Suddenly anti-Semitism is back. Over one hundred headstones in a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia were overturned in a hate act early Sunday February 26, a week after a similar assault on a Jewish cemetery in Missouri. Since the election of Donald Trump there have been hundreds of incidents of bomb threats to Jewish institutions, 20 more on Monday February 27th, along with college campuses reporting a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic graffiti.
President Trump is reported to have followed alt-Right conspiracy theorists in suggesting in an off-the-record briefing that these might be false flag operations coming from Jews who are seeking to build sympathy and reclaim our victim status.
Jewish leaders around the country are calling upon President Trump to order a full-scale investigation of this surge in acts designed to frighten Jews. Unfortunately, they have been facing some indifference from a media and public which have been overdosed with cries of anti-Semitism. When progressive Jews and some major Protestant denominations have dared to criticize Israel’s denial of human rights to Palestinians the Jewish establishment and many rabbis in synagogues around the U.S. have said that those people critiquing Israel’s denial of human rights to Palestinians are either anti-Semites or “self-hating Jews.” Just two weekends ago Congressman Keith Ellison lost his bid to be chair of the Democratic National Committee after Jewish organizations and fundraisers spread the rumor that he was an anti-Semite based on his mild criticisms of Israeli policies. After decades of mainstream Jewish organizations crying wolf by reviling young Jews who want the same rights for Palestinians that Jews correctly have sought for ourselves and many other oppressed groups, the Jewish establishment deserves some responsibility for weakening their own credibility and diminishing the American public’s concern when now our community is facing real anti-Semitism.
The anti-Semitism now emerging is a real danger, and not just to Jews. It would be a mistake to think that racism against Jews can be separated from the wider assault against people of color, women, gays and lesbians, Muslims, immigrants and the list goes on. Jews have been prominent in opposing the attempts by the Trump Administration to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S. or create a registry of Muslims. Meanwhile, American Muslims have started a campaign to raise money to repair the assaulted Jewish cemeteries and Muslim veterans of the U.S. Army have volunteered to defend Jewish cemeteries. Ironically, the haters have brought our two communities together in ways that were not happening previously!
Jews are rarely seen by liberals and progressives as part of the groups that have been oppressed, given our relative economic success in the U.S. This dismissal of Jewish vulnerability stems from economistic determinism which sees oppression primarily in terms of income or wealth, neglecting the fact that the Nazis emerged in a Germany where Jews were similarly economically successful. Jewish oppression, like the oppression of LGBTQ people or women, cannot be reduced to economic deprivation. Progressives understand that women and gays face oppression even if they are wealthy. Yet when it comes to Jews, the momentary success of American and Israeli Jews wipes from the mind of many leftists the repeated pattern in which Jewish communities similarly successful were then wiped out by the reemergence of hateful ideas that have had a persistent history in Western societies.
Three factors contribute to Jewish vulnerability.
First, fear by the elites of the revolutionary Jewish message. For thousands of years those elites have maintained their power partly through coercion and violence, but partly through convincing the relatively powerless that the vast inequalities in our world are a product of human nature or divine will and cannot be changed. Yet the Jewish Torah tells a different story: that there is Force in the universe (YHVH commonly mistranslated as “God” or Jehovah) that makes possible the transformation of the world from the current oppressive reality to a future liberation. And we Jews are the living proof, because our story, parts of which are read every Sabbath and celebrated at Passover Seders, is that we were slaves, but now we are free, created in the image of that God, and charged to be partners with God in the liberation of the world. This infuriates the powerful who reward those Jews who forget or distort the message, and through most of Western history are all too ready to persecute the rest for fear that the otherwise subdued masses might come to believe that they too could change their condition of wage slavery and blaming themselves for their oppression.
Second, there is the hatred of Jews taught by Christianity for 1600 years and still conveyed in the Christian Gospels which teach that Jews are responsible for the death of the Son of God. While in the decades after the Holocaust that teaching has been removed from the Catholic liturgy (though the branch of Catholicism with which White House advisor Bannon identifies would like to restore it), it remains an integral part of the Gospel’s stories of the crucifixion, and hence inevitably a factor in the consciousness of over a billion Christians. It was this story that historically made and today continues to make the Jews a plausible target whenever the powerful need to deflect popular anger away from themselves. Christians today need to teach their children that their religion was misused in the past to create negative stereotypes of Jews that entered popular culture, and that it is the duty of every Christian to consciously refute those stereotypes and repent for the distortions that led many Christian churches in Europe to collaborate with the Nazis in the genocide of the Jews of Europe or refuse to critique that mass murder and offer sanctuary for Jews.
