Theme: Sermon on Antisemitism
Yom Kippur 2021-5782
It’s clear to me that when something happens in Israel it affects every Jew around the world, both positively and negatively. Last May was a clear example, when Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza engaged in back-and-forth attacks for a few weeks, the war of words expanded faster than bullets. While I was reading about it in the newspapers and online, my children, who normally aren’t as up to date on current events, asked me what was going on in Israel because they were seeing harsh attacks on Israel on their Tik Tok feeds.
As the battles raged into a second and third week, this blip that could barely be considered a conflict, escalated in the realm of social media, to a hatred far beyond normal. Calls and emails flooded my phone and in-box– teachers were preaching to our children about the evil Israeli apartheid; Jews in their workplaces were confronted with the demonization of Israeli soldiers; and major media sources compared Palestinian rights to the Black Lives Matter movement, GBLT rights, and indigenous rights. And I saw a car driving slowly down the middle lane of the QEW waving Palestinian flags from both windows. Jews were being attacked on the streets of cities across north America, afraid to have a Magen David around their neck. The skirmish on the Gaza border ignited full anti-Semitism around the world. It begs the question, is anti-Semitism better or worse today?
I thought that anti-Jewish feelings would have diminished by now, with all the discussions about diversity and tolerance. Information has never been easier to access. We should all be trying to see past race, colour and faith. We should all see the best in humanity. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
A few years ago, I asked members of our youth group if they had ever faced antisemitism at their school. I figured one or two hands would go up. But everyone hand shot up. From Hitler quotes on school desks to teachers making side comments about Israel or fellow students making openly anti-Jewish jokes, not knowing who was listening, or not caring. I was shocked.
I assumed this was more common when I was a teen, back in the 1980’s. I remember being spat upon at a bus stop for wearing a kippah. The soccer team from my Jewish high school was bombarded with hateful chants. Once our equipment was stolen. Another time, someone pulled a knife.
If I went around the room right here, right now, would all of you have a similar example to share? Have you been physically attacked or verbally taunted? Called a name? Harassed on social media? Denied access to anything — or judged unfairly because you are Jewish? Of course, our parents and grandparents have worse stories as we go back through generations, but when does it end?
In May, it became crystal clear that anti-Semitism still lurks beneath the surface. It appears with venom at the smallest incident. Like the planned expulsion of Palestinian squatters on Jewish owned land last May. Gaza started firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, killing civilians and causing massive destruction. The Israeli army responded with strategic missile attacks, in order to limit civilian casualties. Unfortunately, many innocent bystanders were killed alongside terrorists.
The media made it seem as though Israel had launched a nuclear war against Gaza. If I only read social media posts, I would have thought Israel was murdering babies one by one. That Israel is an apartheid state determined to uphold Jewish superiority. That every Jew around the world is thus responsible. That it is my fault. That I aimed a tank at a Palestinian child and fired. That we are war criminals. That Israel is the epitome of horror and each Jew is part of this conspiracy.
No wonder Jews are reluctant to post Jewish information on social media. No wonder we are afraid, once again, to show outward signs of faith. No wonder we’ve shied away from publicly discussing our faith for fear of reprisal. This is a sad state of affairs.
Earlier this summer, Yair Lapid, leader of the largest party in Israeli’s Knesset and, in two years our incoming Prime Minister, gave a speech at the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism. He spoke about global reports showing unprecedented hatred of Jews. The year 2019, for instance, set a record for the number of hate crimes directed at Jews. This number did not fall in 2020, notwithstanding the coronavirus lockdowns. In fact, the pandemic generated a new blood libel, with haters claiming the disease had been deliberately spread by Jews. And it’s already clear that anti-Semitic crimes in 2021 will surpass those of the two previous years.
In Poland, shocking legislation was approved, making it illegal to say there were death camps in the country. This borders on Holocaust denial. In Muslim countries, blood libels against Jews are routinely committed. In Eastern and Central Europe, Jews are attacked on streets, cemeteries are being desecrated and synagogue windows are once again being smashed. In liberal circles in North America and in Europe, Jews – the most attacked people in history – are considered part of the “forces of oppression.”
No one has managed to shape a coherent policy to address the fight against antisemitism. Over the past decade, Israel repeatedly failed in its attempts to educate non-Jews about Judaism, Zionism, and the country’s legitimacy. Fewer people in new generations even know what the Holocaust is, and there is an alarming erosion in the sense of guilt and global responsibility for the murder of the six million.
