This past summer, the national Black Lives Matter movement released an official platform outlining several of its policy proposals in its efforts to end the war on black people in this country. Among its proposals, it used the platform as an opportunity to attack Israel, calling it an “apartheid state.” The platform also stated “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” Last January, at the annual National Gay and Lesbian Creating Change Conference in Chicago, a pro-Israel reception was initially shut down by the conference organizers, bowing to pressure from anti-Israel groups. When the reception eventually got the green light, their event was stormed by an angry mob trying to shut down the Jewish and Israeli event following their Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of the LGBT congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NY, and an outspoken left-wing activist on Israel’s issues, had to acknowledge “To my deep sadness, while I am not one to lightly use the anti-Semitism charge, I have to say that I personally felt attacked as a Jew.”
Time and again, at college campuses, and now across the country at so many radical progressive events and gatherings, it is Israel and Jews who are being vilified, silenced, erased and attacked. In our cultural climate these days of polarized thinking and extremism, it is not just on the alt-right that blatant, vicious white-supremacist anti-Semitism is becoming more acceptable. It is equally, if not even more frighteningly on the rise on the political left in this country, and around the world.
Today, I will talk about the rise of anti-Semitism on the left for several reasons. First, I am compelled to speak of it out because it’s personal. As many of you know, I am very much on the left on many political and international issues. I have, and will continue, to speak out against many of the practices of the current Israeli government with regard to the on-going building of settlements, and against the human rights abuses of Palestinians. I believe the current Israeli government is guilty of some moral failures, and as Jews, we have a responsibility to stand up for justice and call out our Jewish leaders when they can and ought to be doing better. As someone who has long taught that progressive values are quintessentially Jewish values, however, the rejection of the Jews (often by radicalized Jews themselves) is particularly frightening, and it is a dangerous distortion that must be addressed. Second, the vilification of Israel and the Jews is only getting worse on the left as time goes by. For too long, too many of us have believed that radical-left anti-Semitism was only a thing of college campuses. But now as these ideas are going out online and influencing ever widening groups in this world, we must pay attention. The third and most important reason I am speaking on this topic today is for the sake of future generations. We want to raise our children with a deep commitment to Tikkun Olam, to creating a world of justice for all human beings. We must, as a Jewish community, acquire for ourselves and then give our kids the proper tools to fully understand the unique nature of the anti-Semitism that has crept into and infected so many of the great movements of social justice that our kids so desperately want to fight for.
My ultimate goal in speaking today is to assert that, for the sake of our children, we must reframe how we think about anti-Semitism, how we talk about anti-Semitism among ourselves, and how we teach our kids to fight anti-Semitism in their lives. This reframing of anti-Semitism might make some of us uncomfortable because it involves speaking of anti-Semitism in the language of Millennials, and not in the ways it has been discussed in the past. But we must face our discomfort and act, for the sake of our future.
In the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, we read the famous account of the scapegoat. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would lay his hands on the scapegoat and place all the sins of Israel onto the goat, and then that goat would be sent off into the desert--”El Eretz G’zeirah,” to an inaccessible region. The Midrash, the rabbinic legends, teach that the purpose of the scapegoat was to serve as a bribe against Satan. Satan, in Jewish lore is not the devil. Satan is an angel of God who is always tripping up the Jewish people and calling out their shortcomings before God. According to the Tzena Ur’ena, a traditional collection of midrashic teachings, one of the names of Satan is Sama’el. The name Sama’el refers to the Sam HaMavet, the deadly poison that lives in humankind. When the scapegoat was sent out, the sight of this goat bearing all the sins of a repentant nation would temporarily blind this poisonous angel of God, and the Jewish people could live another year.
It's a fascinating and powerful midrash, particularly when we think about the real Sama’el, the real deadly poison against the Jewish people in the world known as anti-Semitism. LIke all good midrash, the teachings about the scapegoat are here not just to educate us, They are here to challenge us. And the challenge isn’t easy: if we really want to grapple with the evil poison in humankind that is anti-Semitism, then we must start by understanding exactly how this poison against is in society was imposed on us for centuries.
