September 9, 2018
Yom Teruah: Sounding The Alarm For Anti-Semitism (Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018)
Angela W. Buchdahl
Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)
Ever heard of Russell Walker?
He proclaimed: “God is a white supremacist”
and says all Jewish people “descend from Satan.”
So who is Russell Walker?
He’s the Republican candidate
for a seat in the North Carolina state legislature.
Steve West hosts a YouTube Channel where he said:
“Looking back in history, unfortunately, Hitler was right.”
West speaks of “Jewish cabals”
that are “harvesting baby parts” from Planned Parenthood.
He recently won the Republican primary
for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives.
John Fitzgerald posted a reward online
of “$2,000 to anybody who can prove
that the official Holocaust narrative is true.”
He will be a Republican candidate
for the California House of representatives.
Ilhan Omar is already a Democratic state representative in Minnesota
and nearly certain to win a US Congressional seat this year.
She tweeted, quote: “Israel has hypnotized the world,
may Allah awaken the people
and help them see the evil doings of Israel,”
which she described as an “apartheid regime.”
These are real candidates who aspire to run our country.
ADL reports that there are more people running for public office
who express antisemitic1 views than ever before.
And beyond politics,
a recent ADL study reported a near 60% increase in harassment,
vandalism and assault of Jews and Jewish institutions in 2017.
The largest single year increase on record.
Now I try not to be an alarmist—
though we Jews are conditioned to be.
You’ve heard of the classic Jewish telegram?
It reads: “Start Worrying. Details to Follow.”
But as I’ve witnessed the recent increase in antisemitism—
the ugliness unearthed during the last presidential election,
the desecration of Jewish cemeteries,
the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville,
the increasing vilification of pro-Israel students on college campuses—
I will admit that I am quite alarmed,
and I felt I had to address it tonight.
Antisemitism never exists in a vacuum;
the tolerance for antisemtism goes hand in hand
with a tolerance for hatred of all kinds.
And if we Jews are not going to pay attention to its dangers,
Our tradition calls Rosh Hashanah—
Yom Teruah, the day for the Sounding of the Shofar.
And the Hebrew word “Teruah” comes from the verb hitria
meaning “to warn.”
A traditional role of the shofar in ancient Israel
was to warn our people of danger.
Our Shofar call this year must do the same.
If you’ve been listening,
you’ve already heard the warning blasts
coming from Jewish communities in Europe.
Western Europe has seen a terrifying outbreak of violent antisemitism.
In France alone, a dozen people have been murdered
just because they were Jews.
In England, the Labour Party has acknowledged
it has an “antisemitism problem,”
but it leader, Jeremy Corbyn has only amplified
antisemitic comments and Holocaust denial.
Corbyn’s recent attempt to legislate that it was not antisemitic
to liken Israel or its policies to Nazi Germany,
or to call Zionism racism,
scared the British Jewish community enough
that ultra-Orthodox rabbis
were signing protest letters alongside female rabbis.
Just last week in Germany an angry mob led by hundreds of neo-Nazis
were joined by over 8000 ordinary citizens,
which signifies a frightening normalization
of their hateful anti-immigrant and antisemitic rhetoric.
Last spring, a group of rabbis spoke with Simone Rodan-Benzaquen,
the Director of AJC Europe,
about the shifting landscape for European Jews.
I asked if she had any words of advice for us.
She said, “Yes.
I wish we had spoken louder here in France.
We felt we were too powerful and well connected
for this to be a real threat.
We all wasted a lot of time.”
Her message to American Jewish leaders was clear:
Don’t wait. Rally your community.
Speak up before it’s too late.
And if you think this is only happening in France and England,
in North Carolina and Missouri,
This is happening right here in New York.
Last spring, as unrest mounted in Gaza,
the head of the history department
at a prestigious private school in New York
posted the headline “ISRAELIS KILL DOZENS IN GAZA”
on the wall outside his classroom,
with a terrifying picture and no context.
This teacher’s politics were well known.
