Anti-Semitism: Why and What To Do

The increase in anti-Semitic incidents is alarming to us all.  Bomb threats called into JCCs and Jewish Day Schools at an alarming rate, the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, graffiti sprayed on walls and public buildings, swastikas burned into the carpet of college dorm hallways in front of the rooms of Jewish students, vicious and threatening letters sent to heads of Jewish organizations who are working for social justice.  And this is only a partial list of the evidence of anti-Semitism.  The problem has become so pervasive that it was the first thing mentioned by President Trump in this week’s address to a joint session of Congress (though possibly because of criticism that he had waited too long to offer words of condemnation), and is major story in national news coverage.

Our own community has been affected as well, though not with violence.  In recent months, there have been incidents at South Orange Middle School and Maplewood Middle School that raise concerns of anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior among students.  And just yesterday, the new pedestrian bridge in the South Mountain Reservation was extensively defaced with graffiti which prominently included swastikas and intimidating language.

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When we encounter anti-Semitism, we are compelled to ask why it is so prevalent.  Anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior are not new—they are as old as Judaism itself.  Still, in every era and at every ugly incident, we want to know why Jews are so often the target of hatred and violence.

There are no clear and obvious answers, though many have offered theories.  Some have said that Jews have been historically hated because we are the world’s conscience, the first to sound the call to moral behavior.  Our voices have been the loudest to declare that the pursuit of goodness and decency requires sacrifice, self-discipline and the ability to control human impulse and temptation.

Others have suggested that anti-Semites are nothing more than people who hate themselves, often with good reason, so they find someone as different from themselves as possible, and whatever they don’t like about themselves they project onto this other person or people.  The result of their self-loathing is an attack on the “other,” including the expression of racial hatred, religious hatred and hatred of people who are expressing their sexual or gender identity.  In this context, we, as Jews, must continue to take a strong and determined stand against hatred against all people.  We must resist discrimination, hatred and violence not only when it affects our people and our community, but when it comes along to sting and insult any person.  This has long been a teaching and core principal of Judaism—we oppose hatred and discrimination in all its ugly forms and against all people.

Whatever the reason, the question now is why is there an upsurge in anti-Semitic activity and violence at this time?  Again, we have theories, such as the ideas offered by Dr. Stephen Windmueller who suggests that the current surge in anti-Semitism can be ascribed to three causes:  1)  the current political climate, 2) the “Cycle of Hate,” and 3) changing perspectives about Jews.

Whatever the cause of the current upsurge in anti-Semitism, we surely must respond assertively.  I urge us all to be vigilant.  While it may have come to sound a bit cliché, “if you see something, say something” is more relevant than ever.  Don’t be dismissive of the appearance of hateful graffiti as just something that’s part of our culture or the new norm.  We are supported by a strong and concerned community and by effective and dedicated law enforcement officials on every level– we are not alone.

I urge us all not to be afraid or intimidated.  If anything, that’s what haters want—to make their targets feel afraid and abandon what they enjoy and love about life.  Nothing would make an anti-Semite happier than to see Jews stop doing the things that they enjoy about being Jewish.

I urge us to work for goodness and decency in our community and national life and to oppose anyone who targets “the other” because they don’t conform to their own view of what normal and acceptable should look and behave like.

And I urge us all to continue to be proud of our Jewish identity.

Because of the upsurge in anti-Semitic activity, I have invited Josh Cohen, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey Office, to speak to our congregation on Saturday, March 11 during Shabbat morning services on the topic of “Toward a World Without Hate: The Quest to Defeat Anti-Semitism.”  The service starts at 9:45 AM and the presentation will begin at approximately 11:15 AM.
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