Right from the very beginning, we Jews were made into the hapless, unwitting contributors to the vicious-cycle of global anti-Semitism. It started way back in Roman times, when the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem led to our exile around the world. By Medieval times, Christendom arose, along with its deep-rooted blame of the Jews for the death of Jesus. In Medieval Europe, most Ashkenazi Jews lived as perpetual outsiders. We were landless, powerless, and desperate to survive, and the ruling European authorities saw in the Jews a perfect scheme for oppressing the lower classes: by famously making the Jews the money-lenders, the businessmen, the “middle-management” of European society as it were, making a living for the ruling classes, they were set up as a perfect target of resentment and attack by the poor classes of Europe who already had their Christian “blood-libels” against the Jews. When the lower classes wanted to express their rage, the Jews were literally the perfect scapegoat as the outsiders who made their money at the expense of the oppressed. In this way, the ruling classes were able literally to hold the Jewish communities hostage, paying ransom for their lives.
The more the vicious hordes would attack us in violent outbursts and pogroms, the more we Jews became anxious and desperate for our survival, clinging however we could to make a living in peace, playing right into the hands of the ruling authorities for our very livelihoods. And the more we relied on the authorities for our stability, the more the lower classes would hate us, which is just what the ruling classes wanted. And that cycle continued for centuries, right up through the 20th century and the Holocaust, and now, into our time. No matter how emancipated and enlightened and progressive our societies became, the anti-Semitism of Medieval times, born of fear and ignorance, was now an anti-Semitic “implicit bias,” seared into the unconscious of Western Civilization, leading to perpetual and recurring attempts at annihilating the Jewish people.
The modern State of Israel has now become the proxy, the scapegoat, playing exactly the role in the global imagination that Jews have played in Europe for centuries. This is the case in part because of some of Israel’s policies. We must not deny this fact. But for this discussion, we focus on the deeper causes: it is mainly from anti-Semitic implicit biases and hatreds way more ancient and greater than any one government or policy.
In every story of perpetrator and victim in all of human experience--whether it be in individual cases of abuse, rape or incest, or vast social evils like anti-Semitism, sometimes the complex interrelationship between perpetrator and victim becomes so close and intertwined, the roles and identities of the two parties can become blurred. This is exactly what has happened in Israel in our time. Israel was founded by the Jews, the people who had been victims of anti-Semitism for generations. Now, however, the perception has flipped, and the Jews bear the burden of the perpetrators. That flip happened, in part, because in our desperate need to assert our right to survive against Arab aggression in the early years of the Jewish state, we chose to erase the Arab narratives that claimed that the land belonged to them. When you are struggling to survive, there is no room for multiple narratives.
Here in America, we Jews eagerly adopted the struggle for our Jewish State. When I was in Hebrew school in the years after 1967 and 1973, I remember wonderful celebrations of the miracle that was Israel. I remember celebrating Israel Independence Day, but I had no idea that that same day was also called Nakba, or the Catastrophe, by the Palestinians. No one ever talked about the Palestinian narrative about the wholesale displacement of Arab villages and towns, of families taken from their homes and farms, or of later years, with checkpoints and the injustices against people in the occupied territories. In those days, of course, there was no culture of educating children about multiple narratives, both Jewish AND Palestinian.
And while we Jews were claiming our very legitimate narrative to the land of Israel, through the years, much of the world rejected our narrative. It began with the rise of Arab nationalism, and became worse after 1967, when Arab leaders encouraged their populace to vent their fury at years of imperialist oppression by railing against the Zionists--when truly their rage was against the entire structure of Western imperialism for centuries. The reality of the Middle East today is much more complex. With Syria, the rise of ISIS and the threat Iran, Israel is not the bogeyman it used to be among most Arab states. But it is still hated with a deep anti-Semitic bias now ingrained in the minds of most Arab societies. And now, many modern-day Europeans and other radical left progressives continue this anti-Zionist narrative, displacing their guilt over their own imperialism in creating much of the dire conditions of the Middle East Today.
Meanwhile, here in America, Ashkenazi Jews, as I taught last year, have become accepted into the highest levels of privilege and power in our society. And despite the fact that so many white-skinned Jews have been fighting long and hard for a meritocracy where all peoples of all races and backgrounds can achieve, their skin color has given them leverage in our racist society that black people do not have. All of this is a perfect setup for the conflagration of anti-Semitism that is arising on the left here in America, and around the world.
