Sermon Shabbat Zachor/Vayikra 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Please rise for a moment of silence to honor the memory of the 49 people murdered by terrorists earlier today in New Zealand—it’s across the international date line, so it was Friday, the Muslim holy day. They were together in prayer, as we are tonight, and were victims of a horrifying hate crime. May God bring them close and heal the wounded from this terrible incident. As the saying has it in Islam, “To Allah we belong and to Allah we return.” May their return be to Allah in paradise.
This Monday my old friend Sheikh Wattheq al-Obaidi, who founded a beautiful new Mosque on the west side of Tucson, the Muslim Community Center near La Canada, will be holding a special event in memory of those murdered in New Zealand. The vigil will be Monday night at 7pm—I’ll email this out as well—and I encourage the Jewish community to support the Muslim community, as so many Muslims did after the Pittsburgh attack last fall.
There is an ancient joke that kept coming back to me this week: An old Jewish man is sitting on a bench reading his newspaper when an anti-Semite approaches him and says angrily, "You know, all the world's problems are because of you damned Jews."
The Jewish man looks up and replies, "And the bicycle riders."
The anti-Semite replies, befuddled, "Why the bicycle riders?"
And the Jewish man responds, "Why the Jews?"
Since I am both a bicycle rider and a Jew, this joke works on several levels for me, but of course it points up the absurdity of any kind of random race hatred, particularly this one. And this being Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of remembering anti-Jewish and anti-Israelite hatred in our history, it’s the right time to explore what it means and how we might address it best.
My friends, we Jews have been dealing with Anti-Semitism for a very long time, and perhaps the most innovative approach we’ve taken has been to celebrate our victories over it in innovative and delightful ways. Perhaps the three most enjoyable Jewish holidays of all are Chanukah, Purim and Passover, which fall on our calendar from December through April. These festivals can best be described in a nine-word sentence: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” And next Wednesday and Thursday we’ll celebrate Purim, the most purely fun Jewish holiday of all. Only Jews could take our first experience of attempted genocide and turn it into a time of unbridled revelry, joyously observing our ability to survive attempted mass murder in Persia—that is Iran—2500 years ago.
Is Anti-Semitism substantially different in character from the vicious Anti-Muslim racism that motivated evil people to slaughter 49 human beings praying in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand this very day? No. But it has been around longer, and it manages to come back from the dead, like an evil Lazarus-like zombie, just when you think it has finally disappeared for good.
Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest and most persistent form of race hatred, an irrational and virulent hostility to Jews based on a foundation of lies, embraced by generations of people who all should know better. It has shown a cockroach-like ability to thrive in dark corners and under all sorts of rocks, and a weed-like ability to grow in the least favorable conditions imaginable.
It has been proven that you don’t even need to have Jews around for Anti-Semitism to exist and spread; the most recent international surveys of Anti-Semitism show that South Korea has an astonishingly high level of Anti-Semitism, even though Jews have more or less never lived there. Throughout history Anti-Semitism was fostered by major religious institutions, important nations and empires, and resulted in horrible persecutions ranging from massacres of Jews in Roman times to Crusaders slaughtering entire communities of Jews to expulsions from England, France and Spain to the torture chambers of the Inquisition to pogroms throughout the old Russian Empire to the Holocaust to Communist purges against Jews to Arab nations expelling hundreds of thousands of Jews in the 1950s to horrific Arab terror attacks on Jews in Israel, Europe and South America to recent events like Charlottesville and Pittsburgh here in America. Like a cancer on the body of the human race, Anti-Semitism simply refuses to disappear.
But you know, back when we began the Too Jewish Radio Show in the year 2002 there was a consensus among scholars of Anti-Semitism that it was on the wane both here and around the world, and might even disappear soon, at least in America. One of my very first guests on the show was Professor Leonard Dinnerstein of blessed memory, who passed away recently, author of the book Anti-Semitism in America, then the authoritative text on the subject. He was the founder of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of Arizona. Back in 2002, Dinnerstein said that the pernicious and irrational hatred of Jews that has been such a terrible burden for our people throughout history had been fading in America for decades and was no longer socially acceptable. Jews had broken through the glass ceiling that kept us from many important roles in society, we were influential and accepted nearly everywhere, from Ivy League schools to formerly Jew-free industries to once-restricted country clubs to high government office.
And then, well, bad things happened. The Anti-Israel, Anti-Zionist virus in the Muslim world spread, and was nurtured and flourished among aspects of the left in Europe, and also in Canada and the US. It took root deeply on college campuses and among so-called progressives and went from reasoned discussions of a Palestinian state to the desire to destroy Israel, and then morphed into deliberately Anti-Semitic tropes and slanders, becoming ever-more virulent and prevalent. Today in Great Britain the Labour Party has become the home of openly Anti-Semitic politicians led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose various Anti-Semitic comments and actions leave no doubt where his ugly sympathies lie. That form of Anti-Semitism has come to the US Congress now, where recently elected Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar plays in an ugly way on long discredited claims of Jewish dual loyalty and influential Jewish money; the regrettable Omar caused a division in the Democratic majority party in the House on the issue of Anti-Semitism just a week ago. It won’t be the last time.
