Girl Scout Open House

Anti-Semitism Parshas Terumah

A colleague of mine was once asked what the difference is between an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew?

It’s simple, he said, an anti-Semite will say, “I hate Jews, they’re terrible people. They cheat, they lie, they leech on society and they run all the news outlets.”

But then you ask this anti-Semite, “But what about Barry, your Jewish accountant?”

“Oh, Barry? Oh yeah, yeah. He’s a sweetheart. He’s the most honest guy I know. I would trust him with anything.”

“And Izzy, your lawyer? Isn’t he Jewish”

“Izzy is an all-star. What he has done for me in the past is unbelievable. I love Izzy.”

Then you ask a Jew what he thinks about the Jewish People. “The Jewish People?” he’d say. “They are so holy and pure. They are generous and kind, and so devout.”

Sam, your brother-in-law? “Sam? He’s a shmendrik, good for nothing. He thinks he’s so great, sits around and does nothing all day.”

And your neighbor Berel. “Berel, son of a gun. I wouldn’t trust him with anything. A liar and a scoundrel. A thief!”

An anti-Semite may like Jewish individuals but hates the Jewish People, whereas a self-hating Jew loves the Jewish People but can’t stand Jews.

There’s a lot of truth to that analysis, and I’d like to talk about it this morning.

This past month we have seen an unprecedented amount of anti-Semitism in the United States. More than 100 bomb threats to JCC’s in North America. In Birmingham, Alabama, the JCC has been evacuated three times; its director called the threats “very difficult, very challenging, very fearful.”

On Wednesday, a shul in Indiana had a bullet shot at one of its classroom windows. And of course, the terrible incidents of desecration at cemeteries in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and most recently in Rochester, New York.

Anti-Semitism is not new, we know that. In 1987, President Chaim Herzog of Israel commissioned a colloquium on anti-Semitism. Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University spoke there about the reasons for anti-Semitism:

“The uniqueness of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that no other people in the world have ever been charged simultaneously with alienation from society and with cosmopolitanism, with being capitalistic exploiters and also revolutionary communist advocators. The Jews were accused of having an imperious mentality, at the same time they’re a people of the book. They’re accused of being militant aggressors, at the same time as being cowardly pacifists. With being a chosen people, and also having an inferior human nature. With both arrogance and timidity. With both extreme individualism and community adherence. With being guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus and at the same time held to account for the invention of Christianity.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it a little differently: “Anti-Semitism is a virus that survives by mutating. In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, Israel.”

Today, when we in America contemplate anti-Semitism, we seem to struggle with all three simultaneously. Be it from the religious persecution of radical Islam, or the global scourge of anti-Zionism that has especially sprung up on the radical left or the ever increasing hate crimes that we are experiencing now from neo-Nazi skinheads on the radical right. It is hard to defend against three different issues at the same time. It’s even harder to make sense of it.

Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik commenting on the passage that we will read next week, Parshas Amalek, the section that describes, how the nation of Amalek attacked the Jewish People when they left Egypt, points out that Amalek was nowhere near the Jewish People at the time. In fact, the Jews were not a threat to the people of Amalek whatsoever. Why tehn did they attack the Jews? Their attack, he suggests, was entirely irrational and it serves as a paradigm for all future anti-Semitism. We don’t understand it.

But not understanding it does not mean we should be silent in its face.

I believe there are three things we should be doing in this never-ending fight against anti-Semitism.

The first is to acknowledge it. I don’t just mean know that it exists; we have to talk about. And I’ll be the first to tell you, I don’t feel comfortable talking about anti-Semitism. When I read Pew reports that indicate that most Jews see the Holocaust as the most salient aspect of their Jewish identity, I’m saddened. When I hear from young Jewish children that they reason they keep Shabbos is because their grandparents weren’t able to do so during the Holocaust, I am scared. Because a peoplehood that is built upon sorrow is not a peoplehood with a future.

