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Thoughts on Anti-Semitism Past and Present

I was very pleased to see on Wednesday that the Chicago Board of Rabbis presented its annual Rabbi Mordecai Simon Award to Rabbi Anna Levin-Rosen, the director of the Hillel at the University of Chicago.  In accepting the award this week, Rabbi Levin-Rosen gave a brief d’var Torah.  She noted that in this week’s Torah portion, the concluding section of the book of Leviticus, Parashat Bechukotai, we read the “tochecha,” the section of reproof, laying out the terrible consequences of not walking in the ways of the Lord.  At the end of this section which predicts horrible suffering in the future, we are reassured that ultimately God will remember His covenant with Jacob, with Isaac, and with Abraham, and will remember the land. Jacob’s name in this verse, Yaakov, is spelled out with a vav, an alternative spelling that occurs only 6 times in the Bible.  Usually, Yaakov is spelled without a vav, yud-ayin-koof-vet. The rabbi noted that Elijah’s name also has two variations and that six times in the Tanach it lacks the final vav, making Eliyahu into Eliyah. Our sages, noting this, claim that on occasion it is necessary for Elijah, the herald of the Messiah, to lend a vav to Jacob, the Jewish people, as a symbol of hope and faith in the future when times get tough.  So, they imagine Elijah has handed over his six vavs to Jacob as a reminder of the covenant. 


In light of the unrest on campuses in this country including at the University of Chicago, Rabbi Levin-Rosen, as the Hillel director, saw herself often in need of one of those vavs, a Hebrew letter which is just a long straight line, kind of reminiscent of a flag pole.  She found herself standing up and bearing the flag of Israel as it were and offering support to her Jewish students on campus.  She and her colleagues at the University and at Hillels across the country have had their hands full these past weeks and have been there to help their students navigate this difficult terrain. We all should be grateful for their efforts on behalf of our young people even as we are appalled at the attacks, verbal and otherwise that they have had to endure.


It is a difficult time to be a Jew, not only in Israel or only on campus here, but all over the world. Hamas’s brutal attack in October and its avowed mission to wipe out Israel and to kill all the Jews is very frightening and appalling.  The fact that this unprovoked pogram instead of evoking sympathy and support has provided instead an opportunity for those who hate the Jews to gather together and terrorize people and threaten us with the worst is a reminder of a long history of unwarranted hatred of the Jewish people and the violent responses often arising from it. Reading the Hamas charter with its goal of destroying the Jewish state and wiping out all Jews is a throwback to an earlier era that we hoped was long past.  The document cites the long-discredited forgery from over a century ago, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” as a prooftext and support for its hatred.  Reading through it recently, I would think that most people, including any modern adherent to the Islamic faith, would be outraged at the perversion of Muslim teachings found in this manifesto and appalled by its goals.


In a lecture given in New York’s Streicker Cultural Center at Temple Emanuel in March, Rabbi David Wolpe spoke about anti-semitism in the past and its current incarnation in our world today.  Rabbi Wolpe is the Emeritus Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University this year.  In January, he was in the headlines when he announced his resignation from Harvard’s committee on anti-semitism following the testimony of then Harvard President Claudine Gay before a congressional committee.


In this fascinating talk which you can find online, Rabbi Wolpe tries to explain where anti-semitism comes from and how we might respond to this latest manifestation of this age-old plague.  He says that this irrational hatred of Jews begins in the fear of “the other.”  People are uncomfortable with anyone who is different from them.  “They are not like us.”  People point to different customs and beliefs, appearances, and attire.  On top of that, not only are Jews different, but we have traditionally encouraged that difference, maintaining a separation through many of our traditions.  Beyond that, Wolpe notes, Jews are not only different, but we tend to rise in the societies in which we live, something which people resent.  Wolpe pointed to the high percentage of Jewish doctors even in medieval times in comparison with our tiny overall population. Today, Jews proudly point to the fact that nearly one quarter of all Nobel laureates have been Jews though we make up only 2% or less in the population of the world. You have probably seen that meme. He attributes this to our emphasis on education; we are “the people of the book.” (Mohammed said that first.)  So, as a result, we are viewed by haters as both subhuman and superhuman at the same time.