Along with this left-wing Anti-Semitism there has been an awful revival of old-fashioned right-wing, racist Anti-Semitism in Europe and America. That vicious Anti-Jewish hatred has manifested in extreme right-wing movements and political parties in Eastern, Central and Western Europe. We even see revived neo-Nazi parties embracing the disastrously failed ideology of race-hatred. While the vast majority of physical attacks on Jews in Europe have been perpetrated by Muslim terrorists in recent years, fascists are now doing their share, committing publicly Anti-Semitic acts and violence against Jews. Just last week in Belgium a parade of artistic floats in a carnival included a huge, colorful one of stereotypical Jewish figures that could have come directly from the pages of Der Sturmer, with big noses, money bags, and rats around them. And the mayor of that city defended the perpetrators of this evil display. In France, the first nation on earth to give Jews full and equal civil rights, third largest Jewish population of any country in the world, in France Anti-Semitic acts are up 75% in the past year, with a combination of far-right Anti-Semites making common cause with far-left yellow vest protestors and angry Arab immigrants to deface Jewish tombstones, paint swastikas, and make Holocaust-flavored jokes about ovens. After the French government responded vigorously last week, the very next day more tombstones were defaced and more swastikas painted, this time in Toulouse and Strasbourg and Nice.
Here in America revived far-right hate groups and radical fringe websites of white supremacists encourage actions like the Charlottesville riot and murder and the Tree of Life synagogue massacre last fall. At a much lower level, but very troubling, this week a group of high school students and alumni in Newport Beach, California created a swastika out of red beer cups and posed making the Heil Hitler salute in a drinking game in which a team of “Nazis” competes with a team of “Jews,” a game popularized in the past two years through the internet; after the school district responded strongly and immediately with Holocaust education for the perpetrators, Nazi-style posters and swastikas were put up all over Newport Beach High the following weekend.
Somehow in the 21st century, almost 75 years after the end of the Shoah, elements both far left and far right have embraced an insanely irrational ancient racism based on an entire library of conspiracy theories, lies and forged texts, Anti-Semitism. Angry people on the fringes of society, far left and far right both, have chosen to blame the problems of huge, complex societies and regional and international issues on our tiny minority population that makes up far less than one percent of the world’s people. This is in spite of the fact that we Jews and Jewish concepts and scholarship have advanced the progress of civilization and improved humanity in countless positive ways, ranging from medicine to music, from physics to filmmaking to finance, from art to architecture to advanced technology. If you look at what Jews have contributed to the world you logically cannot possibly believe the propaganda put out by these lunatic fringes. For pity’s sake, without our Torah and Tanakh there would be no New Testament or Koran, no Christianity or Islam or Western Civilization.
Why do people embrace Anti-Semitism? Well, it’s far easier to blame the Jews than it is to actually try to fix the brokenness of the world. Small-minded people prefer villains to heroes and demonizing Jews has always been the easy way out for demagogues, cowards and frauds. And when you have had so many important people advocating it for so long, you are bound to feel justified in accessing your very own bigoted bone.
So, rabbi you ask, what is the solution? Why bring up a problem if you don’t have the answer? Sadly, no one has quite figured that out in the past two thousand years. But generally, the most effective response to Anti-Semitism requires three things: direct, strong actions that demonstrate that this is not going to be tolerated. There are no “fine people” dressing up in sheets and chanting “Jews will not replace us” or claiming that HIAS is “killing my people,” nor can there be the least tolerance for those who equate Israelis with Nazis or imply all Jews have “dual loyalties” or claim that “Jews are too powerful in America.” We must stand up to Anti-Semitism in every manifestation, whether the people demonstrating it are on our side in other matters or not. It is pernicious, evil, wrong and very dangerous. In fact, we are most effective combating Anti-Semitism in our friends, convincing people we know well and with whom we mostly agree to fix their own Anti-Semitic tendencies.
Secondly, we have to educate, others and ourselves. A little learning and actual experience of interacting with Jews goes a long way towards exposing the falsehoods and illogic of Anti-Semitism and dispelling the insanity of irrational, racist hatred. Learning about Judaism, coming to synagogue, participating in Jewish adult education and teaching your children about Jews and Judaism and Israel are all outstanding ways to counteract the ignorance and bias that perpetuate racist hatred. Affirming our pride in our incredible heritage, passing it on with joy and integrity, celebrating our Jewish identity, these are the best ways to overcome Anti-Semitism.
You know, I began this morning at 5 am getting up to go to TMC for a double bris for two boys whom a Jewish woman adopted—she actually is now adopting a daughter as well—who are 3 and 4 years old. She is raising them as Jews—they were at our Tot Kabbalat Shabbat earlier this month at Beit Simcha—and we gave them Hebrew names after her grandfathers and did the ritual blessings and prayers and readings for a bris for each. And then the very kind doctors and nurses came and they were put to sleep and circumcised as Jewish boys must be. These kids were first fostered and then adopted from terrible beginnings, but they are going to be proud, excellent Jews, following their mother. If she can make Judaism important and meaningful beginning with children from such backgrounds, how can we do any less?
There is a third thing we can do, beyond speaking up against Anti-Semitism and educating ourselves. And it is very likely the most important way to counteract this evil in our world.
The best allies we can have in the effort to eradicate this archaic evil are not actually other Jews. They are smart, caring people of different traditions. They are Christians and Muslims and Sikhs and secularists and other decent, grounded, humane people who care about making the world better. The better they know us, and the more they see us support them when they are suffering and in time of need—as the Muslims in our community, and around the world, are now—the more certain it is that they will come to our support and fight Anti-Semitism when it arises. Common cause with good people of all backgrounds is the surest way to defeat hatred. It means going to the mosque, the Muslim Community Center on Monday, if you can; it means making certain that people know that Jews care about the whole community’s needs, and work to heal and help it.
It’s fascinating: working against Anti-Semitism means we have to demonstrate some of our Jewish ability to grow beyond our own limitations and embrace people we might secretly harbor some biases against ourselves. But if we do, I promise we will be richly rewarded, and not only in paradise.
This week we read Vayikra, which addresses how we are to become close to God. I think the lesson we may take from all of this is that perhaps we must first become closer to the good people around us, and then, and only then, will we be able to bring this troubled world closer to God.
May this be God’s will, but first of all, ours.