Third, many Jews have used the opportunity granted us in the past 180 years since we were allowed by Christian societies to come out of the ghettoes they had imposed on us, and to take positions in which we could use the literacy and intellectual capacities our tradition had instilled in many Jews to be effective in rising to positions in the competitive job marketplace in which we became the public face of the ruling elites (as doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, psychologists, judges). Those elites often found it useful to give the message to the masses, building on centuries of Christianity-inspired hatred, that these Jews were just out for themselves, and that the selfishness and materialism which has been so corrosive of families and loving relationships is really the product of Jews who care about no one but themselves. That message cleverly obscures the real source of selfishness and materialism in the daily experience of everyone being thrust into the competitive marketplace and necessarily internalizing its ruthless value system.
While in the U.S. people of color, gays and lesbians, and Muslims have been favorite targets of ruling elites, and along with feminists have been assigned the primary blame for the ethos of selfishness (because of their struggles to rectify past history of injustice and oppression which is interpreted as “caring only for themselves” – a huge lie) the alt-Right in the U.S. has never given up on demeaning Jews, and if things get worse economically under Trumpist regimes, the Jews could once again become a major target.
The solution is to build a movement that can help people understand that the pain in their lives is deeply shaped by the values that are intrinsic to the capitalist system, and build a nonviolent movement to replace that system with a society based on love, generosity, economic and social justice, peace, and environmental sanity. But such a movement is unlikely to emerge as long as it is unable to welcome in as equally valuable members the Jewish people, acknowledging our vulnerability, and showing genuine caring and compassion to the Jewish people.
On the other hand, we Jews, have to challenge those Jews who, despairing of ever being treated fairly in non-Jewish societies, and rightly outraged at the failure of the world, including the U.S., to open its doors to Jewish refugees seeking shelter during the Holocaust, have turned to worshipping power as the only way to ensure Jewish survival. Too many Jews have abandoned the God of love and compassion, and the Torah command to not only love our neighbor but also “love the stranger.” These Jews act as though salvation can only come through the Israeli army rather than through building a world of love and justice. That’s why we at Tikkun seek to build a movement of Jews who embrace a universalist understanding of Judaism and build a Judaism of Love, just as we celebrate and publicize those in every religious community (as well as secular humanists and even orthodox or fundamentalist atheists) who are seeking to build a world of love. A major reason we have been building the Network of Spiritual Progressives is to have an international organization that brings together secular humanists, atheists, and religious people of every possible religious community who unabashedly seek a world of love and justice and see that not as a utopian task but as the fundamental survival necessity of the contemporary world. And this is the challenge that our generation of Jews must embrace as the most effective way to counter the haters in the larger society that have been unleashed by the Trump presidency, and which are slowly also destroying or perverting Judaism from within, turning it into a cheering squad for Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank, and ignoring the ethical core that made Judaism sustainable in a world where power continues to be used to advance the interests of the few at the expense of the well being of the many and of the sustainability of our planet Earth.
In the not-too-long-run, it is love, generosity, and (social, economic and environmental) justice, particularly when coupled with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe and the sanctity of every human being on this planet, that are the best path to security, for Jews and for everyone else on Earth.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls in Berkeley California. He welcomes responses to this perspective: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for this piece about anti-Semitism. As I mentioned to Jim, if Rabbi Lerner says it’s anti-Semitism, then I know it is. I grew up feeling angry that many Jews were “beating their breast” inappropriately over the Holocaust, but now I know that I was both right and wrong to think that, partly due to the impatience and ignorance of youth. Much in your article rings so true to me: the media and public have indeed been “overdosed with cries of anti-Semitism.” It is, as you rightly say, the same as crying wolf. Yet here we are suddenly dealing with the real thing, and perhaps realizing that elements of it were subtly there all along, but we didn’t need to acknowledge or understand it back then. I love your analysis of the dismissal of Jewish vulnerability stemming from the idea of economic determinism, as it seems to explain why, as I recall it, many wealthy Jews (at least back in New York when I was young) exhibited their wealth so ostentatiously.
I also appreciate your explanation that many Jews took advantage of new opportunities to become “the public face of the ruling elites,” which helps explain some feelings of resentment toward us because in playing that role, we sometimes seemed to help enforce the economic and power disparities that were already in place. I realize how right you are in stating that most liberal college students, while prepared to refute racist, sexist, and homophobic claims, are unpracticed and perhaps reluctant in recognizing and refuting anti-Semitism. I myself (now in Medicare land) worry about making the mistake of over-recognizing anti-Semitism; I am so used to refuting claims of its common existence. What I always thought of as Jewish paranoia regarding political thinking on college campuses seems now to sometimes be realistic, and as you say, we don’t know how to respond, because now it is not others whom we need to defend, but ourselves.