Anti-Semitism feels ubiquitous. There are times when I align with the great Jewish historian Salo Baron, who opposed what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” He noted that “suffering is part of the destiny of the Jews but so is repeated joy, as well as ultimate redemption.” Baron made the argument that we ought not to define the Jewish experience merely with the fight against oppression, persecution, and anti-Semitism.
There are other times, however, during which I think Baron got it wrong: so much of Jewish history is indeed the fight against anti-Semitism, oppression, and persecution.
And recently, I find that the study of anti-Semitism does not remain relegated to history class but has regularly appeared in the context of current events.
With article after article centering around the very real rise in anti-Semitism – emerging from the extreme political right, the extreme political left, and radical version of Islam – we all need to consider how we talk about anti-Semitism.
- How does global anti-Semitism impact the psyche of Israelis?
- What constitutes anti-Semitism?
- When speaking about Judaism with our friends, relatives, and students, how much of our focus should be on anti-Semitism?
- How do Israelis feel about global anti-Semitism?
- How much should we channel our inner Salo Baron and focus on the joy, redemption, and positivity around the Jewish people, and how much of our time and resources should be dedicated to fighting and responding to anti-Semitism?
Let’s dive in.
It is well-documented that global anti-Semitism has been on the rise as of late. In fact, last year had the largest number of Jews killed in anti-Semitic attacks in decades. The last month has unfortunately showcased much of the same. Just in the last two weeks, over 100 Jewish tombstones were defaced with swastikas in Eastern France, and the iconic Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, DC, was vandalized with anti-Semitic symbols and slurs. Two Jewish teens were violently assaulted in Brooklyn, New York, while in London, England, a Rabbi was beaten up and left bleeding on the side of the street after attackers shouted “Kill Jews” and “F*** Jews.” An anti-Semitic Florida pastor referred to impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump as a “Jew coup” on his public YouTube channel, claiming that “when Jews take over a country, they kill millions of Christians.” This video was viewed by his thousands of subscribers. Anti-Semitic acts are nothing new in Europe and North America, but it was announced this week that even Australia saw a 30% increase in anti-Semitic acts this past year. All of this in the past two weeks!
Why Does This Matter?
Proactive Jewish identity – Some might find it hard to believe that just 75 years after the Holocaust anti-Semitism is once again on the rise. As Jewish communities throughout the world feel the effects of anti-Jewish sentiment in varying degrees, something we’re thinking about is how to foster in young Jews a positive, proactive Jewish identity that is not merely a reaction to anti-Semitism. History has shown that, sometimes, it is anti-Semitism that reminds Jews that they are Jewish. How can we build Jewish identity so that it is not reduced to just that? Like we wrote about last week regarding Israel, it might just be about being on the offensive, rather than the defensive. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss aptly wrote recently, “the Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites… The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are.”
Israel’s role in combating global anti-Semitism – Does Israel have a responsibility to combat global anti-Semitism? This is a tricky question. Israel has a history of absorbing Jews facing persecution, specifically in Arab lands and Ethiopia and the former USSR, and its Law of Return opens its doors to all Jews. Should Israel do more for Jews living around the world, or does Israel not necessarily represent all Jews? Find a deep analysis here.
Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? Last week, France passed a resolution calling Israel hatred a form of anti-Semitism, as it “encompasses manifestations of hatred toward the State of Israel justified solely by the perception of the latter as a Jewish collective.” Debates rage today over whether anti-Zionism is indeed synonymous with anti-Semitism. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg and political commentator Peter Beinart are among those who believe that it’s possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic. Goldberg writes, “Certainly, some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but it’s entirely possible to oppose Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot. Indeed, it’s increasingly absurd to treat the Israeli state as a stand-in for Jews writ large…” On the other hand, at this year’s AIPAC conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism… This bigotry is taking on an insidious new form in the guise of anti-Zionism… Criticizing Israel’s policies is an acceptable thing to do in a democracy. But criticizing the very right to exist of Israel is not acceptable. Anti-Zionism denies the very legitimacy of the Israeli state and of the Jewish people.” Bret Stephens, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Shuki Friedman are of the same mind. Even as far back as 1973, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote, “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism” (Congress Bi-weekly, American Jewish Congress, Vol. 40, Issues 2-14, 1973, p. xxv).
Diversity of Perspectives Within Israel
A fascinating survey by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs sheds light on what Israelis think of global Jewry and rising anti-Semitism. Forty percent believe that European Jews should move to Israel; 30% believe the solution lies in European legislation against anti-Semitism; 17% believe that work needs to be done toward strengthening the status of the Jew in Europe. Only 20% of respondents accurately named the number of Jews outside of Israel (8 million – most underestimated), yet 40% believe that the Israeli prime minister has a responsibility toward this group.
A different survey of Israelis, conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), found that 44% believe that Jews have a future as Jews in Europe, while 46% believe they should leave now. Of the respondents, 91% believe that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, and 72% think that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people.
Back in 2015, after anti-Semitic terror attacks in both Copenhagen and Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.” Netanyahu’s call for Jews to immigrate en masse wasn’t well-received by both European political leaders as well as European Jewish leaders; however, it reflected a long-standing Zionist perspective that Jewish people should “return home” to Israel where they will be safe.
- In Israeli history, there have been multiple instances in which Israel has gone out of its way to protect Jews outside of Israel. Watch this video from 2015 of current Defense Minister and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking on Israel’s role when it comes to the safety of Diaspora Jews. What is Israel’s role when it comes to global anti-Semitism? Do you think Israel is responsible for the safety of all Jews, wherever they reside?
- In early Zionist debates over the role of a future Jewish state, Theodor Herzl dreamed that when the Jewish people had their own country and became a nation among nations, anti-Semitism would disappear. On the other side of the debate, Ze’ev Jabotinsky believed that a Jewish state would protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism rather than eradicate it. Which Zionist thinker do you think had a more realistic view? Now that we have a Jewish state, which of them do you think was right?
- What do you think is the best way to fight back against anti-Semitism? Is it learning Jewish history and understanding anti-Semitism better? Is it focusing on Jewish pride and identity instead of the negatives of anti-Semitism? Is it something different entirely? Explain.
- Which aspect of being Jewish makes you most proud? Is it a religious quality, like certain commandments? Is it something national, like scientific achievement? Is it something cultural, like food or holidays–or something else? Describe.
Practical Classroom Tips
- The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is coming up. When lighting the candles each night, many Jews sing “Maoz Tzur,” which describes several major calamities in Jewish history (and adds one stanza asking God to bring salvation). Learn the words with your students and discuss: Why is this what we sing when lighting Hanukkah candles?
- Can your students identify anti-Semitism? Use Natan Sharansky’s “3D test” to help your students recognize modern anti-Semitism. Note that Sharansky, like Sacks and many others, identifies anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Additionally, the United States Holocaust Museum provides resources on teaching about anti-Semitism.
- Play this video by Chief Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the relationship between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Judaism, and Israel. Engage in a group discussion on the topic using the material above and any additional questions.
- Use our past articles and discussion questions/classroom tips there to delve deeper into this topic: Episodes of Anti-Semitism in America, The Israel-Diaspora Relationship, Rep. Ilhan Omar on AIPAC, and The Pittsburgh Massacre.