Updated: Jan 22
~ by Joyce Herman
As a young Jewish child in the 1940’s learning about the horrors happening in Germany, I would lie awake at night and ask myself over and over, “How can they (those who are in charge of the world) be letting these horrendous things happen??”
Now, when autocratic, anti-democratic forces are burgeoning all over the world, including the U.S., that little child’s question is unfortunately still in play. My hope is that a brief exploration of antisemitism and why it should matter to everyone will shed some light on the bigger question of what role individuals can take in not letting bad things happen.
Antisemitism is complicated. I’ve used the acronym H.A.T.E. (It’s HERE, it’s ANCIENT, it’s a TOOL FOR TYRANTS, it affects EVERYONE) to help explain what it is and how it works.
H. It’s HERE and it’s real.
Simply stated, antisemitism is prejudice or hatred of Jews. A detailed history can be found in Holocaust Encyclopedia. Antisemitism occurs in cycles, surfacing when the society is stressed. Until recently antisemitism was in a less visible phase. However, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported over 2700 incidents of antisemitism in 2021, the largest increase since they began reporting them 70 years ago. Antisemitism on the Right, led by a strong and organized White Nationalist Supremacy movement has instigated and inspired murderous attacks on synagogues, grocery stores, schools, and malls.
The last few years have seen:
Major attacks on synagogues include Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway
People identified as Jews beaten in broad daylight in Times Square in NYC.
Even in Brighton, New York, Jews identifiable because of their unique clothing regularly attacked, as noted in local news.
Social media rife with innuendoes, gross images and vile words about Jews. For a more comprehensive, but not up to date list, see: Oren Segal, “Targeted Violence and the Rise of Anti-Semitism,” Police Chief Online, June 24, 2020.
A. IT’S ANCIENT:
It didn’t start in Nazi Germany. Antisemitism has been called “the oldest hate” and Jewish history has been characterized as a "6000 year global search for safety."
Antisemitism began well before Christianity when the Israelites refused to bow down to Greek and Roman emperors. Over the millenia, Jews’ commitment to their interpretation of God and God’s commandments kept them separate and made them subject to torture, forced conversions (“you can’t live among us as Jews”) expulsions, (“you can’t live among us”) and periodic pogroms and genocide (“you can’t live”).
For centuries, state and church laws disallowed Jews from owning land, holding public office, or pursuing most occupations. Jews were living as a minority without a homeland and had to rely on the good will of rulers in the country where they were allowed to settle. In exchange for a promise of protection for the Jewish community, a few Jews would serve as money lenders (usury was deemed a sin for Christians), tax collectors, or other public officials. The majority of Jews there remained as impoverished as the general population.
T. IT’S A TOOL FOR TYRANTS
When those being taxed would resist the oppressive conditions of their lives, ruling royalty directed the people’s hatred and resentment to the Jewish community. Jews were used by those with the real power as “middle agents” to absorb the hatred and resentment and keep the real oppressors from coming to account. Blame and scapegoating became a regular device to divert oppressed people’s animosity and gather people to the rulers’ agenda. Dog whistles and veiled or open use of antisemitic tropes often preceded outright attacks and ultimately pogroms. In the digital age, antisemitism takes different forms but with the same destructive effect.
In a related pattern autocratic rulers developed a “divide and conquer” strategy—keeping the oppressed groups in conflict with each other. We see that operating again today in the U.S.
E. IT’S EVERYONE’S CONCERN
The recent dramatic and visible rise of antisemitism — a poison that runs in cycles and has resurfaced at many points in history — is but one example of how our world gets divided. Moreover, antisemitism plays a pivotal role in disrupting the entire society and in particular any progressive trends that have the potential to bring about longed for justice and wholeness.
Eric Ward, Executive Vice-President of Race Forward, and Senior Advisor to the Western States Center and former senior consultant to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has made a powerful case that antisemitism fuels White nationalism. Amazingly, he briefly infiltrated the Oath Keepers (of January 6 infamy), and learned that antisemitism formed the core credo of these White Christian Nationalists. They teach that Jews form “a monstrous, all-powerful cabal,” a concept that comes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that a group of Russian police fabricated in the 19th century. They further spuriously claim that Jews use what the Oath Keepers call “subhuman others,” including Blacks and immigrants, as pawns in the Jews’ plan to destroy White nationhood. This is known as The Great Replacement Theory. See also, The “Great Replacement Theory”, Explained by the National Immigration Forum. Be sure to check the end of the document for a list of effective forms of allyship.