Yair Lapid envisions his role as Israel’s foreign minister to find effective ways to deal with the crisis of modern antisemitism. To conduct thorough discussions that lead to understanding how to combat antisemitism and enlist the world’s support.
First, we need to define Antisemitism. How do we link the hatred of Jews that led to pogroms in Alexandria, in 38 C.E. with the hatred of Jews that kindled a demonstration by young supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on the streets of Madrid in 2020? We can at least point to the somewhat cumbersome definition from the IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance— “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. Moreover, disproportionate attention to Israel or efforts to apply a standard to Israel that is not applied to other countries constitutes antisemitism.”
This brings ancient and modern anti-Semitism under one umbrella. Now we must ask, is antisemitism a unique phenomenon or is it part of a broader phenomenon of racism and xenophobia around the world?
One could easily argue antisemitism is unique as it refers to hatred of one people, Jews, in the history of humanity. Defining it as racism misses the scope of the phenomenon and the historical continuity of its presence. Anti-Semites don’t hate Jews in the same way that Hutus hated and murdered Tutsis in Rwanda, or even the way the Nazis hated and killed the Roma or homosexuals. Lapid makes the point that the hatred of Jews is not only a murderous emotion but also an ideology with deep historic roots. With this in mind, Holocaust – the most horrible event in the history of the nations – was no temporary outbreak of organized hatred but rather the unavoidable result of a long-standing belief that Jews have no place in the world and therefore the only solution is systematic extermination. It could not have been committed in such a way or on such a scale against another human group. The fact that the Holocaust was so well organized, confirms the idea that it could happen again. The effort to portray the Holocaust as a one-time occurrence is mistaken and dangerous. If we don’t know how to defend ourselves, the attempt to annihilate us could repeat itself again. Today, anti-Semites are not focusing on the State of Israel as a result of something we have done, but only because Israel constitutes the biggest concentration of Jews in the world.
On the other hand, one could also argue that antisemitism is the supreme and ugly embodiment of a pervasive racism that exists globally. It is no different from other racist philosophies, except for its persistence and devastation it had brought. In this vein, antisemitism is not only a racist phenomenon, it is the largest and most absolute manifestation of hate in human history. Consider the many collaborators of the Holocaust– Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Croatians– who never read a word of Nazi theory. They acted out of dark hatred of foreigners, not based on an accepted worldview. As historian Benzion Netanyahu wrote: “The instinct of hatred was simply hardened into a doctrine….” Racism is the argument that certain people are inferior and that legitimizes violence toward them.
We don’t need to find a contradiction between these two perspectives. Actually, they are co-dependent. Antisemitism is indeed a unique phenomenon in human history, but it can only exist in a world in which racism is prevalent. Its existence in the world presents a danger to the world. As Elie Wiesel wrote: “Someone who hates one group will end up hating everyone – and, ultimately, hating himself or herself.”
Jews did not emerge from the Holocaust with a single conclusion but with two: First, we must survive no matter the cost. No other group will save us. No other group will fight our wars. We must live because life is the decisive response to hate, wherever we settle. We may live anywhere in the world, but at the same time, we must have an independent Jewish country with a strong army that is not afraid of using force to defend itself. And this army will not apologize for its power. Because we must never again be the victim.
Second, we must always be moral people. Morality is crucial when the situation is not moral – during wartime or confrontations. We must always take the high road, even when it seems impossible, unfair and a double standard, compared to other groups. That is what it means to be Jewish today.
Yes, there is a tension between these two conclusions, but it’s a healthy tension that substantially shapes our lives.
If antisemitism is racism, then Jewish people and Israel need to be at the forefront of the fight against racism. This struggle needs to be front and center when Israel deals with the Palestinian conflict, when Jews co-exist with all minorities living amongst us.
We also need to lower the level of hysteria in the face of criticism. Maybe every anti-Semite would oppose Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip, but not everyone who opposes Israeli policy in Gaza is an anti-Semite.
The distinct advantage of this approach is with its ability to enlist new partners. If we want the world to continue to deal actively with hatred of the Jews – and, more importantly, hatred of Jews who live in Israel – we must emerge from our isolation. We must enlist the Western world to stand at our side, to give the battle against antisemitism a contemporary context – not by separating the memory of the Holocaust from all of the tragedies that racism has caused, but by actually putting it at the forefront of discussions.
Holocaust discussions should become moral lessons, to help convince those whom we have given up on in recent years: young people on North American college campuses, the left wing political establishment, the liberal media, and international NGO’s.
