Ask the Rabbis | What Is Anti-Semitism?
Anti-Semitism is a culture of commonly held malicious assumptions and attitudes toward Jews and Judaism as propagated by the sacred writ and doctrines of two major world religions for close to 2,000 years and further augmented by libelous bestsellers such as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Thus, if you are Jewish, you’re either an enigma or a stigma, thanks to the well-entrenched portrayal of the Jew as a demonic usurper bent on controlling the world, exploiting the disadvantaged and sabotaging all that is good. Even the humanist Imanuel Kant dubbed us “vampires” and our Judaism worthy of “euthanasia.” Vatican II notwithstanding, the Catholic Church still considers us dried-up has-beens and the only remaining impediments to the Second Coming of Christ (Catechism No. 674).
Although anti-Semitism was sown by the ancient Greeks following their failed incursions into Jewish life, the dilemma Christianity and Islam face is the tenacious continuity of our people and our recent return to our ancestral homeland, which pose significant ideological challenges to the claims of both these religions as having surpassed if not outright replaced us. And as the late Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser once wrote: “Those who are frustrated are always tempted to translate their frustration into hostility toward those responsible for their predicament.”
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Jewish Chaplain, Patton State Hospital
Not that long ago, many Jews believed American anti-Semitism was mostly a thing of the past. We confidently pointed to high degrees of cultural acceptance, even noting how intermarriage signaled just how well things were going in America. Perhaps we were right about deed restrictions and quotas. But we were certainly wrong about anti-Semitism.
Frighteningly, today’s version is far worse than the mid-century social varieties. Violence, threats and desecrations of synagogues and cemeteries are becoming almost daily events. Anti-Semitic rhetoricians have created their own 21st-century version of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, accusing Jews of every evil and its opposite. We hear it in dog whistles at meetings of the National Rifle Association (“Soros!”) or in the faux philo-Semitism of admiration expressed for some very ugly Jewish stereotypes. And we see it coming from some critics of Israel who fail their own social justice test by demonizing Zionist Jews in undeniably anti-Semitic terms. Jews today are the focus of a great many angry agendas.
Though hardly the most reviled, feared or hated group in today’s America, Jews are being reminded that when hatred rises, it never skips over us. Perhaps our best response would be a little less surprise that it is happening and a lot more effort to join ranks with other targeted citizens.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI
However it is defined, anti-Semitism singes the individual and collective Jewish soul. Its spiritual impact shapes Jewish identity, community and practice and therefore warrants top priority alongside wise policy and security responses.
Centuries of anti-Jewish hate foster instinctive Jewish reactions—that hate is endemic, that safety is fleeting, that some unspoken “they” forever are out to get “us,” that to live Jewishly is to resist hatred aimed at targets on our backs. But we lose the real fight against anti-Semitism—and we lose ourselves—when we respond with self-protective fear, intolerance or counter-xenophobia. These soul impacts drive insularity, spiritual constriction and disconnection when we most need multicultural outreach, allyship and spiritual expansiveness.
That’s why anti-Semitism scholar Deborah Lipstadt has written that her top concern isn’t what anti-Semites do to Jews, but what we Jews do to ourselves in the shadow of hate. The timeless secret of Jewish resilience is the expansiveness of genuine Jewish joy. This is the transformative soul journey of Psalm 118: “From constriction I called to You, and You answered me with expansiveness.” Our best response to hate is joy.
Rabbi David Evan Markus
Temple Beth El of City Island
City Island, NY
Anti-Semitism is a hatred of Jews as a religious or ethnic group. It can take the form of political leaders fomenting fear and hatred of Jews for their own purposes, or religious leaders demonizing Jews with charges of deicide or of “pharisaical” legalism. Anti-Semitism works on both a systemic scale and the smaller scale of everyday life; an unexpected insult or stereotype can make schools or workplaces inhospitable.
The anti-Semitism that most concerns me in the United States today is white nationalism, a social movement that seeks a white ethno-national state. The civil rights strategist Eric K. Ward has been an important and inspired teacher on this threat, explaining the centrality of anti-Semitism to the white nationalist movement—which teaches that Jews seek to “replace” whites with minorities through immigration and other liberal policies—and underlining the way anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism work in tandem. Clearly, if any group is threatened we are all threatened, as is democracy itself.
The way people of all religions, cultures and heritages have come together in the face of such threats has been deeply moving to me. Unity is critical, and we must not let anti-Semitism become a wedge issue, either in our domestic politics or in our own community’s disagreements around the policies of Israel. I pray that we increase our compassion and empathy for each other, as we stand together against all forms of hatred.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
Anti-Semitic acts range from the most violent, such as those associated with the Holocaust, to the most insidious, such as the perpetuation of anti-Jewish tropes in social media and day-to-day conversation. All of these result from fear of the “other,” which can be taken to its extreme in violent acts such as those committed against the Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and Poway. Those perpetrators are filled with hate that has been learned and perpetuated. That hate is, sadly, as clear as day. More subtle forms of this fear of the “other” emerge from ignorance; they are harder to contain and thus also dangerous. We hear co-workers unknowingly using idioms that perpetuate Jewish stereotypes; we see anti-Jewish symbolism in the media and in political discourse. The dangers persist because we do not necessarily know how to halt the usage and propagation of such tropes.
