RNS Anti-Semitism graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

American Jewry's very bad, terrible year

(RNS) — There is a Jewish saying that no one uses anymore. It is the Nehru jacket of American Jewish life.

Good for the Jews. Bad for the Jews.

That was how my late parents evaluated the world.

Barbra Streisand – good for the Jews. Lenny Bruce – bad for the Jews.

Sandy Koufax – good for the Jews. Bernie Madoff – bad for the Jews.

This past year has not been good for the Jews.

It was the worst, most perplexing, and most painful year in American Jewish history.

Why do I say that?

  • The attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, on a Shabbat morning in October, which took eleven lives, on the bloodiest single day of American Jewish history.
  • The attack on the synagogue in Poway, California, on the eighth day of Pesach. A 60-year-old woman, Lori Kaye, died shielding the rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein. He lost a finger. Others were seriously wounded.
  • The shooting attack outside Young Israel in North Miami Beach, Florida.
  • The attacks that most American Jews barely acknowledge – attacks on Orthodox Jews – the most visible and identifiable Jews in New York City -- on an almost weekly basis, and in some cases, several times a week.
  • The neo-Nazis who went on the websites of Yeshiva University and Brandeis University, and took photographs of students and faculty members, and put those images on white supremacist websites.
  • The politicians in Rockland County, New York, who created an anti-Hasidic video, with images that could have come out of Der Sturmer.
  • The New Jersey politicians, who, this summer, used the phrase “to Jew someone down” – and other politicians came to their defense.
  • Synagogues desecrated with swastikas.
  • Columbia University gave a podium to Mahatir Mohamad, the president of Malaysia – a vile, proud, self-declared anti-Semite – who has spoken of the hooked nose Jews who rule the world by proxy and is a Holocaust minimizer.
  • At Tufts University, a Jewish student came back to his dorm room, and he found a Nazi flag on the door.

WWMD -- What would Maimonides do?

This is what Maimonides said about the shofar.

The shofar’s call is saying:  Wake up, you sleepers, from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time -- look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds.

This past year, in the midst of the worst year of American Jewish history, American Jews heard the wake up call.

What did it say?

First, antisemitism is eternal.

America is different, we once said to ourselves: We believed that that all our achievements, all of the famous and accomplished Jews in politics and the arts and sports and science, all of our beloved Nobel Prize winners, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jonas Salk, Joe Lieberman, Jared and Ivanka…

We believed that we were the exception. We believed that America was different. We believed that we were the luckiest Jews in history.

That Jewish institutions would need enhanced security — unthinkable? What is this — Europe?

I have a friend who has chronic fatigue syndrome. He gets sick. He gets better. He gets sick again. It is in his system. It will always be in his system.

Antisemitism is the chronic fatigue system of history – an infection that is there, that remains dormant within the body – and given the proper conditions and given the failure of a society’s immune system – it always re-appears.

My favorite definition of antisemitism? Irrational thinking about "the Jews."

You know the story about the guy who gets into the Uber and the driver starts wailing on the Jews – they even sank the Titanic! Wait, the man says: that was an iceberg. “Sure – Greenberg, Goldberg, Silverberg, Iceberg…”

Second, antisemitism is an equal opportunity hatred.

If you are a conservative Republican, if you go further to your right, you will find antisemites.

Over the past ten years, if you look at the fatalities that have come from domestic terrorism – 75 percent of them have come from the far right – and most of them, from white men with military style weapons.

White supremacists have only one goal. They want to rid this country of all those who go against their definition of white America.

That includes the Jews. 

If you are a liberal Democrat, if you go further to your left, you will find antisemites – or, at the very least, people who deny to the Jewish people the right that they would freely give other people – the right to a state.

  • The congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
  • BDS – boycotting Israel, divesting from Israel, calling for sanctions against Israel. It has had zero effect on Israel; it has had a great effect on American Jews – because its real purpose is to demoralize us – especially our young people on college campuses.
  • This past year’s Dyke March, in which the organizers told proud Jewish lesbians that they could not march with the Star of David.

As Bari Weiss has written: far left activists increasingly say to Jews: you need to make a choice.

You can be a progressive, or you can be for Israel.

Here, I learn from Deborah Lipstadt: if you only see the manifestations of antisemitism on the other side, then you are not seeing clearly. We need to condemn antisemitism on all sides. Every manifestation of Jew-hatred is dangerous.

Oy, Rabbi, isn't there any good news?

First: consider what we Jews have given America.

My kids and grandson live in Jersey City. Not far from their apartment, they can see the same thing that their great-grandfather, Max Salkin, saw 120 years ago as his boat sailed into New York Harbor.

It is the doorpost of America — the Statue of Liberty.

The Jews gave America its mezuzah -- the words of a Sephardic Jewish woman named Emma Lazarus.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

A Jewish woman gave voice to America’s vision of itself – as an open society.

Second, consider that we are not alone.

Someone asked me: “Rabbi, you and your son went to Berlin this summer. You saw where there had been synagogues that were burned.”

“Are we not in the middle of an American Kristallnacht?”

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Danny Schiff, divides his time between Jerusalem and Pittsburgh. If you ask him: Is this Kristallnacht? -- this is what he would say.

What happened on Kristallnacht in 1938? Ordinary Germans joined in, or they stood by and they watched.

What happened after Pittsburgh in 2018? Exactly the opposite.

The entire community—Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, politicians, the police department, corporations, stood up and said no. We will not give oxygen to this hatred. The Pittsburgh Steelers attended the funerals of the murdered Jews.

Let me tell you something about the headline that appeared in the Pittsburgh Gazette after the murders. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabbah….

What was that newspaper headline saying?

You are us. We are you. We mourn together.

That headline in the Pittsburgh Gazette won the Pulitzer Prize.

The newspaper donated the prize money – to Tree of Life Synagogue.

That never happened in Europe.

Yes, America is different.

Third: consider that Judaism is not about how they hate us. It is about how God loves us.

You want to respond to Jew hatred?

How about some Jew love?

Love Shabbat. Love the festivals. Love Jewish culture – Jewish books, Jewish movies, Jewish music. Love your Jewish kids and grandchildren and teach them how to love Judaism as well.

No one with a gun can take that away from us.

Stand up for Judaism and its teachings. Every single adult and young person who studies with us can do that.

Stand for Judaism and its values: justice, compassion, sanctity, celebration. God did not put us on this planet because God needed a people with an appetite for salty foods. God did not need Jewish comedians. God did not even need Jewish Nobel Prize winners. God needed and needs us to transform the world.

Stand out. Be different. Relish that difference.

One more thing to stand for...

Jewish institutions, like the synagogue, JCCs, Jewish schools.

Double down. Lean in.

Live your Judaism -- yes, at home, but in public as well. Support those institutions with added vigor and generosity.

God is not done with us yet.