

Antisemitism has had many manifestations over time and Jewish legendary space:

The Pharaoh, seeking an excuse to increase his labor pool, charged us with disloyalty, and chained us to slave labor.[3] The Romans assaulted and murdered Jewish scholars in the Talmudic era land of Israel, in the hopes of eradicating our connections to God. Torquemada and religious officials in 15th century Spain tortured Jews who would not renounce their religion. Bogdan Khmelnitsky massacred thousands of Jews in 16th century Poland. The Tzar of Russia instituted horrifying pogroms in 18th century Russia. Hitler and his Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust decimated six million brothers and sisters.

B’chol dor vador – “In every generation…”

But it should not have to be this way today.

* * * *

Events such as Pittsburgh and Poway in our recent memory, as well as similar attacks against other houses of worship in our generation, painfully remind us of our vulnerability as members of a unique religious tribe.

Every person’s response to hatred, or the fear of attack, is unique. Every soul, however, is precious. And therefore, we must listen to the distress in the hearts of others, as we seek resolution and comfort.

I’d like to share with you a posting my son made to Facebook about six weeks ago. Some of you might have seen it online:

“Friday night was Pride Shabbat at Temple Beth El … the synagogue where I have been a member and my father has been the rabbi for over 14 years. For those 14 years, I have felt nothing but safety, love, support, and community within Temple Beth El's walls. Pride Shabbat was no different…almost.

“It was beautiful: Jews of all kinds, young, old, straight, gay, of all genders and colors, all decked out in rainbows; the sanctuary had never been prettier, with the stain glass windows and warm wood paneling accented by the multi-colored draperies on the pews and the Jewish Pride flag hanging from music stands on the bimah … This was the first service I had attended at my synagogue since the Tree of Life shooting.

“The service opened with the song "The Rainbow Connection", a song about human curiosity … our pursuit of something just out of reach, something that may not even exist … a better world … a place where we all belong, where we all are included, where we all can find love…

“Throughout the service, songs of joy and pride rang out from all in the assembled congregation. There was such love in that room as to make one burst.

“There were also a few small children, wide eyes, toothy grins, impatient to return to the sweets in the Community Court. Their parents, try though they might, were hopeless in their attempts to corral [them]. Consequently, every so often from behind my seat, I would hear strange, disconcerting, child-not-happy noises I could not immediately identify.

“And those were not the only such noises.

“About mid-way through the service, as Cantor Jacob led us in song, I took occasion to observe my father upon the bimah; he was putting on a wireless microphone, and gathering items in a basket, preparing to leave the bimah and move out among the pews. But, all of a sudden, there was a muffled BANG followed by loud grunting, which emanated from the hallway outside. Both I and my father, from opposite sides of the room, flinched.

“The service went on. Evidently, no one else had heard the noise, or if they had, they were content enough to ignore it, to instead focus their energies where they should be: on prayer, on community, on love.

“I was not so able. My heart rate elevated, my eyes shot to the doors, searching for any hint of danger or alarm, as I began to formulate a plan. If the worst should happen, if the worst should be currently happening, what would I have to do.

“[The noise was] one of our custodians, breaking down the tables from the program before the service, I realized.

“I breathed, and relaxed back into my seat…

“Every night, when my father walks through our door, as we greet him and share stories about our days, there is always a nagging thought in the back of mind: thank God he made it; thank God this wasn't the night. This wasn't the night he didn’t come home; this wasn't the night we would rush to the hospital in hopes that he had only been injured; this wasn't the night that the work begun in the 1930's in Germany would come to my house. Thank God we're safe.

“Too few Jews can say the same.

“I don't know if I have a larger point here. I’m scared, and I’m sad, and I’m angry. And most of all I am tired; I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of men like this making me afraid to enter the ONE space I should always be safe. I am tired of being afraid to walk into my own father's place of work. I am tired of being afraid in my own skin.

“I'm just so tired.”

If my 22-year-old-son feels this way, there must be others who feel similarly: tired of the attention, exhausted from the necessary watchfulness, disappointed in humanity for foisting this set of circumstances upon us.

It shouldn’t have to be this way today.

I remember when I entered the field of Jewish communal work in 1980, “Jewish continuity” was the buzzword, the objective for creative programming and services. Today – sadly – we might use the term “Jewish continuity” in a more existential manner.