He made it explicit in an article for Mondoweiss entitled:
“Against Balance: Thoughts on Teaching Israel Palestine.”
Some of his students, however, decided “balance”
was a good idea when it came to this complicated issue.
They started posting other articles on the wall,
to provide additional background
and support for Israel’s right to defend its border.
A second history teacher then joined the debate
and posted an article that likened Israel’s actions to war crimes.
This same teacher screamed at a student wearing an IDF T-shirt,
that Israelis were terrorists.
Later, during a heated discussion about Israel
he lost control and violently kicked chairs and slammed a desk.
This is not a matter of trigger words or microaggressions.
This is aggression,
directed at pro-Israel students
by authority figures
in a school.
The school finally called a town hall meeting
and over 200 concerned parents came
for a thoughtful and candid conversation.
But when the press got hold of this story,
it was reframed as an attempt by self-interested Jews
to stifle free speech.
The most egregious example was a recent article in the Huffington Post
which dismissed entirely the merits of the debate,
and instead headlined a story about “Angry Zionists”
and a conspiracy of “influential parents”
who exploited their wealth,
and powerful media connections
as they plotted to remove teachers who dare oppose Israel.
It seemed this writer was trying to set a record
for the most antisemitic dog-whistles in a single article.
Around the same time this past spring,
at another well-regarded all-boys school in New York,
one of our Central 5th graders was told by a classmate
in front of his entire lunch table,
“God sent Hitler down
to kill the Jews
because they nailed Jesus to the cross!”
His mother, Jill Kargman,
courageously wrote about this episode for Tablet Magazine.
Jill, never afraid of being the Odd Mom Out,
delivered a stack of books on the Holocaust
to the offending student’s apartment with a note saying:
“We thought this would prove valuable reading for your family-
Best, the Kargmans.”
But when Jill emailed the headmaster about the incident,
the response was little more than a shrug:
the offending student was told he would have to miss 2 field trips.
And this was at the same school
where a child was expelled for using the “N” word.
The school was sending a clear message:
in the hierarchy of prejudice,
antisemitism barely registers.
When Jill told me the story,
I offered to call the headmaster, but she said:
“No. I feel like I’ve caused enough trouble already.
I don’t feel comfortable being ‘one of those Jews.’”
In the end, she decided to pull her child from the school.
We can’t win.
If we don’t complain, nothing happens.
And if we make a fuss,
we’re accused of abusing our disproportionate power and influence—
which is exactly how Jews have been slandered for centuries.
Unfortunately, I fear that we’ve begun to internalize this prejudice.
And it can make us hesitant to stand up for ourselves.
These stories from our own students,
in our finest schools,
in America’s most Jewish city,
certainly got my attention.
And one of the scariest things about today’s rise in antisemitism
is that it’s coming at us from both sides.
From the right, white supremacists don’t just consider Jews an enemy,
alongside immigrants and people of color,
but the ultimate enemy.
I learned this from an unlikely source;
Eric Ward, a black activist from the Southern Poverty Law Center,
who once attended a white supremacist convention
and was able to build alliances by posing as a Jew-hater.
Ward shared before a group of rabbis
that antisemitism is the fuel that moves the engine of White Nationalism.
Their ideology traffics in the fantasy that Jews possess an invisible,
outsized, even supernatural power.
In a terribly disturbing Atlantic Magazine profile
of the alt-right Nazi Andrew Anglin,
writer Luke O’Brian sums up how white nationalists,
quote, “blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews:
Video Game addiction.
The NBA being 74.4 percent black…
it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy
so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.”
Wow. I have a high opinion of the Jewish community
but even I didn’t know that we were that powerful.
And this crazy talk has increasingly become normalized in today’s society.
Derek Black, a former leader of the White Nationalist movement,
said that for most of his life,
White Nationalists knew to keep their views to themselves.
But after Charlottesville,
when the President of the United States said:
“You had some very fine people—on both sides,”
Black knew the tide had turned.
He described Trump’s words as:
“the most important moment
in the history of the modern White Nationalist movement.”
