[Sermon] Thoughts on Anti-Semitism

Rabbi Monique Mayer – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

Shanah tovah.

We come together on this Yom Ha-Din, Day of Judgment.

We come for different reasons: responsibility, inspiration, guilt, tradition, joy, solace or solidarity.

We live in challenging times.

We’ve seen an explosion of uncivil discourse and a resurgence of nationalism in countries we have long-appreciated as forward-thinking, respectful and capable of healthy, political debate. This worries us deeply as citizens of the world in general and, particularly, as Jews.

We have watched in alarm as the political Left, where Jews — historically — have found a home out of commitment to social and economic justice, has become full of toxicity and hostility, conflating Judaism with Zionism, equating Jews with Israelis, and calling into question the loyalty and patriotism of Jews who have been in this country for generations. We expect anti-Semitism from fringe parties or groups such as the English Defence League or the National Front or BNP, but are horrified to be seeing it in the Left and, most notably, in mainstream anti-racist Labour. Indeed, how could the very Labour leadership we expect to support the rights of a minority to define the discrimination it experiences, be so unwilling to adopt the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism—a definition accepted in this country by the Crown Prosecution Service, the police, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, The National Union of Students, and 124 local authorities—and then, furthermore blame the Jewish community for its intransigence in the matter? As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Richard Jacobi wrote in the Independent two weeks ago, “Something has gone badly wrong in the mindset of those socialists who can castigate Jewish elects or nominated leaders and insist they should change their behaviour rather than consider the possibility that they themselves have a blind spot that they should re-consider”.
Additionally, recent comments from my union leader made clear to several colleagues and myself that Unite no longer represented our interests as a rabbis and as Jews, triggering our resignation from the organisation.

It’s been shocking, disturbing, and quite concerning to me.

Growing up in the bubble of America Jewish life away from the dark history experienced by European Jews, I always felt secure in my Jewish identity. I easily shared that I was Jewish and—although in my early childhood we were primarily cultural Jews — I have strong memories of lighting Chanukkah candles and enjoying Passover together. No one in my family was directly affected by the Shoah, and what happened “over there” was not in my consciousness.
I think it was when I asked my parents if I could join Catechism classes with my friends that they realised I needed to learn about being Jewish. We joined a synagogue and I went to cheder. I was like a sponge, absorbing as much as I could from class, and I was very proud of being Jewish. Within a short period of time I began to wear a chain with Hebrew word “chai”/life around my neck, and eventually added a small Jewish star. Although a few Christian classmates couldn’t understand my rejection of Jesus, I didn’t get a taste of anti-Semitism until an encounter with a boy in my class. His mother had been my ballet teacher and he and I became friends over that connection. I remember he was nice, maybe a bit sweet on me. But his behaviour changed the day he heard me chatting to another friend about my weekend at the synagogue. The moment I spoke the word Jewish, he spat on the ground in front of me, glared, and walked away. And that was that; he never spoke to me again. Whenever our eyes met he scowled until I averted mine, lacking the courage to approach him or challenge his behaviour. His about-face both saddened and puzzled me. I hadn’t changed; why had he become so hostile? Eventually it dawned on me that his treatment about me had changed not because of anything I’d done — but because of who I was; because I was Jewish. And for a naïve young Jewish girl, the effect was earth-shattering.

Seeking comfort and strength in my Jewish youth group, I also developed an obsession with programmes on the Shoah, becoming deeply affected. As tears streamed down my cheeks watching the miniseries “Holocaust”, my mother urged me to leave the room. I refused, telling her I needed to see it. For, although the story may have been a watered-down version of what many families suffered at the hands of the Nazis, my young mind knew it was important to witness and learn. On Israel youth-tour in the summer before my last year of high school, I was shaken by our group’s visit to Yad Vashem and sought consolation in the stories of uprising and resistance at the Jewish Ghetto-Fighters’ House Museum. And then there was the publicised Nazi party demonstration in my hometown at City Hall, which triggered a simultaneous counter-demonstration led by the Jewish community and in which I participated. I’d only seen Nazis in film and photographs, and the appearance of group of Americans dressed in brown uniforms and swastikas confused me. Wasn’t this 20th-century America? I thought we defeated the Nazis and what they stood for.

Unfortunately, events in my final year of teaching in Massachusetts forced me to see that we may have subdued the Nazis, but not the hatred in our own backyard. One of my students began sending anonymous emails filled with Jew-hatred, glorification of Nazis, and explicit death threats which he had every intention of fulfilling. It took one terrifying week for the police to finally identify the perpetrator, and the events drove me both from the State and from teaching for several years. Amazingly, the sick actions of one individual didn’t push me away from Judaism; my faith was strong and I became more dedicated and committed to both Judaism and my new community.

Fast forward to 2002 and I am applying to rabbinical school in the UK, oblivious to the nuances and challenges of Jewish life outside of the United States. Despite my ignorance, I knew it was important to get my head out of the American Jewish community and see Judaism from a European perspective or, at least, a British one. One of the questions posed to my application referees was how they thought I’d be able to handle the challenges of European antisemitism, which gave me my first inkling that what remained of my battered idealism could be in for some hard truths. And yet, in most of the 15 years of living in the UK, first as a student and then as an ordained rabbi, I have had no reservation about walking down the street wearing a Star of David around my neck.

