Anti-Semitism Today

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Shabbat Sh’mot, January 17, 2020 – 21 Tevet 5780

I want to talk with you tonight about anti-Semitism. In the past few years, we’ve seen an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks, including the most recent attacks on Chasidic Jews in the New York City area, including the Hanukkah attack in Monsey, New York. These attacks and the anti-Semitic tropes from some of the highest offices in this land have many of us worried. So, I wanted to spend a few minutes with you sharing some of what I’ve read and some of my thoughts on the matter. I hope that when I’m finished, we can share, openly, honestly, and sensitively, how we’re feeling.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, we encounter what might be the first recorded case of anti-Semitism. At the end of Genesis, Jacob’s descendants migrate to Egypt, where Jacob’s son Joseph has risen to the role of Pharaoh’s right-hand man; they settle in the land. At the start of the book of Exodus, we read that a new king arose in Egypt, one “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). “How did the Jewish people fall from grace to disgrace in such a relatively short period of time? More specifically, what exactly happened during the two hundred years since the Israelites were welcomed into Egypt with open arms—to the point when a new Pharaoh arose and enacted policies that targeted the descendants of Joseph?”[1]

“The Egyptian leader expresses doubt over the loyalty of the Jewish people. He fears the Israelites are too numerous, and they may ally with Egypt’s enemies. Persecution follows…. Interestingly, the Torah makes no mention of dialogue preceding the Israelites’ enslavement. The Torah only shares Pharaoh’s suspicion toward these outsiders who dressed, spoke, worshipped, and conducted themselves differently…. During ancient times, modes of communication were not as immediate and free-flowing as today. And it is reasonable to assume that the Israelites’ isolation in the northeastern corner of Egypt did not encourage trust and harmony.”[2]

Rabbi Irwin Huberman writes, “The reading of this week’s Torah portion is very relevant, as Jews throughout the world experience a rise in antisemitism. While it may be true that antisemitism has historically [been], and will continue to be, a fact of life, there may be some general parallels to draw between today and ancient times. A scan of antisemitic Internet sites reveals a barrage of hatred and animosity, much of it based on ignorance and misinformation. While some are based on outright bigotry, often, the proliferation of these materials to naïve readers remains largely unchecked.”[3]

I recently read an opinion piece for the Forward written by historian and anti-Semitism expert Deborah Lipstadt titled No, We Aren’t Seeing the Return of Nazi Germany. In it, Lipstadt recounts that whenever an anti-Semitic incident takes place, she sees an uptick in inquiries about the nature of anti-Semitism today. She used to be asked, “Is what we’re seeing today akin to Germany in the 1930s?” Now, she’s more likely to be told, “This is just like Germany in the 1930s.” She writes, “I used to scoff at this comparison because it is so beyond the pale. In the wake of the recent assaults, I no longer scoff. My response has changed, not because the comparisons are correct—they are not—but because they come from a place of fear and confusion.”[4]

“If we are to fight this scourge, it is important that we do so on the basis of fact, not emotion. We must recognize the fundamental difference between then and now…. Herein lies the essence of the difference. During the Third Reich, the government was the very source of antisemitism. Today, the situation is precisely the opposite in the vast majority of countries. When tragedy strikes political leaders are quick to condemn these acts…. Leaders of France, Germany, England, [and] the United States among others have continued to make these two points: these attacks are not just unacceptable, but they are attacks on the essence of the nation. This is a striking contrast, not just to the Third Reich, but to all previous eras in western history. Jews in the Third Reich were abandoned by their government. Today increasing numbers of government officials are beginning to recognize that these attacks are a threat to the democracy they have been empowered to defend.”[5]

Make no mistake. “The recent rise of antisemitic attacks is serious. These attacks must be addressed forcefully and unequivocally. But even as we are beset by fear, we must not allow those fears to distort our understanding of the contemporary situation. At the very least,” writes Lipstadt, “we owe it to the memory of German Jews of the 1930s to get this history right.”[6]

