April 14, 2024
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Fighting the Scourge of Antisemitism

This past weekend, it was impossible to read the story of Amalek on Shabbat morning and hear the Megillah reading on Saturday night and Sunday morning without thinking about the pervasive antisemitism that we have witnessed since Oct. 7.

When I was a child — and even when I was an adult — the Megillah reading on Purim seemed much like a fairy tale: a beautiful heroine queen … a wise sage … an evil villain … and a foolish king.

We forget sometimes that the story in Megillat Esther is perhaps the first recorded instance of an antisemitic verbal statement. We hear it loud and clear in Haman’s words: “There is a unique people scattered and dispersed through all the realms of your majesty’s kingdom, and their laws are different from anyone else.” And since they don’t accept the king’s laws, Haman requested the first license for genocide in history: “… to destroy, to obliterate, and to exterminate all Jews, young and old, children and women, in one day.”

To a great extent, our generation has been extremely fortunate in that we have lived through a period where there has been relatively little antisemitism compared to prior historical periods. In the past 50 years, American Jews have risen to the top echelons in business, the arts and the sciences, with few examples of prejudice. If anything, the fact that Jews have been accepted so willingly into American society has created another problem — an alarming increase in intermarriage. However, as we will be reciting in a few weeks at the Pesach seder, “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.” And since Oct. 7, we have sadly witnessed this once again.

Trying to understand antisemitism is incredibly difficult. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, antisemitism consists of a series of contradictions. Jews were hated because they were poor and because they were rich. Jews were hated because they were capitalists and because they were Communists. Jews were hated because they were clannish and because they infiltrated society. Jews were hated because they worshiped a primitive and superstitious faith and because they were ruthless cosmopolitans who believed in nothing.

So how can we better understand antisemitism, and how can we prevent it from happening in the future?

The best way to understand antisemitism is to think of it as a virus. What does a virus do? It’s a disease that attacks individuals or societies from within. Fortunately, the human body has a sophisticated mechanism called the immune system which is able to detect most viruses and creates antibodies for protection. However, viruses can mutate and still survive. And in many ways, that is what has happened to antisemitism. It began one way, and it has mutated several times throughout history.

Today’s antisemitism is different from the antisemitism of prior generations. It focuses not on religion or race, as previous examples of antisemitism have done. Instead, it focuses on nation. It is directed against the Jews in the land and state of Israel … which is something relatively new. Anti-Zionism has become the new form of antisemitism.

But if we really want to get down to the core of antisemitism, the best way to understand it is to go back to the sentence in Megillat Esther: “There is a certain people who are different from everyone else.” That is the common denominator as to why we have experienced antisemitism for thousands of years. The Jews are hated because we are different. Antisemitism, according to Rabbi Sacks, is “the paradigm case of the dislike of the unlike.” The Jewish people throughout history insisted on their right to be different, refusing to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith.

And the answer, of course, was not assimilation. Seventy-five years ago, the Jews in Germany asked themselves why they were hated and correctly thought it was because they were different. So, they thought to themselves, let’s stop being different. Let’s abolish our kashrut laws … let’s celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday … let’s get married civilly and not religiously … and be like everyone else. I don’t have to tell you what happened in Germany. Antisemitism did not diminish at all. We must never believe that we are the cause of antisemitism.

So, what should we do today to fight the scourge of antisemitism?

Rabbi Sacks recounts a famous story of a rabbi from Manchester, England, who went to Russia during the 1980s after Glasnost to help rebuild the Jewish community. While he was there, a young girl in her teens approached him, shaking uncontrollably and said: “All my life, I never spoke about being Jewish. Nobody thought I was Jewish. We didn’t discuss it and nobody said anything about it. Now, because I am Jewish, when I walk outside in the street people shout at me and call me a Jew. What should I do?”

The rabbi, who had a long beard, a big black hat and a kapata, turned to the young woman and said, “The way I look, people probably don’t mistake me for a non-Jew. And yet, in all these months that I’ve been here, no one ever shouted at me, ‘Jew!’ Why do you think that is?

The young woman thought for a moment and responded, “Because they know if they shout out the word ‘Jew’ to me, I will take that as an insult. But if they shout out the word ‘Jew’ to you, they know you will take it as a compliment.”

If we want to effectively fight antisemitism, let us walk proudly as Jews — and not be ashamed of our heritage. And let us strive to banish all forms of hatred forever.


Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, is the author of “Meet Me in the Middle” (meet-me-in-the-middle-book.com), a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. He can be reached at [email protected].

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