I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement genuinely wants to raise awareness to the plight of all oppressed peoples in forwarding their platform. However, when Black Lives Matter and other marginalized and oppressed groups begin to assign buzz-words like ‘genocide’ to Israelis, any kernel of genuine critique of Israel falls down the rabbit hole of anti-Semitic incitement: now it is the Zionists, working in close cahoots with the white privileged imperialist machine that is the American world superpower, that perfectly captures the evils of oppression that must be overthrown. Let me put it another way: in the new anti-Semitism of the left, the Zionists in Israel are just like the worst kind of white people here in America, in creating a society built on the backs of an oppressed sub-group of people. Again, it is important to recognize that there are, indeed, many policies that undermine Palestinian hopes, and numerous instances of human rights abuses, but on a broader scale, we are also looking at the same patterns of Medieval anti-Semitism in a new form: now, in the narrative of the radical left, the poor and oppressed are the Palestinian people and the black people and all other marginalized people; the powers that be are the white ruling classes of America and elsewhere, and the Jewish Zionists are their henchmen.
Meanwhile, our millennial American Jewish kids today have, by and large, grown up as privileged Americans. Now some of our kids are rebelling against that white privileged identity and are instead identifying with the anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic radical left movements. And, conversely, some of our kids, particularly in the more religious and Orthodox communities, are clinging tightly to the Jewish-only narrative about Israel that rejects any and all Palestinian legitimacy.
And, while it’s true that most of our kids are somewhere in the middle: they’re Zionists who appreciate the wonder of Israel, they’re proud of Israel, and they are deeply concerned about the genuine plight of Palestinians--and our kids truly want to find a workable solution. But most are still uncomfortable acknowledging a deeper reality. And that is, while it is true that there are oppressed people in Israel and around the world, we Jews have our own unique form of oppression as well. It is so much harder for anyone, particularly Jews today, to acknowledge that we are, in any way, still an oppressed people in the world. Our oppression is hard to acknowledge here in America simply because so many Jews today understand that we, as a group, so successful, so powerful, so wealthy. And we are correct when we think that whatever anti-Semitism exists in this country, it simply doesn't hold a candle to the scope and evils of racism in our society. Nevertheless, the very fact of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world means that the Jews, no matter what outer trappings of power or success we may have, are in fact still oppressed! And if our kids have trouble recognizing that, it’s even harder for their non-Jewish counterparts to recognize that!
Remember, a basic feature of anti-Semitism, for centuries and centuries, was to allow the Jews to have varying degrees of material success, to have money and even some power and influence over the poorest classes in order to play the role of the societal scapegoat. Paranoia about that power has even lead to depictions like that of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Those dynamics are still at play here in America and in Israel with the Palestinians. Ironically, our success and power is a part of our oppression!
The unique kind of oppression that is anti-Semitism is that the world sees us as literally profiting off of the oppressed. We need to articulate clearly to ourselves, the world, and to our children that this perception is a lie. It’s a setup, created through many generations by historical and societal forces way greater than any of us alive in this world at this time. But we can and we must undo this evil perception, this Sam HaMavetl, this deadly poison, and expose it for what it is: it is an implicit bias that the world must wake up to.
When we think about our Jewish kids and the anti-Semitic environments that they encounter on college campuses and beyond, we can’t make the mistake that we have been making. We can’t think that just by arming them with the facts about Israel’s struggle against Arab injustice and media bias is the answer. It’s not. Our kids are too smart for that. The truth is, our kids will immediately shut down if their parents’ generation reduces the struggles in Israel to a binary of one side is right and the other is wrong. The millennial generations live in gray areas, in cognitive dissonance, in multiple narratives of truth.
If we want our kids to live in a world of progressive values free from anti-Semitism; if we want to heal the growing rifts between our American Jews and their counterparts who live in the Jewish State, then we must begin by reframing our own conversations about anti-Semitism among ourselves and out in the world. Those of us on the left have to begin a new movement against anti-Semitism, and we must do it in the name of socially progressive values. We must begin by pointing out that, in all the discourse on the political left about fighting racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, we must ask our liberal counterparts why we rarely hear about the fight against anti-Semitism?
If we want our kids to have the tools to stand proud as Jews in anti-Semitic environments on campus and in progressive movements, then we must start by helping them see that anti-Semitism inherent in BDS and similar movements in this country is the shadow-side of privilege in this society and the world: the very social dynamics that keep blacks and others oppressed has also generated the conditions for anti-Semitism for generations in this world! It’s all part of the same system of oppression! In other words, the same system that keeps the underprivileged in constant degradation also promotes the Jews as intentionally driving that evil machine. Our kids must begin to call out their radical left counterparts as the anti-Semites that they are.
