In all those years and in all of those venues I've tried very hard to stay away from the anti- Semitism button. Teach about it of course; try to understand it, absolutely. But be very, very careful about invoking it as Jewish motivation. Don't even allow your campers/students/staff to infer that what was meant was, Live Jewishly because of what they did. Do Jewish because it's the best answer to them. Wear that star/that shirt/that kippah - because that's how we respond to it.
Isaak-Shapiro continues his article by exploring the rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world -- swastikas, graveyard desecrations, issues on college campuses, assaults in Europe, South America, and events in the United States, most notably in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Yet if anti-Semitism is not used as a means of Jewish motivation, of stirring the pot, of getting us angry, of enabling us to play our centuries-old "victim" card, or acknowledging how much we need to rally around how much the world really hates us, how do we continue to have the anti-Semitism conversation?
In the past few weeks, attention has focused on the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Democrat from Minnesota, a supporter of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel. Her comments regarding about the financing of Israel lobbying organizations, and about the requirement of allegiance to a foreign country, namely Israel, have been denounced by many, with others rushing to support her. Given this troubling disparity, how do we continue to have the anti-Semitism conversation?
Earlier this week, the United States House of Representatives issued a bill with language that condemns, “anti-Semitism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States and condemn[s] anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities as contrary to the values of the United States.” It is powerful for Congress to take a public stand against hatred and bigotry. However, the first vote on the resolution needed to be postponed, and the language of the bill, which was originally intended as a censure against Omar, was changed to reflect other discrimination besides anti-Semitism. So a vote on anti-Semitism becomes a "Kumbaya-moment vote" on something more than anti-Semitism. And we are not supposed to regard that change in the resolution as anti-Semitic? It is as if we are saying that the problems that the Jewish people face in the United States and worldwide are not really worthy of any attention. So how do we continue to have the anti-Semitism conversation?
We are rightfully angry regarding recent events and a significant uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. As Bret Stephens, opinion columnist for The New York Timeswrote this week Omar "knows exactly what she is doing." He comments:
For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel “hypnotises” the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.
Regarding the condemnation of Omar's words, Daniel Elbaum, Chief Advocacy Officer for the American Jewish Committee added, "We responded because words matter. We responded because history has taught us that we must. We responded because there is a persuadable constituency that needs to understand the danger in such stereotypes. We responded because there is really nothing else we could have done and still been true to our mission.
But the problem of anti-Semitism runs even deeper than current events. We woke up this morning to news from the Kotel, where the Women of the Wall celebrated their 30th anniversary, trying once again to pray, sing and chant from the Torah from the women's section at the Western Wall. They were impeded by busloads of yeshiva girls, and then attacked by members of the ultra-Orthodox community. Rabbi Josh Weinberg cited, "Reports of angry mobs showing up to kick, fight, spit at, and rip off the tallitot and kippot of those coming to pray and celebrate with the Women of the Wall." He added:
Just imagine that today, on the beginning of the month of Adar II, the authorities of the Western Wall said 'Today we are commanded to be happy, and we welcome you with open arms! Today, we realize that you are not a threat to our form of Judaism, and you are just trying to pray and exalt God’s name like we are! Please come, read the word of the living God, and rejoice in this most joyful of days.' Just imagine what would happen if so many people were praying and dancing and singing and celebrating that they didn’t even notice a couple of hundred women coming to this holiest of spots.
When our struggles are not only with the outside world, but we are also battling vitriol internally as a people, how do we continue to have the conversation on anti-Semitism? We know how to holds vigils and multi-faith peace gatherings in the wake of unthinkable events like Pittsburgh, and then the terror subsides, and we move on. We know how to raise our fist out of anger against people like Ilhan Omar and even Louis Farrakhan, and we do so, until we run out of steam, and until the next wave hits, another priority takes over, or the next person opens their mouth. We know how to send money to Israel, how to support the Progressive movement's efforts in Israel, how to affirm what it means to be a Reform Jew, but often, we can feel embarrassed or dismissed by Jews who practice differently than we do, wanting and craving their validation and affirmation.
As we bear witness to anti-Semitism in the world, there is an internal conversation, a personal conversation that is very difficult for us to have. This coming Sunday, Morah Barbara Haber is leading a conversation with religious school parents about the priority, the necessity, and the beauty of Jewish education, a response to her bulletin article in February. We have about six RSVPs at this stage. As we discuss next steps for Temple Avodat Shalom and address the changing landscape of Bergen County, what does it mean to grow the conversation to focus on the role of Jewish learning?
We have, regularly, between twenty-five and thirty people who attend Torah study on Shabbat morning, what many people in the class have come to call the "intellectual highlight" of their week. And then we struggle to make a minyan for services. What does it mean to have a conversation about the place and the priority of prayer in our lives?
It is wonderful that our Brotherhood and Sisterhood are planning a B'nei Mitzvah party at the end of the month. When I was growing up, Mom always told me, "You don't get to go to the party if you don't go to the service before." What does it mean to have a conversation about being here on Saturday mornings, about making b'nei mitzvah more than just a private, family affair, and reclaiming B'nei Mitzvah as a celebration of a young adult's entrance into and embrace of Jewish life and community.
That only happens when religious community becomes more of a priority, and when we work to share this message beyond the forty or so people who are here. That only happens when we become the advocates for and ambassadors to the rest of our congregation. It is as Mr. Isaak-Shapiro commented:
Knowledge of our past and our present, of the unimaginatively rich gifts we’ve bequeathed to humanity, is uplifting and empowering. An appreciation of the eagerness with which we reach out to ourselves and to others – a celebration of the extraordinary brilliance of Shabbat, the intricacies of the Hebrew language, the depth of our sacred Texts. The human gifts we’ve shared with the world, who owed their particular genius – whether in music or philosophy or science – to a grounding in Judaism’s values and intellectual underpinning. Couple that knowledge with the enthusiasm and pride that it engenders – not boastfulness, but exuberance. The unbidden smile at seeing a blue and white flag, the joy of learning – together. The bedrock feeling of being part of something larger than oneself. That knowledge – and that pride – are the armor that allows us to stand up, to bigotry that’s focused on us, or on anyone.
This is how we have the conversation on anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, March 8, 2019, Message to ARZA Community. Via E-mail.