But white supremacists and neo-Nazis
are not the only ones we have to fear.
Today antisemitism is increasingly found on the left as well.
It emerged this year that Tamika Mallory,
a co-chair of the Women’s March,
had attended a rally of the Nation of Islam,
led by the infamously antisemitic Louis Farrakhan.
She praised this man, who claims Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks
and who called Hitler a ‘very great man.’
She later doubled down with this bewildering tweet:
“If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus,
they may not be the THE leader!”
The co-chair of arguably
the most important progressive movement of the last 2 years
could not bring herself to denounce the hate-filled Farrakhan
and defended him by employing the oldest canard
that Jews killed Jesus.
Now, I want to speak directly to our high school and college students,
because the antisemitism of the left
is especially pronounced on liberal campuses.
In these progressive communities,
otherwise devoted to identifying victims of oppression and prejudice—
Jewish complaints about antisemitism are often dismissed,
My friend Professor Deborah Lipstadt, from Emory University,
shared with me the galleys of her upcoming book on antisemitism
which should be required reading for all of you.
She sums up a disturbing sentiment
she often hears from students on campuses:
“[Jews are] always playing the Holocaust card.
They’re just trying to hitch a free ride on the backs of people of color
who face real racism.
They are white and they are privileged.”
First of all, in case this wasn’t obvious:
(point to self) Not all Jews are ‘white.’
Second of all—
I want to acknowledge that despite the stories I shared,
that right now in America is perhaps
the best time in our history to be a Jew.
We should recognize that sitting in this room—
our Jewish community holds extraordinary levels of power.
Every bigotry takes different forms,
and ‘ours’ is not the same as racism against blacks in our country.
But we need not order them on the podium of the “Oppression Olympics”
to take all hatred seriously.
Furthermore, the longstanding Israeli Palestinian conflict,
which is indeed confounding and upsetting,
fuels antisemitism on the left
which often hides behind a false veneer of “legitimate” criticism of Israel.
Last spring a Central student enrolled at NYU came to me distressed.
Fifty different progressive student organizations on campus,
from the Black Student Union to LGBTQ groups,
pledged a boycott.
Not only a boycott Israeli goods and academic institutions,
but a refusal to partner
with the most mainstream Jewish organizations on campus—
including the ADL, Birthright, and AIPAC—
on any topic whatsoever—
issues such as gay rights, feminism or racism,
which Jews have long championed.
Opposition to Israel
has increasingly become a necessary precondition
for all other progressive commitments.
Some groups will only allow Jewish students to participate
if they take a ‘disloyalty oath’
and affirm they are opposed to “Israeli racism.”
This singling out of Israel, as THE litmus test
for Jewish involvement in any social justice cause
plain and simple.
And I beg of you students to call that out when you see it.
To be sure, not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism.
It should come as no surprise to hear me say that
because I have publicly wrestled with
a lot of things about Israel in recent years.
But even if you’re not a rabbi, it is perfectly fair for you to criticize Israel
the way you would criticize any other country,
including our own.
The problem is when people criticize Israel in a way they would criticize
NO other country.
So where is the line?
To help, I want to share the “3D” test conceived by Natan Sharansky
and adopted as part of the US State Department’s own
definition of antisemitism
to help you recognize when Israel criticism
is really just dressed-up antisemitism.
The three D’s are:
When people deny only the Jewish people’s right to self determination—
when they characterize a return to our homeland of 3000 years
as a racist, white-colonialist endeavor
and call into question Israel’s very right to exist—
this Deligitimization is antisemitism.
When the UN human rights council calls out Israel
for fully half of their human rights condemnations—
more than the resolutions against the horrific regimes of Syria,
Iran and North Korea combined,
this Double Standard is antisemitism.
When the Israeli Defense Force is characterized as terrorists,
wantonly killing Palestinians in a “genocide,”
this Demonization is antisemitism.
At this point, I’m guessing that my Teruah warning call
has left many of you looking over both shoulders with distress.
But I’m also guessing that you’ve already determined
that one side is much worse than the other.