We must also work with our existing partners, wherever we can find them. There have been antisemitic incidents in Halton recently, a swastika spray-painted in the parking lot of Post Park, for instance. Police are taking these events seriously because CIJA and Bnai Brith, Jewish advocacy agencies, have partnered with police, the justice system and politicians to make a stand. We advocated for the current Liberal federal government to pass the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (which I defined earlier) in the house of commons. This means that federal authorities can prosecute anti-Semitism as a hate crime. Next, we worked to pass this definition province by province. Ontario is leading the way. Then we implored towns and cities to pass the definition in each municipality. This means all police forces would have the necessary tools on a local level.
Our efforts have had a notable impact. In late 2019, two men were caught on video walking up to the Burlington city hall and placing antisemitic and racist signs and graffiti on buildings. They were wearing masks but the police analyzed the video, did their due diligence and eventually apprehended them. They were charged with hate crimes as adults. This is no last-minute spray-paint foolish late-night incident by innocent teens. This was planned and executed to inspire fear and hatred. Once the trial began, I was called by the Ontario court of justice to present a community impact statement Here is what I wrote and read at the trial to the defendants:
The posters that you created and displayed on public buildings in Burlington hurts more than you might possibly believe. They are violent images, they compare Jews and Blacks to insects and rodents and were intended to send the message that we don’t belong, that we are inferior, that we are sub-human, that we are worthless, and we deserve to die. To think that you could have so much hate in your heart to display such hurtful images is hard to fathom. Did someone teach you this? Did you learn about it somewhere? I can’t believe you were born to hate but yet somewhere along the line you determined that some human beings are better than others. I believe in a world that sees each human as holy, as full of worth, as equal. But not everyone shares that view. If you did, you would not have displayed these images. Because they not only embarrass you and your beliefs, but they send a message to any other person who sees that image that perhaps it is ok to hate others for their religion or their skin type. And in this town, in this province, in this country, we cannot stand for that. For too long we have not stood up when there is hatred or antisemitism or racism. It starts perhaps with a joke at our expense. Maybe an image on a school or store window or in a newspaper. Soon it becomes part of conversations, it enters into political discussions, it gets enshrined into law. We have seen the ugly side of hate and discrimination – when it turns to violence – hangings, pogroms, burning, killing, expulsion, extermination. We have seen great atrocities the past century, none as horrific as 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Did you know that right here in Halton are survivors from those death camps, who belong to our Shaarei-Beth El synagogue, who to this day can barely speak of what they saw, who only have vague memories of entire families murdered before their eyes, who still bear the scars in their hearts and numbers tattooed on their arms? These hateful pictures, placed on a wall, sends a ripple of fear and dread into the hearts of not only these survivors, but anyone who understands that in this country we lift up the fallen, we care for each person, we unite against hatred and march forward in harmony for equality, for decency, for unity. I hope you understand the implications of what you have done and the hurt you have cause. Please learn from this, please go out of your way to make amends for your crime, learn about the communities you have attacked and turn the page.
The two perpetrators were sentenced to jail. This was a strong punishment. In the past, these men might not have even been prosecuted nor given such a strict sentence. I was heartened to see the progress that has been made.
There have been many local hate incidents this year. Every time police services call the synagogue to check on us and make sure we are feeling safe and comfortable. These racist assaults take place against other faith communities as well. Our interfaith council stands together against hate because when it happens to Jews, it can happen to other minorities.
This summer, when a Chinese family was targeted repeatedly in their east Oakville home with slurs and hatred, our interfaith council led the campaign to fight against hate with the “no room for hate signs” placed on lawns around the region and on our synagogue lawn. We held a rally led by Mayor Burton, police chief Tanner, and regional chair Gary Carr who not only spoke with one voice but placed the signs on their own lawns.
And in London, when there was an attack against a Muslim family, I quickly pointed out to my partners that an attack against Muslims is an attack against Jews and vice versa. We must condemn it as well as condemn any hatred cast on the Jewish people because of what is happening in the Middle East. We must denounce racism when it happens. And in the same breath we must decry anti-Israel hatred as wrong and immoral.
We must say to individuals who consider themselves opponents of racism: You cannot be liberal, tolerant and pro-diversity if you are against the Jews and Israel. Fear of antisemitism and fighting racism may be the single thing that unites Jews across geography, politics, religious observance, age, race, sexuality and experience. Our common fear might be enough to unite forces around the world for goodness, tolerance and morality. This unity will lead the way towards the end of anti-Semitism and racism. This is what we must strive for, now, tomorrow and forever.
May this new year lead us towards that bright future.