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Jewish Nationalism, Antisemitism & Us Part 3 - Sermon for Yom Kippur Evening

09/20/2021 02:29:57 PM


Rabbi Bruce Alpert

One of the unexpected developments ushered in by the Coronavirus pandemic is a reacquaintance - albeit somewhat incomplete - with the Greek alphabet. Today, the world remains stuck on Delta, but I am beginning to hear ominous things about Lambda and Mu. We seem to have skipped over Epsilon, Theta and a few others though. Regardless, we are all learning that mutation is the way viruses live on, continuing to cause havoc decades, even centuries after they claim their first victims. The 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic was caused by a mutation of the virus that set off the infamous 1918 Spanish Flu.

But tonight I want to talk about a different virus; one whose lifespan has been far longer than the Spanish Flu. Like these other viruses, its longevity is based on its ability to mutate; to take the form that will allow it to survive, spread and, when the circumstances are right, wreak havoc and destruction. That virus, of course, is antisemitism.

That I am saying these words is something of a shock to me. For a long time, I have worried that we Jews overuse the charge of antisemitism, cheapening its meaning by doing so. In the past, as I have been pressed as to how we would observe, say, Kristallnacht or Yom HaShoah, I have privately wondered whether our dwelling on the Holocaust is accomplishing anything of use. Thirty-plus years ago, on this very night, I heard Rabbi Jerry Brieger, alav ha-shalom, deliver a wonderful sermon in which he worried that Auschwitz was displacing Sinai as Judaism's defining symbol. To me this focus on the Holocaust was emblematic of a Jewish obsession with antisemitism that didn't rise to the reality of Jewish life as I experienced it. True, at that time I was far from observant. Still, if antisemitism didn't seem to me like a thing of the past, neither did it seem like an exigent threat.

Now it does.

What has changed is my understanding of antisemitism as an endemic element of human life. I see now that it has the capacity to transmute itself into something new so that it can continue its vicious work of villainizing and dehumanizing Jews. In the last several years, antisemitism has developed a new variant that, to my mind, poses a major threat, particularly to American Jews. Before getting to that, it is worth a few minutes to review its unique history as a viral plague not only on Jews, but all of humanity.

Indeed, the ability of antisemitism to change shape is what has made it what it is - the world’s oldest hate. If antisemitism's project is to villainize and, ultimately, destroy Jews, it has done so by attacking that element that is most central to our character. If and when that central element changes, antisemitism adapts to attack it.

So we start with what we might call antisemitism's Aleph Variant; the one that attacks Judaism as a religion. This is, perhaps, the most basic form of antisemitism. It begins with the Christian charge of deicide, the idea that all of us are Christ killers. The murder charge fits in well with the general perception that we Jews worship “the God of the Old Testament,” which invariably refers to a cruel, punishing, vindictive deity, as opposed to Christianity's New Testament god of love. This is thought to explain the Jewish character as scheming, clannish, usurious, greedy and manipulative.

This murderous reputation has followed us in the many instances of blood libels, where Jews were charged with killing Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes, like baking into their Passover matzah. And our supposed ingratitude and obstinacy gave rise to the antisemitism of Mohammed and Martin Luther, whose hatred for us was kindled when Jews failed to convert to Islam and Protestantism, respectively. Religious antisemitism also led to the expulsions of Jews from various countries, like England in 1290, France in 1306, Hungary in 1360, Austria in 1420, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1496. In 1242, 24 wagon loads of Hebrew books were burned in Paris. In 1553 and 1554, in what had become the center of Jewish printing, mass burnings of Jewish books took place in Venice and Rome.

While the Aleph Variant has never gone away, it was superseded in the 19th century by a new mutation. So let us call antisemitism based on race the Bet Variant. This variant came about because the enlightenment thinking of the previous decades caused religion based hatred to go out of style. The new idea is that Jews constitute a distinct and debased race that contaminates the purer races with which it comes in contact. In the Aleph Variant, a Jew can escape his degraded state by renouncing his religion and converting to the superior faith. In the Bet Variant, a Jew remains a Jew even after conversion. The earliest traces of this variant are seen in the Spanish Inquisition, where conversos - Jews who converted to Christianity - were tortured and murdered under the suspicion that those conversions were insincere because Jews are insincere, devious and manipulative.