But inasmuch as I am uncomfortable discussing anti-Semitism incessantly, it cannot be ignored either, as uncomfortable and uninspiring as it may be.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a great Torah scholar who survived the Holocaust was once asked by a fellow survivor if she could surgically remove her numbers from the concentration camp. Every time she looks at them, her heart breaks into millions of little pieces. She felt it to be too overwhelming and wanted to just move on.

Rabbi Oshry gently encouraged her to keep it. “There is no greater badge of honor than the number on your arm,” he said.  “Keep it and you’ll forever perpetuate to you children the evils of the Nazis and the power of your faith.”

The first thing we must do is talk about anti-Semitism – not too much; it is not the essence of our faith. But enough that we never forget the hard fact of our existence – no matter what we do, no matter what where we live, no matter how we dress, there will be anti-Semitism.

The second thing we must do is be vigilant and this takes all sorts of forms. Be it from making sure our security needs are up to par, educating ourselves and society about the issues, and developing relationships with politicians and police to help us address the issue in a broad systemic way.

Thank G-d we live in a country where this is so easy. We live in a country where the second to most powerful person in the country, Vice President Mike Pence, joined the Jewish volunteers who were fixing the cemetery in St. Louis. We live in a country where the police chief of Whitefish, Montana, the city that planned an armed neo-Nazi march, proudly placed a Mezuzah on the front door of the police station. Thank G-d, we live in a country where finding allies to fight anti-Semitism has never been so easy. It is incumbent upon us to take advantage of that and be as vigilant as we can be.

And lastly, we have to internalize anti-Semitism. The Baal Shem Tov used to say, that the world is a mirror. What we see in others is a reflection of what lives inside. Now, you might wonder, it’s a nice idea, but what kind of anti-Semitism lives inside us?! What could this possibly mean when it comes to something as terrible as the hatred of Jews?

But the truth is, we too suffer from anti-Semitism like I said when we began. We love the Jewish People more than anything in the world, but our love for individual Jews, be it individual people, be it subgroups of the Jewish People, sometimes falls a little short. In a climate where we experience extra hatred, we need to combat that with extra love. Yes, sometimes we have every right to be upset, angry, or mad at someone, or even a group of people. But right now, more than anything else, we need more forgetting and forgiving far more than anything else.

I’d like to share with you a story of a person who demonstrated what it means to truly care and truly love another person, who understood how to forgive and to forget, even when he was wronged.

Two young men from the Gateshead Yeshiva, a very prestigious Yeshiva, in England decided one day to go “chill out” and smoke a cigarette. It was of course not allowed on the school campus, but there was one place they knew they could go where they would not be disturbed; the Yeshiva library. The library was rarely used by anyone and so these young men locked the door of the library and took a smoke. After a half hour they heard a knock on the door. The voice said, “It’s Leib Gurwitz.” Rabbi Leib Gurwitz was the Rosh Yeshuva, the dean of the school.

Their friend Shmuel knew of where they went and no one ever came to the library so they just assumed it was him just pulling their leg. “Sorry Leib, we’re not opening the door for you.”

The voice on the other side pleaded, “Please open it I need a book for a class I am about to give.”

“Very funny, Shmuel. We are not opening up.” They replied.

This went back and forth until they realized that it really was the Rosh Yeshiva, the dean of the school, on the other side. Panicking, they looked for a window to escape from but there were none. What could they possibly do? Embarrassed and afraid of the repercussions waiting for them, they slowly opened the door. What they saw blew them away. The Rosh Yeshiva, not wanting to embarrass these young men, had his hands over his eyes.

We may not be able to understand anti-Semitism, and although we must be vigilant, we may not be able to stop it. One thing we can do is learn from the Baal Shem Tov, see the world as a mirror and internalize its’ message.

In a world of growing indifference, we need an extra dose of sensitivity. In a world of deepening divisions, we need more forgiveness and forgetting. And in a world of unbridled hate, we need boundless love.


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