Anti-Semitism: Why Today?

February 13, 2020

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Excerpted from Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg’s sermon at Ohef Sholom Temple on February 7, 2020.

As if the fear of the coronavirus isn’t enough, the Anti-Defamation League reports that extremists are promoting conspiracy theories blaming (guess who?) the Jews. February 7th’s Forward reports that, according to the ADL’s website, the following encrypted Internet messages were uncovered. And I quote: “Finally! Science has discovered a cure for the most insidious disease of our time…Jewishness.” The same person also referred to a news report that three Israelis were quarantined as possible coronavirus carriers with the message “3 down, 5,999,997 to go!” Posts linking the coronavirus to racist and anti-Semitic slurs and memes also are found on 4chan and Gab. One 4chan user wrote, “Send the sick to Israel—if you already die at least take out as many Jews as you can.” In addition, extremists are using the spread of the coronavirus to advance their anti-Semitic theories that Jews are responsible for creating the virus and are spreading it to “increase their control” or “profiting from it.”

Even though it is 2020, anti-Semitism is alive and well.

The real question is why this fear and hatred of Jews is as present today as it has been for over two millennia? From where do these ideas that Jews are trying to topple the global order and take over the world or that Judaism is synonymous with money and greed come? Is anti-Semitism worse today than in other epochs in our history? Is it being more easily metastasized by the unchecked lies proliferating on social media and the dark web making it so much easier for haters to find one another and spread their insidious ideas? Does the perceived uptick in anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence have to do with the prevalence of overt racism in our society today in the form of anti-minority sentiments and anti-immigrant policies? Are White Supremacists being emboldened by implicit and explicit support from the highest echelons of our government? If so, then how do we explain anti-Semitism on the far left? Or is the cause of anti-Semitism far more historic and complex?

In an attempt to answer some of these truly existential questions, here are the top four most common reasons for anti-Semitism:

One: We Jews are different from other people and therefore cannot be trusted to be loyal to the state.

In the book of Esther, Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman because Jews don’t bow down to people. But Haman’s rationale to King Ahasuerus for killing the Jews of Persia is: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (3:8). Even if this example is not historically proven, there is no doubt that on February 9, 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte convened a Sanhedrin, an historic rabbinic court, that had not been assembled in 1,000 years, to force the Jews to swear primary allegiance to France before being granted the same equal rights given to all other Frenchmen. And in our own day, no matter the service we have given and the strides we have made in every sector of American life, allegations of dual loyalty against American Jews, rear their ugly head too often.

Two: The most insidious and pervasive reason for anti-Semitism is that the Jews killed Jesus.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in chapters 23, 24 and 27 in particular, many speeches, known as woes, are attributed to Jesus in which Jews are called “killers of the prophet” and deserving of punishments for this crime by destruction of the second Temple and Jerusalem. In verse 27:25, the Gospel puts these words in the mouth of the Jewish leadership, “His blood be upon us and our children.” This blood guilt text has been interpreted to mean that all Jews, of Jesus’ time and forever afterward, accept responsibility for the death of Jesus and, of all of Christian Scripture; these eight words have caused more Jewish suffering than any others. They have been used to justify persecution of Jews for millennia. Despite the Catholic church’s renouncing of this doctrine in Vatican II in 1965, it continues to be pervasive thinking for many, although, thankfully, not for most.

Three: The third most common reason for anti-Semitism: Judaism is synonymous with wealth, power, greed, and globalization and Jews are striving to overthrow the global order through their control over the banks, Hollywood, and the media…a la Jews are sitting around counting our Benjamins.

Lest you think these conspiracy theories are held only by extremists, many of these ideas are imbedded in great religious traditions, popular ideologies like Marxism, and many other belief systems and philosophies in between. So pervasive are these ideas that they are also held in places where Jews do not even live—take Hungary, Poland, and Asian countries.

Dr. David Nirenberg, dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago, prefers to call this thinking anti-Judaism, rather than anti-Semitism. He says anytime a society uses Judaism as an explanation for the many challenges they face, whether or not there are Jews around, they are anti-Jewish. In the countries I mentioned above and even in the United States, where fear of immigrants is at hysterical levels, these go hand in hand with parts of our society agreeing that it is because of Jewish machinations and the Jews trying to replace the current social and economic order with the “Jewish global order.” There are many forms of racism, hatred, violence against peoples who are different, but masses coalesce around the idea that Jews are the problem unlike they do with any other racial or religious minority. This is actually called replacement-theory ideology—simply put, Jews are trying to take over the world.

Professor Nirenberg tells this true story: “It happened in 2001, in mid-September. I was heading to New York City to give a talk at N.Y.U. It was the day George W. Bush was speaking at Ground Zero. There were only two other people on the subway car, and they were trying to explain to each other why this new kind of terror had struck New York. They had two answers for each other. One said that it was the Jews’ greed, and that the Jews had turned New York into a symbol of capitalism, and that’s why everybody hates us, and the other said, yes, and because they killed Christ.”

Four: The final reason most commonly given for anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism is that the State of Israel is evil, an occupier and oppressor nation, ruled by apartheid policies and that murders innocent Muslim children.

This is an old canard. The same blood-guilt I mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew was leveled against Jews for thousands of years in the form of the blood libel—Jews were murdering Christian children and using their blood to make matzah. It is true that Israel is imperfect, and that its current leadership is much less interested in dialogue with its citizens than it ought to be.

But even though not all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, that does not mean that much of anti-Zionism isn’t informed by the powerful and dispersed anti-Semitic tropes we mentioned earlier, particularly that of Jews trying to impose a new Jewish global order in which all the wealth and power are held by us. Plainly, the reality is, horrible optics aside, anti-Semitism pre-dated the existence of the State of Israel.
From fear, hate, oppression, and violence against Jews in the forms of blood libels, pogroms, inquisitions, and expulsions, the Holocaust, and the murderous rampage at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, to the heinous attacks against us in New York during Hanukkah, we Jews have been targets of hate. In truth, people need few excuses and even less rationale for pointing the finger at us or to perpetuate anti-Semitic thinking and actions.

Whether or not this period in Jewish history is worse or the same as in the past, Nirenberg says he does believe we are in an era of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism because so many different societies are simultaneously reviving ways of explaining the complexity of the world in terms of the dangers posed by Judaism or Jews…even if they are not real Jews. He believes that anti-Judaism is a distinct kind of prejudice that truly does transcend particular political contexts. Anti-Semitism is a crucial part of nationalism, but it is also part of the far left’s agenda a la the joke about the Jews being the only people blamed for both communism and capitalism. The external factors that seem to spur fear and hatred of Jews are things like political polarization and economic stresses, among others; these seismic shifts in our nation and world are what seem to make the language of anti-Judaism so useful to so many.

So, given the vast system of thought that birthed anti-Semitism, how do we combat it? Aside from continuing to model the ethics taught in Torah by living our lives as the best possible humans and citizens we can be, what else can we do?

Today, as much as ever, we must educate, educate, and educate some more. We must be vigilant, yet we must also live our Jewish lives fully, purposefully and joyfully. And finally, we must recognize that the conspiracy theories of a few extremists, as awful as they are, can never and will never destroy the Jewish people or our Jewish spirit. Am Yisrael Chai.

Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg is the Senior Rabbi at Ohef Sholom Temple.

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