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Parashat Tzav

03/15/2018 09:42:35 AM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Tzav

March 23rd 2018

I want to talk to you about antisemitism. Well, I don’t want to talk talk to you about antisemitism, but with the Forward's recent critique that the American Jewish community isn’t responding to the increase in anti-Jewish action and rhetoric (to which many leaders of the American Jewish community responded “really”?), I figured we really should have a chat.

Because it is a serious concern. The anti-defamation league reports a pretty massive increase in antisemitism in our goldene medina, along the lines of what we’re used to seeing in Europe or South America. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had members of the leadership of the Women’s March have to rush to the aid of one if their own due to her recent support of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. You had an actual Illinois Nazi win the Republican nomination for Congress in his district, and I hate Illinois Nazis, and a Washington DC city council member claim that Jews, more specifically the Rothchilds, control the weather. All of this Coming amid a backdrop of increasing anti Jewish animosity on college campuses and online, as well as in the public square, not so long after the disaster of what happened this summer in Charlotte.

And in truth, we…wring our hands. We shry gavult on Facebook. We make funny memes in response (if Jews controlled the weather why the humidity?). We let the ADL and other Jewish Organizations put pressure, but why aren’t we doing more? What else should we be doing?

It’s possible that, despite the increase, we aren’t personally effected by it. Or, we’re used to a certain low-level simmer with non-jews. Who hasn’t had someone say something vaguely antisemetic, more out of ignorance than malice? Some comment about how great Jews are with money, for example. I remember a teacher in high school describing a particularly anxious character in a book as a Jewish, Woody Allen type. Perhaps we’re just desensitized? Or, perhaps as bad as it’s getting, it’s just not what people of color experience. Antisemetic incidents, as bad as they are, are in the category of schoolyard taunts, the kind of ethnic jokes that have mostly gone out of style. That’s different than the constant fear of violence and bigotry marginalized people often experience in our country.

Perhaps. But I don’t think that’s it. It’s clear that something else is happening now, in the last year, something far beyond punk kids spraying swastikas. And while each of us have experienced low grade foot in mouth disease among acquaintances and colleagues, what we’re seeing now is much more powerful.

That’s because anti-Semitism is different from other forms of bigotry. In our case, it’s a conspiracy theory, as Yair Rosenberg (among many others) have pointed out. The idea that Jews control the weather, the economy, horde “infamous gold” as Jorge Louis Borges wrote, that we are all ‘globalists’, whatever the heck that means, is in many ways a far more powerful set of ideas than thinking we are beneath contempt. Instead, we are something to be feared and looked upon with suspicion. And, as Rosenberg wrote this week, it’s not that the conspiracy theories exist; ever since there were Jews there were conspiracy theories about us—just ask Pharaoh, who opens Exodus with one. The issue is that, instead of consigning these tin-foil hat ideas to the dustbin of history, people—elected officials, college educated individuals, people who have the means to know better—continue to peddle in them, seemingly without consequence or any real effort to correct or stop them. That is what should scare us. It’s not that Louis Farrakhan exists; it’s that he manages to show up despite his irrelevance and swallow whole people’s political careers. It’s not that the term ‘globalist’ is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, it’s that folks from Wall Street to Main Street—and the White House—use the term as if they’re describing the weather. It’s not that crackpots deny the Holocaust—it’s that people running for congress on major party tickets and the leader of the Palestinian Authority deny the Holocaust. That is what is scary?

In this regard, the critique that we’re not doing enough to combat antisemitism is on point, and I’m as surprised as anyone else. In the Torah portion I just read, it talks about how the fire on the altar, meant to be kept burning always, must be fed “boker boker”, every morning, literally morning after morning. The fire won’t stay lit, after all, unless it has fuel fed it by the Kohein. So it is with combating hate. We can’t laugh off the off-color joke or the half-thought out comment anymore. We can’t ignore the comment or the episode, and then fight it out in our heads later. We have an obligation to respond each and every single time. Just because we’re doing pretty well as a minority doesn’t mean we must silence our voices when vitriol emerges, for if they come for us, be sure that they’re coming for any other marginalized or minority voice: women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the immigrant, etc. We must be vigilant in a way that we haven’t had to be in a generation or more. Which doesn’t mean we come down like a hammer on every person. We cannot combat hate with hate, with anger and yelling and screaming. We cannot stoop to their level. We have to be strategic and thoughtful. Sometimes we need to take the opportunity to make a gentle correction, to clarify the person who means well but doesn’t have experience. And sometimes, we need to respond more sternly, righteously, even if our voice shakes; but not with anger. With the rectitude and knowledge that sometimes, a person won’t get the message unless he’s told directly and forcefully that his words and actions are wrong. Even if that doesn’t change who they are—the Illinois Nazi isn’t going to change his stripes—but it will give courage to those around us, and rally allies to the cause. And we must call out the bigots in our own midst. We cannot keep the flame of God lit if we have Jewish leaders, like the Chief Rabbi of Israel, who recently compared people of color to monkeys, wallowing publicly in their own bigotry. We cannot be a light to the nations if there are those of our people who would dim that light. So when we hear fellow Jews saying something, even jokingly, about minorities, or women, or the marginalized, we must speak as loudly and as strongly. Again, without hate, but with the knowledge that we are right and they are wrong.

Pesach is next Shabbat. We will gather around our tables and share our story of Freedom. We will say we were slaves but now we’re free. Free people call out hatred. Free people silence bigotry. Free people teach and correct misguided individuals. Free people keep God’s light lit for all to see. When we conclude the seder we will say “next year in Jerusalem”. I hope this time we’re right, but it’s going to take all of our efforts. May we work toward it. Amen.

Wed, December 6 2023 23 Kislev 5784