Secondly, Rabbi Wolpe notes that anti-semitism is a very effective political movement.   While it makes no sense logically, it can bring together totally disparate groups who may be at odds with each other on every other issue, but share one thing only, hatred of the Jew.  So often, as we saw in Nazi Germany, people were eager to blame the Jews for all their ills. In medieval times, the black plague was attributed to Jews.  Jews have been condemned both as capitalists and as communists, leftists and rightists at the same time. It is hard to understand why some gay people might support Hamas, knowing full well that that group would take them out and stone them at the first opporutnity if they could. One can easily show in a rational debate, that so many other groups and nations are so much worse in the commission of whatever sins or crimes one is trying to pin on Israel or on the Jewish people.  One need not look very far to find murderous regimes around the world who continue to massacre their own people or attack their neighbors. But other nations or groups may be too powerful to single out and attack.  However, Wolpe notes that we are on one hand too small a group to effectively fight back and on the other, too significant a group to ignore. Wolpe says that because of that we find ourselves ironically in the “sweet spot” for persecution.


So much of the hatred of Jews we must admit is a residue of the past teachings of the Church.  Thankfully things have changed greatly since the last decades of the 20th century.  However, for centuries Christians were taught to hate the Jews as Christ killers.  Wolpe sees this from a psychological viewpoint, as a quarrel between siblings, sanctified by the teachings of scripture.  After all, Jesus and most of his early followers   were Jews.  However, the “Father religion,” so to speak, Judaism, rejected the offerings of the son, of Christianity; it did not accept the teachings of the new religion built around Jesus. So, for centuries Jews were persecuted, massacred, forcibly converted, and suffered all sorts of indignities at the hand of the Church and its agents. Some of us heard a talk by Dr. Isaac Amon earlier this week about the extent of the power of the Inquisition around the world over the course of some 350 years. Every effort was made by the Church to stamp out Judaism and its practitioners even when they accepted Christianity under duress. Even though many modern anti-semites, particularly in the Third Reich have claimed they were no longer Christians, they were almost all children of Christians and were raised on the now discredited doctrines of an earlier time. That long-ingrained hatred has not disappeared even though many contemporary Christians have become good friends and supporters.


Wolpe also attributes anti-semitism to the role Jews have often played as the conscience of the world, calling out sin and guilt.  Judaism created a moral code by which people are judged.  Pagans had worshipped their gods and tried to win their favor by their sacrificial offerings.  Those gods seemed indifferent to interpersonal relations and granted favor to those who brought these offerings.  Judaism has had a different belief.  Our God expects people to act properly not only in a ritual context, bein Adam l’Makom, but also toward other people, bein Adam l’chavero.  Thus, Jews so frequently have been found in the forefront of every movement for human rights, the dignity of people, and the fight for liberty. The Torah keeps reminding us that we “know the heart of the stranger,” and should act with compassion and love.  This role of moral conscience so often played by Jewish people, however, does not endear us to others.


In spite of this history of hatred, the massacres and persecution that one can document through centuries, in recent times we have dared to feel more at home in the world.  The violence and hatred that was all too normal for our ancestors has become uncommon for us.  We were not used to this irrational hatred or its expressions in violence or persecution here in the United States.  So, the brutal reality of October 7th caught us by surprise and, even more, the outpouring of hatred unleashed in this country and around the world.  All sorts of groups have taken this opportunity to express their contempt for the State of Israel, for Zionism, and for the Jews.  Nobody is really working for the benefit of the actual Palestinians, though they profess to mourn the death of innocents.  While freedom of expression is the hallmark of our society, what we have witnessed primarily on college campuses far exceeds the bounds of civil discourse and freedom of speech.  The bullying, the vicious attacks, the interference with students’ learning and safety on campus, along with the damage to property of the universities is not covered by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.


