In Megillat Esther which we will be reading soon on Purim, there is a scene in which Mordecai responds to the news of Haman’s nefarious plans for the Jewish people. He puts on sackcloth and ashes and he stands at the palace gate. Esther’s alarmed assistants tell her about Mordecai’s behavior.
And, what is Esther’s response? Does she march into the king’s office and demand that he rescind Haman’s decree? Does she go out into the street and march in solidarity with Mordecai?
Incredibly, Esther’s response is to send Mordecai a new set of clothes, and demand that he stop this public display. In other words, Esther’s initial response to the threat of anti-semitism is denial. In fact, Esther is so oblivious that only when Mordecai refuses to changes his clothes does Esther actually ask him what’s going on. At this point, he tells her about Haman’s decree. Everyone in the Jewish community seems to know about Haman’s edict, except for Esther. It simply isn’t happening in her world. I want to come back to this scene.
I have been very fortunate in my life. I was born and raised in America in the least anti-semitic country in the world, in the least anti-semitic time in American history. Although my grandparents had told me of their encounters with anti-semitism, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I personally have been victimized by an anti-semite.
So, when I see the president of the United States get up at his annual speech before Congress, and the very first thing he does is condemn anti-semitism, I have to say, this is a new experience for me. I do not ever recall something like that happening in my lifetime.
Not that anti-semitism is new to me. But, the level of what we have experienced in the last several weeks has left so many of us shaking our heads—the repeated threats against JCC’s, the desecration of major Jewish cemeteries, now a bullet hole in a synagogue in Indiana. We haven’t seen anything like this in America for many decades. What is going on? Why is this happening? And, how should we respond?
There are three levels on which I believe we need to respond. The first and most important is that we need to do everything in our power to keep our children and our community safe. So, whatever we have to do—whether it’s calling our senators and congressman, working with the local police, getting the fbi involved in catching the perpetrator, making sure our security measures are appropriate to our current needs—these all must be our highest priority right now. And, it is not only a question of preventing an attack. Even the repeated threat of an attack does damage to our Jewish institutions and to us as a community.
So priority number one is safety. And, we all know this. There is also an emotional need. To say that it’s unsettling to see Jewish pre-school children being led across the street to our synagogue because of a threat at the SJCC is an understatement. There is anxiety in our community now. And, that’s why we felt it was so important for us to be together tonight— to sing together, just to be in the same room together. When the SJCC children and staff came over on Monday, Cantor Kurland led them in Hebrew and Yiddish songs. It was a great comfort. We need that at a time like this.
And, the third way that we as a Jewish people have always responded to crisis is to engage in soul searching: to ask why, to seek to understand what it all means, and to seek a new way of acting. If we look through Jewish history, whenever we have faced a serious challenge, our response has always been to change the way we think and to change what we do. So, if our response to our current challenge doesn’t lead us to some kind of significant transformation, then we are probably not thinking deeply enough.
And, my model for this kind of transformation is Theodor Herzl. Herzl was an enlightened Jew. He lived in a society very much like ours. What was Herzl’s response to the anti-semitic threat of his day? It wasn’t to beef up security. It wasn’t to gather Jews in prayer. Herzl’s response was to create the State of Israel. Herzl’s response was to say to the Jewish people we need to rethink. We need to reinvent ourselves. And, ultimately his response to the ugliness of anti-semitism was to create the most beautiful thing that the Jewish people has ever created.
Now, every generation is unique. And, we already have a State of Israel. But, we can learn a lot from Herzl’s response. The most important thing that Herzl did was that he changed himself. He had previously thought that anti-semitism was on its way out and that the best thing Jews could do was to assimilate into European society. But, in response to French anti-semitism, Herzl completely revised his understanding of the world.
That’s a very hard thing to do. Most of the Jews of Herzl’s time did not do that. They continued to live in the world they were comfortable in. Enlightened Jews continued to insist that all we needed to do was to double down on our efforts to fight intolerance. Anti-enlightened Jews continued to live comfortably in their belief that the goyim hate us and they will always hate us, and we just have to keep the walls between us and them as high as we can. Only Herzl and a small number of followers were willing to be emotionally inconvenienced by anti-semitism. Only Herzl was willing to re-examine his core values.
And, when I look around the Jewish community today, my impression is that our first response to the challenge facing us is not Herzl’s response, but more like Esther’s first response—and that is to see anti-semitism as a confirmation of what we already believe, instead of as a challenge to rethink our assumptions. And, now I’m going to say some things that will probably offend everyone at least a little bit, but I ask that you bear with me.
Let me start with President Trump. I do not believe that the president is an anti-semite. And, I appreciate his speaking out forthrightly against anti-semitism in his speech the other night. And, honestly, we just don’t know yet enough about the motivation of the perpetrators. Only one has been caught. Still, it is hard not to connect the rhetoric of his presidential campaign and his initial acts since becoming president with this unprecedented outbreak of anti-semitism.