Yes, there have been a few scowls.

And, yes, there have been many challenging conversations.

Most of them usually start when the other person learns I’m Jewish.

Have you had this experience? Someone finds out you’re Jewish, and they think it makes you an expert on Israeli politics or that you condone everything Netanyahu does or that you repress Palestinians or that you are Israeli. It still surprises me though it shouldn’t.

The other night, my foreign-born taxi driver (not sure where) — who knew I was American — asked me when my family moved. “Moved from where?” I replied. “You’re Jewish. When did your family move from Israel?”

Now, imagine how the scenario could have played out.

I could have avoided further engagement by saying I was tired and asking to listen to the radio. I could have reacted by taking offence, perhaps leading to a row and underscoring whatever ideas he already had about Jews and Israelis. I could have demanded to be let out of the taxi. But, fortunately, I feel blessed to have grounding in Torah and the wisdom of Mussar, both of which help me in how to handle this sort of interaction.

I deeply believe the teaching in Genesis (1:27) that all of us are created in God’s image — others, as well as ourselves. But the baggage we acquire hides the divine spark in each other and the anger or the ego gets in the way of our souls connecting. Studying Mussar, working on soul traits like humility and honour has taught me that when someone challenges me, even in the most distasteful way, I can stand up for myself without antagonising or humiliating the other person, tempting as it may be. I don’t need to shout them down or boost my ego by diminishing their humanity. The divine spark in every human being deserves respect, and the minute we put our own ego in the driver’s seat, we lose their respect and, ultimately, our own self-respect. Of course, if the other person’s ego runs rampant, seeing the other person in God’s image is more difficult. And I am not too proud to admit that my own ego can cause me to be defensive even when I know it’s counterproductive.

Please understand that I do not suggest that if someone is being abusive or threatening that I or you or anyone should stand there and be nice and let them do or say what they want. The essence of humility is taking up our appropriate space, not self-abasement or abuse. Keeping the teachings of humility and respect foremost in my mind helps me shift from a closed place of confrontation and anger to one of openness and curiosity. What is it, I wonder, that is causing this person say what they’re saying? What can I ask to clarify my understanding and then help to open them to new information or correction?

So, returning to the taxi driver:
I asked, “You think all Jews were born in Israel?” “Yes”, he said. “Well”, I replied, “we’re not. I’m not Israeli, I’m American. I was born in America; my parents were born in America. Jews in this country have been here for many generations, just as there are Jews all over the world born in other countries. Most Jews are not Israeli and not all Israelis are Jews”. “Oh”, he said. “They’re not the same” “No”, I said, “they are not”. “Oh, very interesting” he said, and he proceeded to launch into questions about Judaism and why we didn’t accept Jesus and, thankfully, we pulled in front of my house and I bid him good night.

Of course, my challenge with the taxi driver barely registers next to what the Jewish community has been seeing and experiencing on the national stage with the Labour party. So this is where we must draw upon another teaching in Torah.

In addition to remembering that we all carry a divine spark while calling upon traits of humility and honour, we receive instruction in the Torah about our responsibility if someone is committing harm or about to do so.
This Jewish responsibility is to rebuke, and it comes from Leviticus 19:17: “Hocheyach tochiyach et amitekha, v’lo tisa alar cheit” — You shall surely reprove your kinsman, so that you don’t incur guilt on their account. The words hocheyach tochiyach come from the root, yud-khaf-chet, yakhach, meaning to “decide, adjudge, or prove” (BDB 406b). And although this verse refers to our kinsman, like so many other teachings in the Torah it is expanded to include anyone around us. So, lest we think we can avoid doing wrong or causing harm ourselves by doing nothing, nothing could be further from the truth: we have an obligation to speak out against destructive words and actions. If we learned nothing else from the past, it is that — paraphrasing Edmund Burke — “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” We have a moral imperative to challenge our leaders when they are operating from misinformation, misunderstanding, bias, and extreme prejudice. Complaining amongst ourselves does not correct the situation and only serves to amplify the damage and our anxiety. And when we speak out, we must model civil discourse in the process. When we are aggressive we put the other person or party on the defensive — not necessarily a good thing because, generally, defensive people either attack or dig in their heels and stop listening. What we need to do is use each opportunity change the conversation and to do it in way that shows we are listening while ensuring we are heard. Sadly, as we have observed in the dispute over the Labour party and the definition of antisemitism, sometimes we still need to amp up the volume to be heard.

Rav Kook said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent”

On this Day of Judgment, this beginning of a new year, let us not remain silent. Informed by our tradition and our commitment to fairness and justice, let our voices be heard. Let us stand up for ourselves and be at the vanguard, setting the tone for civil discourse even as we call out those attitudes and practices that threaten to undermine us. And let us do so from a place of honour, humility, and integrity.

As Hillel taught, “And if not now, when?”
– Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

Kein y’hi ratson. May it be God’s will.

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