Purim, now in the rear view mirror, is a fun holiday but “lurking” behind it is the confrontation with anti-Semitism that never seems to end. Lately, here in America, we have seen it revive with the spate of bomb threats at JCC’s and the defacing of Jewish cemeteries. I don’t usually talk about this subject but it’s time to do so, sharing two colleague’s perspectives on this issue, one 40 years old and one written last week. This will be longer than my usual blogpost but it’s important and can’t be stated briefly.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech was an Orthodox shul rabbi in Oceanside and also wrote the famous The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism. 40 years ago the Jews of Oceanside woke up on Yom Kippur to find vandalization and curses painted at the entrance of all the local synagogues. He wrote at the time that when he heard the news reports saying that “a rash of anti-Semitic incidents struck Oceanside yesterday,” he thought, “wait a moment.” Were Semites the victims of prejudice or was it every member of society who values democratic ideals and the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Wasn’t the collective fabric of a free and ethical society torn by these actions, not just one group? And he said it would have been better stated that “a rash of anti-human incidents struck Oceanside yesterday.”
Fast forward to today in America. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, up the road in Baltimore, wrote last week that he didn’t understand what Rabbi Blech was teaching then – why universalize the issue? curse words weren’t written on churches – but does now. We Jews are not in danger in America. It’s America that is in danger. Those who are making the bomb threats and defacing the cemeteries likely didn’t recently become anti-Semites and don’t just hate Jews. They have probably been filled with hate most of their lives, but (and here is where it gets serious) they didn’t think they could express it. Only when they heard America talking about things in public that they had only talked about in private: bad hombres and rapists coming in from Mexico … spies coming in amongst Syrian refugees … blacks and carnage … terrorism being perpetrated by illegal immigrants … Muslims imposing Sharia law … the LGBTQ community taking over our bathrooms – when this kind of talk becomes public discourse then “the rats feel comfortable coming out of the sewers.”
It’s not surprising that in this climate Jews would not be left out of the discussion. Do you really think the killer of a man from India in Kansas wouldn’t have been just as content killing a Jew? Jews are the eternal “other.” It was Haman who gave the Jews that title when he advocated our annihilation to the king by saying: “There is one people scattered amongst the people in all the provinces of your realm, v’datayhem shonot – and their laws are different.” And who wants to be around people who are different? Rabbi Blech was right! What we are experiencing is not anti-Semitic incidents but anti-human incidents. Hatred of a Jew is irrational. And hating a person because of the color of his skin is rational? Or because of the country from which she comes? Or because of the religion he practices? Hating someone because he or she is different, is an “other” … does that make any sense? And what about the Biblical verse: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? “
I think we are all in this together. If it seems that here in America it is we Jews who are most under attack right now, probably because we are the most visible amongst the “others.” And we are not just visible, we are powerful! We are all over the newspapers and television and Hollywood. The other “others” are usually the less educated, the less affluent. We are the more educated, the more affluent. And that makes them hate us even more! But, don’t kid yourselves: They hate us all!
We would do well to remember the immortal words spoken by the great Protestant minister, Martin Niemoller, who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. You all know the words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Yes, all us “others” are in this together. None of us, as humans, are safe. This means that in the years ahead we Jews are going to have to work with the other “others” – blacks, gays, refugees and yes, Muslims. I didn’t always see that so clearly. Now I do. Hopefully you do too. Best, Bill Rudolph