So, how do we react when faced with the steady stream of news of anti-Semitic attacks in our country? “The immediate instinct on behalf of many Jewish communities is to isolate themselves. Based on centuries of antisemitism, it is natural for some Jews to be hesitant to interact with those of different backgrounds. Yet, there is an argument to be made for more contact between Jewish communities and those of other faiths and perspectives. Indeed, there is evidence that more communication and interaction can decrease tension and suspicion.”[7]

There are two major ways in which we ought to react. The first is outward. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, our movement, writes, “The use by political leaders of anti-Semitic tropes, including that of American Jews having dual loyalty to the US and Israel, endangers us all—and to truly keep American Jewry safe, elected officials must not use Jews or anti-Semitism as political fodder.”[8] In particular, I want us on this eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend to consider what Jacobs has to say about our reaction to some of the anti-Semitic attacks that have been carried out by members of the Black community. “To those who blame the Black community in general for anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated by Black individuals, we say: This is reprehensible. This ignores the Black leaders and communities across America who have stood with us, over and over again, to denounce such anti-Semitic attacks…. To cast the sins of the few on an entire people is blatant racism, not its antidote.”[9]

The second reaction is not about others, but about us. Deborah Lipstadt writes, in a piece published by Reform Judaism titled “Being a Jew Is About So Much More than Being a Victim,” “As much as I worry about what the anti-Semites might do to us, I worry, too about what we might do to ourselves because of antisemitism. Has our concern about antisemitism become the leitmotif, the cornerstone, of our Jewish identity? Are we focusing on it too much? … Are we allowing it to do something to us?”[10]

She tells the story of a student of hers, a senior at Emory University, who all of a sudden began wearing a kippah. As he was leaving an appointment with her, he turned and asked if she’d noticed. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “What’s that about? You haven’t worn that before.” The student said to her, “There have been so many attacks on Jews recently. I’ve decided that every time there is an antisemitic act, I am going to wear my kippah to show the antisemites they can’t frighten me.” While she admired him for “his desire to show his identity and not cower in fear,”[11] she said that at the same time her heart was breaking “because he had allowed the antisemites to determine when he felt Jewish. They were controlling his Jewish identity. He had ceded to them the power over his Jewish identity. In short, he was motivated by the ‘oy’ and not the joy of Jewish life. That’s not my Judaism,” Lipstadt writes, “and I don’t want it to be his.”[12]

It’s the difference between living Jewish lives defined by what Jews do and not by what is done to Jews. This is Lipstadt’s prayer for her students: “My prayer is that affirmation of their Jewish identity will be rooted not in Jew as object (what is done to Jews), but in Jew as subject (what Jews do). They’ll be aware of antisemitism, yes—but my prayer is that they will always embrace their tradition because of its wisdoms, its teachings, and how much it has given to the world. May they embrace Judaism because it is theirs. May you embrace it because it is yours. May we all embrace it because it is ours. Ken yehi ratzon—so may it come to be.”[13]


[1] Irwin Huberman, Parashat Shemot 5780:  Antisemitism Then and Now, Academy for Jewish Religion, January 2020, https://arjsem.org/2020/01/parashat-shemot-5780/.

[2] Huberman.

[3] Huberman.

[4] Deborah Lipstadt, No, We Aren’t Seeing the Return of Nazi Germany, The Forward, December 31, 2019, https://foward.com/opinion/437485/no-we-arent-seeing-the-return-of-nazi-germany/.

[5] Lipstadt, No, We Aren’t Seeing the Return of Nazi Germany.

[6] Lipstadt, No, We Aren’t Seeing the Return of Nazi Germany.

[7] Huberman.

[8] Rick Jacobs, The rising tide of anti-Semitism threatens more than Jewish lives, The Times of Israel, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-rising-tide-of-anti-semitism-threatens-more-than-jewish-lives/.

[9] Jacobs.

[10] Deborah Lipstadt, Being a Jew Is About So Much More than Being a Victim, Reform Judaism, December 30, 2019, https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2019/12/30/being-jew-about-so-much-more-being-victim/.

[11] Lipstadt, Being a Jew Is About So Much More than Being a Victim.

[12] Lipstadt, Being a Jew Is About So Much More than Being a Victim.

[13] Lipstadt, Being a Jew Is About So Much More than Being a Victim.

Photo by Joe Pregadio on Unsplash

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