The use of the slogan America First is deeply troubling. This was the slogan of Nazi sympathizers before America entered the war. I find it astonishing that the president is still using that slogan. Add to this the repeated attack on outsiders as responsible for all of America’s problems. It’s those outsiders—be it Muslims, or Mexicans, or foreign companies—who are stealing our jobs, raping our women, and killing us. That kind of demonization of the outsider has never been good for the Jews. We have not been insiders for so long in America.
And, so why should it surprise us that during the campaign Steve Bannon, deployed an ad echoing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, featuring four supposed enemies of the American public: Hillary Clinton and three Jews: George Soros, Janet Yellin and Lloyd Blanfein? And over images of them Trump thundered, “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election for those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests.” Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt said recently: “This is not playing with fire. It is lighting one.”
And, yet the response of many of the Jews who I’ve spoken to who support Trump has been denial in the face of the recent anti-semitic attacks. I have heard from more than one person claim that these attacks are the fault of the Democrats or that they are being perpetrated by supporters of the Democrats. In my experience, Jews on the right have too often condemned anti-semitism when it’s coming from the left, but have been quiet when it’s come from the right. Or often what I hear is: “The anti-semitism from the right is miniscule compared to the anti-semitism of the left”—not worth taking seriously.
But, I have to say, in all fairness, that denial is an equal opportunity employer. And, here I want to quote Deborah Lipstadt again who is very critical of Trump, but who also says that Jews in the liberal camp only seem to get upset about anti-semitism when it comes from the right.
There has been a significant increase in anti-semitism of the left in recent times. These include: the election of Jeremy Corbyn to head the Labor Party in the UK; the harassment and intimidation of Jewish students on university campuses in America for supporting Israel; and, the anti-Israel resolution that taints the Black Lives Matter movement. And, it should be of some concern to us that a congressman who was once an active member of the Nation of Islam came inches away from the leadership of the Democratic Party. And, it’s true he has been repentant. But, I have to wonder whether the Democratic Party would feel comfortable with a leader who once belonged to the KKK however sincere his apologies.
And, we have not seen the kind of uproar about left wing anti-semitism from the Jewish community that we have seen in recent weeks in response to right wing anti-semitism. And, it pains me to say this, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that our American Jewish community across the political spectrum only seems to get excorsized about anti-semitism when it confirms our already existing view of the world. And, I don’t buy the claims of either side that one is more dangerous than the other. They are equally dangerous and deserve an equally vigorous response.
So, my challenge to all of us, and I include myself, is: are we serious? Are we prepared to be consistent in our condemnation of anti-semitism, all of us? Even more importantly, are we prepared to do some serious soul searching? Are we prepared to do what Herzl did—to re-examine our assumptions? To question our own view of the world?
What might that look like? Again Herzl can be our model. Here is what Herzl did not do. He did not conclude from anti-semitism that Jews should disengage from the world. Instead, he invented a new way for Jews to engage the world by creating the State of Israel.
Herzl’s recognition of anti-semitism did not turn him into a xenophobe. But, it did make him think differently about universalism. Herzl wanted Israel to be an enlightened country that would reach out to underdeveloped nations. But, he also wanted Israel to be rich in specific Jewish content. He didn’t see these values as contradictory.
And, neither should we. In the end, Esther rose to the occasion. She realized the best response to anti-semitism is Jewish unity. So, now is not a time when we should be arguing with each other ‘your anti-semites are worse than our anti-semites’. We should be standing together against all anti-semitism, wherever it comes from, and all bigotry wherever it comes from. And, if that’s going to happen, we have some work to do. We have some soul searching to do.
We have a choice. We can use the existing crisis to ratify what we already believe. Or, we can take the path of Herzl and the path of Esther and Mordecai. The words of Mordecai that eventually swayed Esther were these:
Al t’dami b’nafshech l’himalet beit ha’melech…..don’t think you can find safety by escaping into your own world. Get out of the palace. Get out of your comfort zone and lead. U’mi yodea im l’et kazot higat la’malchut….who knows if it wasn’t for this very purpose that you reached the palace?
We Jews of America are in a privileged position. We have arrived at beit ha’melech. We have a unique position in Jewish history. We are close enough to anti-semitism to be aware of how poisonous it can be to an entire society. And, yet we are far enough away from it not to have been emotionally crippled by it.
So our response must not be to disengage from the world. We have to be more engaged than ever. But, like Herzl, we need to be engaged in a new way. We need to be awake to the obstacles to human progress wherever they occur. We have to fight hatred wherever it occurs, even when makes us uncomfortable.
We have to increase our activism. But, it needs to be a thoughtful activism. It needs to be an activism that takes into account the full complexities of the world we live in. If we do that and we follow the path of our ancestors, then we, too, will respond to that which is most ugly in the world by creating something new and beautiful.