Race based antisemitism really got going though, in the 19th century, as nationalism spread across Europe. The Jews, newly liberated from the ghetto and eager to take their place in the societies in which they lived, were viewed as contaminators of those same societies. The purity of the French nation or the German nation was being debased by these mongrel foreigners who used their facility with, and love of money to seduce those of the purer races. Indeed, it was at this time that the word antisemitism was coined to describe that race that descended from Noah’s son Shem. Of course Arabs too are semites which, given the prevalence of Arab antisemitism, means the term itself is an oxymoron - a self contradiction. The better, far more descriptive term, is Jew-Hatred. Call it what you will, this race-based hatred found its purest expression in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

Race based and religion based antisemitism are still very much with us. My mother loved to tell the story of the day I came home from school crying. When she asked what was wrong, I sobbed that my classmates told me that I had killed Christ, and I didn’t even know who he was. One Rosh Hashanah, walking from here to the community lake for our tashlich service and wearing my kippah, someone shouted “Pharisee!” at me. And of course there is the constant, slow leak of comments by which our non-Jewish neighbors, with no malice intended, remind us that we are not one of them.

There are the more open acts of antisemitism, of course: the graffitied JCC or Jewish cemetery, the swastika painted in the high school lavatory. There are the protests at which angry men defiantly chant “The Jews will not replace us!” And then there are the truly horrific acts like the synagogue shootings two years ago in Pittsburgh and Poway.

Still, through all of this, I have never really felt that antisemitism posed an existential threat to American Jewry. Yes, the racial and religious antisemitism that is a constant in our lives can run the gamut from annoying to deadly. Yet whatever the threat these incidents pose to us individually, there is all but universal acceptance that they are hateful, if not outright criminal acts that violate the social contract by which our civil society maintains itself. So long as this consensus holds, racial and religious antisemitism will never threaten the survival of Judaism in America.

But there is a new form of antisemitism that I believe does pose such a threat. We might call it the Gimmel Variant. This is the variant of antisemitism that expresses itself as hatred of the State of Israel.

The way antisemitism works is by attacking Jews in a way that can spread widely in polite society. What makes this variant different is that those who condemn Israel are claiming the moral high ground in doing so. In condemning Israel they claim to be standing up against racism, against apartheid, against war crimes - all of which they charge Israel of committing. They claim to be standing up for the little guy against the hegemon which wields its unmatched power in gross disregard for human life. For those of us who watched this past May’s renewed fighting in Gaza, we knew from the first missile strikes exactly how this was going to go. After mumbled, obligatory admissions that Israel had a right to defend itself, the coverage quickly devolved into a narrative about disparate body counts. The New York Times filled the top of its May 28th front page with dozens of head shots of dead Palestinian kids under the headline “They Were Just Children.”

The narrative spun from this conflict - that Israel is a racist superpower with no regard for innocent life - infects all aspects of our culture: from academia, to politics, to entertainment, to business. Both my kids faced outright hostility on their college campuses when they did or said anything to defend the Jewish state. The United Nations Human Rights Council, which has voted to condemn Israel more times than all other countries in the world combined, recently voted to permanently investigate Israel for war crimes. Trevor Noah and John Oliver, two late night hosts who are, in fact, important news sources for young people, routinely tell their viewers that Israel is immoral for defending itself against attacks from Gaza. And of course, Ben & Jerry have just weighed in on Israel's moral legitimacy by banning the sale of its ice cream in the West Bank

Israel’s legitimacy and moral standing are called into question so regularly and from so many quarters that fighting it seems like trying to sweep back the tide. People who criticize Israel do so with an unquestioning self-righteousness. And then they congratulate themselves for having the bravery to do so when they are sure to be unjustly accused of antisemitism by Israel’s defenders; thus perpetuating the notion that Jews manipulate the public dialogue to serve their own ends.

