October 26th, 2022
Just before the Unite the Right March in Charlottesville in 2017, the Jewish community was wrestling with how to respond to the white nationalists they knew were heading to town, intent on inciting violence. Dahlia Lithwick was there, and her son, 12 years old at the time, summed up their predicament: if we engage with the Nazis, we’ll lose, and if we ignore them, we’ll also lose.
I know that many of us feel the same way these days, as we try to navigate recent broadsides against our Jewish community. Two weeks ago, the former President threatened American Jews if we don’t get on board with his right-wing Israel agenda (newsflash: we’re not getting on board).
Then one of the most prominent cultural icons in America threatened to go DEATHCON 3 on the Jewish people (whatever that means), whom he has accused of controlling industry and finance. This, from the same person who wore a White Lives Matter t-shirt, declared that slavery was a choice and spread pernicious lies about the murder of George Floyd. As Charles Blow has pointed out: you’re hardly a free-thinker if all you’re doing is regurgitating white supremacist talking points.
This one-two punch seems to have opened an antisemitic Pandora’s box, and Los Angeles is, for now, the epicenter, leaving many of us truly concerned. Neo-Nazis hung a banner on the 405 and saluted Heil Hitler, distributed flyers with names of prominent Jews and accused Jews of being puppet masters and running Hollywood. They’re blaming COVID on a Jewish agenda and warning people that the Jews are trying to turn our children queer.
At the same time, overzealous measures to punish “Zionists” led by student groups at schools like UVM, Berkeley and Wellesley target those who fail to preemptively denounce the state of Israel. No, not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism—a dangerous and foolish accusation our community too often levels against any critic of Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian territories. But when student organizations, with often scant understanding of the conflict, map and target Jewish-owned businesses, when they require Jewish students and scholars to pass a litmus test on Israel before they can fully participate in campus life, it surely doesn’t pass the sniff test, not by a long shot.
These threats, of course, are not all created equal. There is nothing more dangerous than antisemitism condoned and ultimately promulgated by the most powerful people in our nation. And even still, it’s patently clear that any manifestation of antisemitism, regardless of its ideological underpinnings, is a toxin that threatens to poison the whole system. And all of them, taken together, contribute to an even deeper sense of vulnerability in our community.
Are we overreacting? No, friends, we’re not. James Carroll once described antisemitism as “the bug in the software of the West,” an insidious, ever-present glitch in the system that excludes Jews from moral concern and too often paves the way for terrible violence. The conspiracy theory of Jewish power is a dangerous lie, one that has fueled pogroms, expulsions and ultimately genocide.
Antisemitism is a bellwether for the health of a society. When antisemitism thrives, racism thrives. When antisemitic language proliferates, no one is safe. When violence against Jews is normalized, there is an increase in violence generally, and especially against other minority communities. The antisemitic lie endangers not only Jews, it endangers our very democracy.
Many Jews feel alone right now. But we must know that we are not alone. Elected officials and advocates, multifaith and multiracial partners and friends are standing with our community, and I’m grateful for every one of them.
What are we to do now? The only way the discourse changes is if we change it. We must remember that antisemitism, as Eric Ward teaches, is integral to the architecture of American racism. There is no way to eradicate anti-Black racism while giving a quiet pass to antisemitism, and vice versa. Essential to white supremacy is a wedge between Black and Jewish communities. So while I’m relieved that Kanye is finally facing repercussions for his foul antisemitic remarks, I wish people were as aggrieved by his anti-Black racism. And I wish that his antisemitic white comrades would be similarly de-platformed. I wish that we could all remember that marginalized populations turning against each other serves only to bolster those already in power. And it is only in partnership and friendship that we can overcome the scourge of antisemitism and racism.
This week, on the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, I hope we’ll hold our Jewish hearts with tenderness and our Jewish identities with pride. I hope that with every gesture of cruelty, every lie and manipulation, we’ll step deeper into coalition with other targeted communities, remembering that our safety comes only through solidarity. And I hope we’ll remember, today and every day, that the beloved community will only be built together.
I hold you all with great love and care,
Rabbi Sharon Brous