Some have argued that the protestors are not actually anti-semitic, they are simply anti-Zionist.  Wolpe addresses the question of whether or not this is the same thing.  He says that while they technically are no exactlyt the same thing, it is hard to separate the two, they overlap so greatly.  He says that theoretically one could say that one simply opposes a Jewish state.  However, it is unimaginable, he argues, that one could believe on one hand that it was fine that there are 50 Muslim states in the world, but on the other there should not be even one Jewish state.  If one thinks that countries which have perpetrated horrible massacres and instigated great wars have a right to exist, then one’s arguments against the existence of a Jewish state begin to sound like just another version of anti-semitic rhetoric. In light of our past history, when one singles out the Jewish state for condemnation, it is not merely weird, he says, it is greatly suspect.


Wolpe then went on to speak of the situation here in America where for so many years most of us have not felt anti-semitism to any significant degree.  Now suddenly there is “a return of the repressed.”  So many Jews today feel uneasy, frightened, uncomfortable, and scared of the situation in our country.  We are uncertain what the future will bring; we feel unsafe perhaps for the first time.  In spite of the activities on campus and elsewhere, Wolpe insists that America is different.  It is not because Americans are nicer people, he said, for people are people.  It is not because of our Constitution and its protections.  Other countries have constitutions too and they ignore them.  What he argues is that for most of Jewish history we were the “other” identifiable group.  There were Frenchmen and Jews.  There were Russians and Jews.  There were Germans and Jews.  However, there are not Americans and Jews, he claims.  Because there is no category of “Americans;” we are a mixture of groups, a mélange or salad as he puts it.  There are other prejudices, among which is anti-semitism, but it’s not the only one.  In spite of the fact that anti-semitism is wildly on the rise in this country, he notes that at the same time when one asks Americans which religious group is most admired, the answer people give is Judaism. Very strange.


So, in spite of tremendous challenges, he believes that we are safer here than in any other time in our history. Yes, there are incidents that take place, yet historically speaking, we are much more fortunate than our ancestors. So, he concludes that we need to remember that we are way too experienced to get hysterical by what is taking place nor, in the light of past history, should we be naïve either.  Anti-semitism is back and we need to admit that none of us knows how to effectively fight it.  We have worked to make alliances with others, but they are not always reciprocated. He did offer a number of suggestions, however, to respond to the situation.  He notes first that we are much better at identifying our enemies than at embracing our friends. We actually have a lot of friends that we are often not even aware of.  Most of our friends, he says, will not reach out.  For everyone who does, there are many more who we will not hear from. We should never say that “everyone hates us” for that’s not true.  Other people see what is happening and they do care even if they do not speak up.  I’ve heard words of support myself from people I did not know previously, but whom I’ve run into who, knowing I’m a rabbi, begin telling me what they think Israel needs to do to combat Hamas and they indicate their full support for the Jewish community, literally offering prayers on our doorstep. However, it is important, he reminds us, to thank anyone who does reach out, any politician or public official who speaks up on our behalf and let them know that we appreciate their support.


Second, he suggests that it is important for us to listen to the arguments of those with whom we disagree. He says, quoting Joseph Epstein, that “Jews don’t listen, they wait.”  When someone else is speaking, they wait for a pause, a period, so they can jump in and tell the other person why they’re wrong. He says we need to listen to them first and only then engage them, particularly if they are people who are close to us. We need to enter into dialogue.  We need to ask questions, “Why do you believe that? What have you read?” “What makes you think that is so?”  And perhaps, once we have heard their point of view, we can better respond and perhaps help them understand our view and begin to gain some support.


Finally, he argues, we cannot simply hide out or disappear.  We need to be visible and proud of our Jewishness. We should stand up for what we believe.  Even at Harvard where he is teaching this year, a place that has come to be vilified as a bastion of anti-semitism, he and other Jews he knows go about their business on campus wearing their kippot and no one says a word.  Nobody pays attention he claims. We too have a right to free expression, to speak out for our beliefs and in support of our people.


He concluded his talk by mentioning the discovery in 1979 of what is the earliest surviving text from the Bible that archeologists have uncovered, small slips of parchment, perhaps from an amulet, dated to First Temple days, 7th century BCE, containing words from the book of Numbers, versions of the priestly blessing.  This has been our mission from the beginning, going back to Abraham’s call, to be a blessing to all the world.  We pray not only that God will bless us and watch over us, but that He will raise His countenance to grant peace to us and to all the world.





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