Ward believes fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege and that racism will not be eliminated until antisemitism is addressed. For more information see Ward’s Congressional testimony 12/13/22.
It’s often said that “Jews are the canaries in the coal mine.” It may start relatively innocuously, and people feel “it’s not a big deal, and it doesn’t affect me.”
Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran Pastor, who was a Nazi sympathizer and an anti-semite, dramatically changed when he was targeted and imprisoned by the Nazis. When he was liberated from prison after the war, he famously said:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Although many American Jews want a homeland for Jews — and a homeland for Palestinians — the majority oppose the Israeli government’s repressive policies, a fact which is not widely known. A survey “found that Jewish Americans – much like the U.S. public overall – hold widely differing views on Israel and its political leadership. It’s worth noting that Christian Zionists have been a major factor in supporting U.S. policies vis a vis Palestinians. They have also backed the settlement movement. Progressive Movements Cannot Afford to Ignore the Role of Christian Zionism in the Dispossession of Palestinians
Progressive causes have suffered when groups have singled out Israel, and by extension Jews, for attack or exclusion. This is part of the old pattern of scapegoating. The World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 got sidetracked from considering reparations for slavery in the U.S. because of polarization around the slogan “Zionism is racism” which caused the U.S. and Israel to pull out of the conference. Likewise the Women’s March in 2017 began with great energy and high hopes for inclusivity and supporting women of color in leadership, but Jewish women’s groups who had been very active in Civil Rights and feminist causes for decades were excluded because they supported the existence of the State of Israel.
Moreover, just as it is not un-American to criticize U.S. policies and behaviors, it is not antisemitism to call out egregious policies by the State of Israel. In other words, one can support the right of the State of Israel to exist while condemning governmental policies. However, when supporters of Palestine fail to distinguish between the policies of Israel, the State of Israel, and Jews, criticism of Israel can turn to hatred for Israel, and from there to attacks on Jews and Jewish groups. It is counterproductive to attack or exclude Jews in order to lift up Palestinians.
FROM ALLYSHIP TO SOLIDARITY
The Pachamama Alliance is committed to bringing about a very different world than the separation our current economic/political/social systems have brought us. In community, we can grieve the disconnections, the insidious splits of humans from one another, from other living beings, from the earth, and even from oneself. Together we can find the way back to wholeness.
Becoming allies to any targeted group is an empowering way to make rewarding connections. Jews’ history of not being supported when conditions become threatening means they don’t always trust that people care. (My Jewish friends’ faces light up when I tell them about the many ways allies from the Pachamama Alliance and elsewhere have supported me.)
The 2022 Chanukah celebration in the White House was a powerful and thoughtful response to the upsurge in antisemitism. While mixing church and state can be problematic, President Biden’s speech and the whole tenor of the event provided much needed healing.
Another compelling statement came from Imam Abdullah Antepli, formerly from Turkey, who gave the Shabbat sermon at Central Synagogue in Manhattan on December 16. Having been taught that Jews and Judaism were irredeemably evil, he grew up a rabid antisemite, burning Israeli flags. Now, despite death threats, he spends his life not only in prayer, but in calling on people of all faiths to take action.
Imam Abdullah Antepli believes the reason hate and antisemitism are on the rise is lack of action, quoting, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Amplifying what kind of action he believed was necessary, he cautioned against being “anti” something, rather than “pro,” and asked, “What ethical light do we want to show? A rightful response to the darkness will take grace, educational opportunities, and sometimes giving people a second, third, and fourth chance.”
Imam Antepli’s other plea, one that resonates deeply with the Pachamama vision, is if we respond from our silos, each group addressing only their own pain, the problems will not be solved.
Paying attention to acts of antisemitism and speaking out about them are antidotes to the isolation that is part of antisemitism and all oppressions. When people find the courage to stand up and speak out in ways that others can hear, an important piece of healing happens in our world.
Beyond that, learning about the meaning and rich practices of Judaism, including Shabbat and the holidays, especially the High Holidays in the fall, can lead to deep connections between Jews and non-Jews.
A team of Jews of Color who lead the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc, recently offered this wisdom: We must take steps beyond allyship to build a movement based on solidarity.
I think that is the answer I’ve been waiting for.