I have, for a long time, puzzled over that charge of antisemitism against those who attack Israel. I know that most of these people have no ill will toward the Jewish religion; that they are deeply committed to the principle of freedom of religion and would likely be aghast at any attempts to suppress that freedom when it comes to Jews or anyone else, for that matter. They despise all shows of religious and racial antisemitism - from the cutting remark to the synagogue shooting. Indeed, many of Israel’s harshest critics are, in fact, Jews, and observant ones at that.

And yet I have known in my guts that the kind of criticism of Israel that we hear today - whether in the news, on college campuses, in entertainment and in boycotts - is in fact antisemitic. The key to understanding how this can be so goes back to the thesis of my Rosh Hashanah sermon: Judaism is not a religion. It is a nationality.

I spoke then about how Judaism reflects all aspects of nationality. Yes religion, but also history, language, culture and land. Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish nationhood; not just in a political sense, but in every sense. Israel moves to the time of the Jewish calendar and defaults to Jewish norms of behavior. Israel’s language is the language of Jewish prophets, of Jewish prayer, of Jewish law, philosophy and poetry. Israel’s people inhabit lands that we have held sacred for millennia. And Israel is in the constant process of building a Jewish culture: one that mixes the most ancient with the most modern.

In all these ways, Israel is the embodiment of Jewish nationality; a people keenly aware of its own flaws and shortcomings, forced constantly to choose between its dearest ideals and its most pressing needs, and painfully aware that its every action is being scrutinized by the world, and most harshly by its increasingly estranged American cousins.

So my message to you is quite simple. Despite all their claims to the contrary, despite all their complaints that Jews indiscriminately throw around the charge of antisemitism, those who attack Israel are attacking Judaism. It is not some crazy coincidence that in a world filled with places like Iran, China, Cuba, Sudan and North Korea, the place that practically every liberal-arts college is protesting, the place that is constantly being singled out for boycott, divestment and sanction, the place whose every act of self-defense is scrutinized with the utmost cynicism, happens to be the one Jewish state in the entire world. These attacks on Israel are inseparable from attacks on Judaism.

Israel plays an enormous part in my Jewish consciousness. I have Israeli acquaintances with whom I correspond, I read Israeli newspapers, I watch Israeli television and movies, I listen to Israeli podcasts, I read Israeli books. My wife is even on the board of an Israeli university. What I see in all that, is a people consumed with self awareness. Israelis understand all the dimensions of the challenges they face, and they do so more clearly and more responsibly than their critics will take the time or make the effort to understand.

To accuse such a people of war crimes; to condemn them of running an apartheid state; to imply that they recklessly kill young children; to suggest that they are indifferent to the sufferings of those who surround them; these are dastardly accusations. And they tar not only Israelis but every single Jew everywhere for they reflect on Jewish character. This is antisemitism. It is antisemitism cloaked in a simplistic, self-righteous morality that otherwise good people can easily buy into. And that is why it scares me so much.

Compelling as my virus analogy might be in these covidious times of ours, it has a flaw. Viruses infect individuals and drive out their health. Antisemitism infects societies and drives out their Jews. This is why I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about identity and Judaism as a nationality rather than a religion. And it is why I will speak tomorrow about Zionism and hard choices. Perhaps I am wrong and this scourge of hatred for Israel will subside, never forcing us to choose between our Jewish and American identities. Indeed I pray I am wrong because I don't want to make that choice any more than you do. But I would be ignoring our history as a nation if I didn't acknowledge that Jews have always been forced to make hard choices between identity and survival.

So if we are ever forced to make such a choice, we might take comfort in this odd but stubborn fact: that we who sit here tonight are the survivors of those who chose their Jewish identity. They chose the identity of being a גוֹי גָּדוֹל the great nation that God promised Abraham He would make of his progeny; a nation whose purpose is to be the source of blessing to the rest of the world. Whatever the virus of antisemitism brings upon us, may we find the courage to be that great nation.

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784