In prewar Germany two elderly Jews sit in a Berlin park. One is reading a Yiddish paper. The other one is scanning the pages of a Nazi paper and laughing. This proves too much for his companion, who says: “It’s not enough you read that Nazi rag, but you find it funny?” “Look,” replies the other. “If I read your paper, what do I see? Jews deported, Jews assaulted, Jews insulted, Jewish property confiscated. But I read Der Stürmer, and there’s finally some good news. It seems that we Jews own and control the whole world!”
I dream of the day when anti-Semitism isn’t the topic of High Holy Day sermons. I would prefer not to talk about it. But two years ago neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. The marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and threatened the local synagogue. Words have led to action.
In the past year, Shabbat worshippers were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway. A month ago, there were three separate attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Locally, anti-Semitic fliers were posted at Temple Emanu-El, an anti-Semitic obscenity was shouted at Rabbi Schuesterman, and this spring there were arson fires at the Chabad houses in Arlington and Needham.
It angers me that it’s necessary to speak about anti-Semitism. We are only 75 years removed from the Holocaust. I’d rather speak about Jewish patriotism, our loyalty to the countries in which we live, our contributions to humanity. I’d rather speak about our authorship of the book of books and advancements in science, medicine, the arts and more. I’d rather speak about the miracle of the State of Israel and how so many Israeli innovations benefit the health and welfare of all human beings.
But, words have led to action. We must talk about anti-Semitism, its impact on us, and the actions we can take. First, let me say that we take your safety and security seriously. I will not detail our major security advances, however, I appreciate your patience this morning as we checked for tickets.
Most significantly, we’ve invested in training our staff and volunteers, as well as improving our communication and partnership with the Swampscott Police Department. I encourage you to send them a card. Thank them for keeping us secure and taking anti-Semitism seriously.
What is anti-Semitism in 2019?
First, let’s step back a moment. This is not Germany 1939. Deborah Lipstadt, an expert on anti-Semitism, comments, “I firmly eschew comparisons to Germany in the 1930s, which was state-sponsored anti-Semitism in which national and local governmental bodies as well as academic institutions enthusiastically participated. Nothing that we are witnessing today compares in any measure to the kind of endemic hatred and persecution that German and Austrian Jews were subjected to in the years leading up to World War II.”
Today, police and law enforcement work to protect us. Swampscott Police provide incredible security. At the Tree of Life shooting four police officers were wounded as they worked to take the shooter into custody. Furthermore, in August it was reported that the FBI had arrested individuals who were planning two separate attacks on Jews.
At the same time, there is one characteristic of today’s anti-Semitism that is more disturbing than the 1930s. In America, anti-Semitism is a reality on the political left and the right. For instance, anti-Semitism has been prevalent in progressive causes such as the Women’s March, while the white power movement feels emboldened by leaders on the right. Democrats and Republicans have peddled anti-Semitic tropes and have failed to condemn their colleagues’ anti-Semitic remarks.
To determine whether a person is an anti-Semite is challenging. One often needs to know their intent. However, we can more easily assess whether words support or empower other Jew-haters. For example, in January 2016, the editor of The Daily Stormer, an American neo-Nazi website, informed his readers that: “Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters. After having been attacked for retweeting a White Genocide account a few days ago, Trump went on to retweet two more White Genocide accounts, back to back. Where as [sic] the odd White Genocide tweet could be a random occurrence, it isn’t statically possible that two of them back to back could be a random occurrence. It could only be deliberate.”
In Lipstadt’s analysis, “Irrespective of how Trump intended it, his white supremacist and anti-Semitic supporters hear [his comments] as a ringing endorsement.”
For Lipstadt, the prime example of anti-Semitism on the left is Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Domestically, Ilhan Omar has “repackage[d] falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries” by claiming “that Israel ‘hypnotizes’ 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….’”
Words matter. A new generation will learn old anti-Semitic tropes. And words lead to actions. In Europe, anti-Semitism is much more widespread than in America. A 2018 survey of European Jews reported that:
- 28% of respondents have been harassed at least once in the past year.
- 38% have considered emigrating because they did not feel safe as Jews.
Those numbers are staggering. In our North Shore community, if one person is harassed, it is an outrage and we collectively condemn it. Twenty-eight percent of Jews report being harassed—that’s nearly every third person in the synagogue today.