Be honest: were you more outraged that Tamika Mallory
refused to denounce Farrakhan,
or were you more outraged by Trump’s inability
to flatly denounce the white supremacists after Charlottesville?
Are you making excuses for one of them?
In order to be principled in this fight,
we must be willing to call out the antisemitism
on our own side of the aisle.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that the one on “our side”
exists only at the powerless fringe,
or that it’s outweighed by more important ideological alliances.
But we have to be as intolerant of antisemitism from our political allies
as from our foes.
Journalist Yair Rosenberg, recently said to me,
“Fight antisemitism where you are.
Not just when it’s politically expedient.
It’s more credible—and more effective.”
To fight antisemitism, we must also resist
our understandable desire to leave when we feel we are not wanted.
It is not easy to sit at the table or engage when we feel under attack—
but we must stay in it—
stay in the conversation about Israel—
stay in the fight for pluralistic causes—
because Jews have always been at the forefront
against oppression of all kinds.
And when others don’t invite us to the table,
perhaps we have to be willing to invite them to ours.
I mentioned earlier the former white nationalist leader Derek Black.
He was David Duke’s godson.
And his father is the founder of Stormfront,
the largest white nationalist website in the country.
Following in his father’s footsteps,
Derek started his own white supremacist radio show,
and he was a rising star,
the heir apparent of the white nationalist movement.
But when he went to a small liberal arts college in Florida,
and saw that his views were unaccepted,
he tried to go undercover.
When his identity was discovered online,
he was completely ostracized at school.
No one would speak with him.
Except one Orthodox Jew,
who invited him to his Shabbat table,
Little by little, Black changed his mind.
He not only renounced his antisemitic views,
but also his racism and his hatred of homosexuals.
When he first wrote about his transformation online,
his father thought his email had been hacked.
But when he realized it was genuine,
his father renounced him publicly, as did David Duke.
I generally don’t celebrate when a son loses a father,
but in this case, it was a measure of his redemption.
Our Jewish tradition teaches
that every person has the capacity to change.
We are charged to act on that belief.
But it might require us to move into some new
and perhaps hostile territory.
Our final shofar call of the holiday,
Tekiah literally means “to move place”
and in biblical times, a Tekiah blast
called our army to reposition during wartime.
In our fight against antisemitism,
we must be willing to mobilize for this battle.
That means you identify antisemitism in its many forms
and not internalize any of its hateful prejudice.
It means that you call antisemitism out—
not only on the other side of the political spectrum,
but with allies,
sometimes with teachers,
It means you defend the Jewish right for self determination
and don’t apologize for the existence of the State of Israel.
It means you take risks to get to know someone you might detest
in order to change his hate.
Finally, it means that you stay at the table with self respect,
never forgetting who you are.
Jews have been fighting antisemtism for centuries.
Each generation must learn to fight what is the oldest
and most adaptive hatred in history.
It’s been tragically devastating at times—
only 75 years ago, one out of every three Jews on the planet
was murdered because of antisemitic hatred.
But we are still here.
Maybe more miraculous is that we Jews have not only survived
but have thrived and succeeded
and contributed to the world in extraordinary and beautiful ways.
We should feel great pride.
So let us stand up for ourselves,
let us stand against hatred of all kinds,
and let us stand for the human capacity to change.
This is who we are.
On this Yom Teruah,
this Day for Sounding the Shofar
we conclude with a powerful—Tekiah!
This is our call to move.
In this year, let us heed that call.
1 This is not a misspelling. I am using the spelling for ‘antisemitism’ preferred by Professor Deborah Lipstadt and explained in her upcoming book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” (February 2019). Lipstadt removes the hyphen because “semites” on the right of a hyphen presumes there is such a thing as a “semitic” people and there is not. The word as it has been used for the last 150 years means ‘hatred of Jews’ and not hatred of a nonexistent thing called “semitism.” Lipstadt does not capitalize it as a statement: “It doesn’t deserve the dignity of capitalization, which in English is reserved for proper names.”