Most of these counterparts would be shocked and horrified at the very suggestion that they are anti-Semitic (In their ignorance, they may feel that it is okay to be anti-Zionist, but most would never identify as anti-Semitic). And in that moment of their horror, that is just the moment when our Jewish kids can educate them! They can teach them when anti-Zionism crosses the line into anti-Semitism: when Israel is demonized, and compared to Nazism, invoking Holocaust terminology like ‘genocide’ then anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitic; when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied when no other country’s right is questioned, then it becomes anti-Semitic; when criticism of Israel is singled out and applied selectively, then it becomes anti-Semitic.
The language of Millenials focuses on issues of power and privilege, their yearning for justice causes them to envision a radically levelled social playing field. Just as good and kind white privileged people are horrified when they first discover that their implicit bias has unwittingly made them a part of an evil racist system that oppresses blacks and others; so too any decent person on the left should be horrified that their implicit anti-Semitism is unwittingly playing into the anti-Semitic shadow-side of privilege and oppression. On Rosh HaShanah, I taught how inheriting implicit bias leads to great evil unless we open our eyes and see where each of us are guilty of it. The same wake-up call is needed for those on the radical left! We need to point out that social forces beyond their awareness has given them an implicit bias against the Jews and the Zionists!
This new way of framing anti-Semitism that I speak of today--a framing that speaks of anti-Semitism in a context of the progressive, universalist search for dignity for all peoples--casts it in a different light than they way it has been discussed in previous generations. It’s in a new vein that, I believe, those on the left may be able to hear. It is less a narrative told from Jewish trauma and binary thinking, and more a narrative in a wider context of human power, privilege, abuse and oppression. It is a narrative that sees anti-Semitism as existing on an inseparable continuum with all other hatreds and oppressions. It is a narrative that can free our kids from the dilemma of wanting to be progressive but having anti-Semitism thrown in their faces. It teaches the world that if all people wish to live free, then the freeing of the Jewish people from anti-Semitism is crucial to that process of Justice for all human beings.
I offer this notion of fighting anti-Semitism as a social justice cause today not as a cure-all to heal the poison of all the complexities of global anti-Semitism. Out-croppings of anti-Semitism in places like France have a virulence that is deep-seated and not specifically connected to issues of privilege. This approach won’t magically change haters who are more committed to their hatred than to justice. What it can do, however, is it can transform our kids by encouraging them to stand up for who they are--for justice!--as a matter of identity. Remember what I taught on Rosh HaShanah: the core progressive value of our day is that every group, no matter how different or uncomfortable they make those in the majority, every group deserves a right to have their expression, their freedom, their collective experiences and their humanity cherished.
Yes, there will always be haters who hate us. But it is not too late. There is hope. All the seeds of lifting up the fight against anti-Semitism are present in all our kids’ environments. We Jews have long been leaders in progressive movements. Every movement for social change exists against great odds, but there is always the drive to overcome those odds. It’s time we lead the progressive world into fighting anti-Semitism as one of its basic struggles, never giving up hope that true justice is possible.
That Midrash about the scapegoat that bribes Satan actually ends in an extraordinary way. The goat is an effective “bribe” because it actually ceases--at least in the eyes of Satan--to be a hapless victim, bearing only the sins of others. According to the Tzena Ur’ena, Satan beholds that goat, and not just the goat, but all Israel worshiping on Yom Kippur. In that moment, Satan sees the Jewish people really for who we are: he sees not just flaws and sins, but a people aspiring to be like angels, doing God’s bidding to make this world a more sacred and just place. And in that moment of seeing the fullness of our hearts turning toward God on the holiest day of the year, he can only speak words of praise of God and words of praise for the Jewish people.
On this Yom Kippur, as we face a world of greater anti-Semitism, we can and we must transform our role in the world as the perennial scapegoat. Just as that scapegoat in the Midrash ceases to be a victim, but rather an instrument for enlightening Satan to who we truly are in the world; so too we must inspire a new generation of our people to transform our ancient role of scapegoat and become a people who enlighten the world to one of Justice, compassion and peace for all human beings.