Unlike in America, most of the violent attacks in Europe have been committed by Islamist extremists and their sympathizers. It’s horrifying to read about the murder of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, by her Muslim neighbor and friend. In parts of Europe, Jews have been told by the authorities that it’s unsafe to wear yarmulkes in public. In April 2018, an Israeli and his friend were attacked by a 19-year-old Syrian refugee in Berlin. As it turns out, the victims were an Israeli Arab and his German-Moroccan friend. They were testing the degree to which it was unsafe to wear a kippah.
Anti-Semitism has grown considerably over the past 20 years in Europe. Political leaders were slow to respond. Although in recent years political leaders have sounded the alarm about anti-Semitism, it may be too late. Today, “70% [of Europe’s Jews] believe that their national governments’ efforts to combat anti-Semitism are ineffective.” Is European anti-Semitism a harbinger for what’s to come in America? We must prevent that.
What is the impact of anti-Semitism on current American Jewish life?
On college campuses, attacks on pro-Israel sentiment are rising. AMCHA recently reported that while incidents of classical anti-Semitism, depictions of Jews with hooked noses, stereotypes of Jewish money and power, Nazi symbols and comparisons, etc., declined 42%, Israel-related anti-Semitic harassment increased 70% from 2017 to 2018. Shirat Hayam’s Campus Anti-Semitism Task Force held trainings for teens to prepare them for campus anti-Semitism and has been a signatory to multiple letters to university presidents and chancellors, calling on them to fix this Israel-related anti-Semitism.
There is also the real violence of anti-Semitism. While the numbers of attacks may be statically small, there are real victims and all of us are impacted psychologically and spiritually. It puts us on edge, creates stress and worry; it makes us angry. It may change our Jewish experiences from joy to oy.
Lastly, I worry that anti-Semitism will cause us Jews to hide our identity, to diminish our Jewishness. I worry that we will consciously or unconsciously conceal the Jewish or pro-Israel parts of ourselves, that we will relegate being Jewish to the safety of our homes. Lipstadt notes that students and college faculty, particularly non-tenured faculty, downplay their Jewishness. In progressive circles, it’s OK to be LGBT or Q, but not J. Moreover, we might become too afraid to simply show up. In Europe, “34% [of Jews] avoid visiting Jewish events or sites because they do not feel safe.”
So, what can we do about it?
- First and foremost, words lead to action. We must call out anti-Semitism when we see it. And, perhaps more importantly, we must recognize our tendency to see anti-Semitism only in our political enemies. We must have the courage to identify anti-Semitism in the political party that we support. Moreover, we should focus on the content and effect of the words themselves, which have greater potency in this era of social media, not the unprovable intent of the speaker.
- To call out anti-Semitism, we must be able to identify it. This can be challenging. While politicians’ words and a cartoon in The New York Times international edition have made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t able to put my finger on the specific elements that made them anti-Semitic. To better understand contemporary anti-Semitism and identify it, I suggest that we, as a community, read and discuss Deborah Lipstadt’s book, “Anti-Semitism Here and Now.” Let’s do it with Epstein Hillel, the JCC, Temple Emanu-El, Lappin and the other local synagogues. Let me know after the holiday if you would join the committee to make this happen.
- Volunteer for Shirat Hayam’s security team. In addition to hired police, we must protect ourselves. We need 30 new volunteers to complete a three-part training in late fall/early winter. Details to follow.
- Lastly, allies are critical in the fight against anti-Semitism. To build allies, we need to show up for others and that begins with building relationships with other groups, as individuals and as representatives of our community.
Anti-Semitism is not exciting to talk about. But, for all of us in this room today, it is a real and growing issue. It is present on the political left and right, among Islamic extremists and on college campuses. We cannot allow anti-Semitism on the scale of Europe to reach the shores of America.
We can combat anti-Semitism by learning to identify it and calling it out. And we must be diligent to condemn our political allies who peddle this oldest hatred. At the same time, we must not allow it to diminish our Jewishness. And remember, please thank Detective Delano, Chief Madigan and the entire Swampscott Police Department for their continued support.
In closing, the prophet Micah (4:4) says, “… and none shall make them afraid.” Indeed, we shall not be afraid. Rather, we shall stand tall and proud. And, we shall stand on the shoulders of generations who showed extraordinary resilience. From the expulsions in medieval Europe to the pogroms, from the Farhud in Iraq to the Holocaust, from synagogue bombings of the late 1950s to the anti-Semitism of today, if trauma can be passed from generation to generation, then so, too, can resilience. This is our moment to tighten our yarmulkes, to instill pride in our children, and to overcome the evil of anti-Semitism.
L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu—may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life for a good year.
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