Pittsburg, Poway, Overland Park, the Bronx, Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Eugene, Washington, University City, and more: How many more bodily insults will we need to endure before we eliminate the scourge of antisemitic images, caricatures, accusations, and physical attacks that have been our lot in American life?

* * * *

And what is more, antisemitism comes at us from both the right and the left these days. It is dismaying and demoralizing to have fewer friends in each of those political arenas.

Looking to left, the relationships we should have with African Americans, for example, are sometimes strained because of the ties of some black activists with anti-Israel forces, or the likes of Louis Farrakhan. Clashes among Jewish and African American leaders of the Women’s March have led to disarray. Jewish women should be in the forefront of that movement along with all women who believe in the struggle against misogyny. But we don’t feel welcome there.

And to the right, white nationalists and hate groups have continued their traditional fomenting of antisemitism, albeit repurposed in modern-day trappings or veiled behind some disguise designed to appear less threatening. And those voices on the right echo the words and attitudes of some of the highest-ranking officials in our nation. The fact that our country elected these antisemitic voices also reveals new strains of this old disease.

And then, to add insult to injury, some white nationalists will hold their noses to temporarily dismiss their own antisemitism, and bludgeon the communities on the left with counterfeit charges of antisemitism. When this happens, we feel complicit in their attacks on the left, which is liable to distance us from our allies in many social movements. And we, if you will pardon the expression, we get caught in the crossfire.

* * * *

What gives me hope have been my meetings, over business and over meals, with supportive Christians and Muslims and others here in Madison. Never have I felt such close kinship with people who sincerely look out for us and our needs. After the Tree of Life murders a year ago, a thousand people came to support the Jewish community at the First Unitarian Society. These interfaith and inter-group alliances are significant and vital in this community.

What gives me hope is my work in organizing a multifaith coalition of faith leaders in south-central Wisconsin. At our second organizing meeting last week, we agreed on rapid response mechanisms for congregations and individuals who become the target of haters. I pray we do not need this network of helpers, but I am comforted by their existence.

What gives me hope are the emotions of my child as he expressed his anxiety about his experience here on Pride Shabbat. This gives me hope, especially when I read the sensitive and caring reactions to his post online from his peers, and I know that his generation is sweet, supportive, and – at the same time – passionate and engaged in the issue of eradicating hate.

What gives me hope is the optimism expressed by Bari Weiss, reporter and editor for the New York Times, who advocated for a positive and affirming American Judaism of the future,[4] one in which we could wear a kippah in public – or not – and one in which we stand up for ourselves along with allies of all colors and varieties. These alliances we need to form and maintain along the way, and not be reticent when seeking help.

What gives me hope is the support that you have given us, you who are members of this sacred community who support one another in this community of caring.

What gives me hope are the millions of allies across this country who will not allow prejudice to flourish, and who will not – like lemmings – follow the current blighted crop of bigoted leaders blindly into the abyss.

Sometimes our chosenness causes us to suffer assaults. And sometimes our chosenness reminds us that we have chosen to identify as Jews, and that we have decided to help others and ourselves achieve a life of dignity, despite our facing hostile forces. This, too, gives me hope.

* * * *

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last November ran the opening lines of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew across the front page. Praying for the dead, as well as for the healing of their community, became a city-wide event, something that might have annoyed the haters, but comforted the Jewish community and its supporters.

This small action bolstered the confidence of that community. And the words of the Kaddish, too, have the potential to strengthen us as well to reconsider, each time we recite it, how we need to act in a world that sometimes acts violently toward us.

The last two stanzas of the Kaddish say, “May there be abundant peace from heaven – and life – for us and for all Israel; and we say, Amen.” And “May the one who creates peace in heaven, may God create peace for us and for all Israel” – and we add, “and all the world” – “and we say, Amen.”

I can only add, may this be the will of heaven. When we engage in this struggle, may we feel comforted and supported, and may we be successful.

L’shanah tovah!

 

[1] Act 1, Scene 5, Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, MTI, New York NY: Page 34.

[2] Bari Weiss in https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/anti-semitism.html?searchResultPosition=1

[3] Exodus 1:10

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/anti-semitism.html?searchResultPosition=1

December 14, 2019 16 Kislev 5780