All of these acts, the violent and the insidious, stem from unfamiliarity with Jews, illiteracy about Jewish life, culture and history. They are propagated by narratives that extend back generations. Our challenge is not defining anti-Semitism; rather, it is effectively eradicating fear of the “other” so that all members of our society can live in wholeness, safety and peace.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
In the 20th century, anti-Semitism in America took the form of discrimination in housing, quotas, employment, small-scale insults and occasional violence. Today anti-Semitism looks different. Consider the Jewish students on college campuses who are facing discrimination because of their views about Israel, the ongoing violence in Brooklyn and the attacks in Overland Park, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, Monsey and Jersey City.
How do we respond to this new kind of anti-Semitism? We need to be vigilant in securing our institutions: locking doors, hiring security and working with local authorities. But there is more. Both individuals and organizations should develop alliances with a cross-section of the non-Jewish world. I truly believe most of our neighbors are not anti-Semitic. Strong personal relationships will go a long way toward ensuring that Jews remain respected and safe in America.
George Washington famously wrote, “For happily the Government of the United States which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…” In peaceful times we can rely on Washington’s vision. But when a government or those in power provoke a crisis, people turn against their neighbors, as they did in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia and in Europe during the Shoah. This kind of anti-Semitism is a result of other tensions, not a cause in itself, and as such is particularly dangerous. Jews would be well served, for both altruistic and self-protective reasons, to foster a society in which social tensions and anxieties are not permitted to fester and cause scapegoating.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Anti-Semitism is the hatred and persecution of Jews. (Not of Semites—many Semites, among Arabs especially, are anti-Semites.) It is the longest-running social pathology in human history, persisting from ancient through medieval through modern civilizations and expressed in many contradictory guises: Jewish capitalists, Jewish communists, Jews too clannish, Jews too internationalist, etc.
Is there one common thread in all these diverse hatreds? I say yes. Jews, having taught humanity to believe in God, testify that only God is ultimate. This teaching relativizes all human authorities and cultural movements. By their existence—whether themselves believers or not—Jews announce God’s presence. This denies the absolute claims of the people among whom they live. Similarly, by remaining distinct, Jews tacitly question all claims that a community has arrived at the ultimate society, culture or identity.
Those who make absolute claims for their country, race, culture, religion or revolution are angry at the Jews simply for their continuing presence and difference. In every place and time, those who absolutize human systems—white supremacists, Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, Hungary’s populist nationalists, and before them National Socialists, Stalinist Communists and Christian absolutists—hate the Jews for being there and undercutting their claims of being the absolute.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Some historians say the first anti-Semite was Manetho, an Egyptian priest of the third century BCE. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, who led the famed Volozhin yeshiva, took it back further—to Genesis. In a monograph about anti-Semitism, written around the time the term was first coined, he isolated two themes in the reaction of Laban and his sons to Jacob/Yisrael, the eponymous father of the Jewish people. One was the belief that Jacob could have become rich only by stealing from them. The second was “otherness”: Laban senses that his daughters and grandchildren have entirely different values, and he is so estranged from them that he is willing to murder them, though he is stopped by G-d.
Even further back, a midrash sees a reference in the second verse of the Bible—before Jews had come on the scene, before humans had been created, even before the earth was formed—to the four kingdoms that later rose against the Jews. The 16th-century Maharal of Prague (of Golem fame) explains that the rabbis saw the mission of the Jewish people as carrying consciousness of G-d to the world. It was inevitable—part of the very fabric of creation—that there would be resistance to this message. People who consciously or otherwise were reluctant to accept a G-d-centric world would push back on all levels, physical, emotional and intellectual.
At the root of anti-Semitism, then, in all its protean forms, is intolerance for a Jewish view of G-d and His relationship with man. Given the current global rejection of Divine authority, religion and any and all absolute values, the projection from rabbinic thought would be that there will be much more anti-Semitism ahead before it gets better.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
Anti-Semitism has been around basically as long as the Jewish people. At every Passover seder, Jews around the world remember that “in every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us, and G-d saves us from their hand.” We recite the “Six Remembrances” every day, which include the episode of the biblical enemy Amalek, who “accosted you on the way and attacked your stragglers” who were weak. And then we are commanded explicitly to wipe out any trace of Amalek, and not to forget to do so.
So, how do we wipe out Amalek? Who is Amalek today? The Lubavitcher Rebbe stresses that Amalek shares a gematria (numerological value) with the Hebrew word safek, or “doubt” in English. The enemy we have today, aside from those who act against us in hate, is the “doubt” which threatens our “stragglers”—our weaker points. In addition to a robust communal and public response to the undeniable rise in anti-Semitic acts and expressions, we need to encourage stronger identity and connection within our Jewish community. Signs of Jewish pride send a powerful message not only to those who “rise up to destroy us” but to ourselves. When we are strengthened and express ourselves accordingly, those who seek our destruction get the message. Am Yisrael Chai!
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
American Friends of Lubavitch
Since Arabs are also Semitic, it is important to say that anti-Semitism is actually anti-Judaism. In my opinion, anti-Semitism is directed at the revolutionary and disruptive values Judaism introduced: the image of God, a universal day of rest, a rejection of slavery and a value system in which a breach of business ethics is an abomination. Judaism also believes in a society that can be both industrious and religious and takes the golden rule—love others as you love yourself—as its motto.
From theory to practice, throughout history, those values, coupled with the Torah’s insistence on the importance of education, understanding personal and communal history, and the right to ask questions, have helped Jews overcome obstacles that would have eradicated any other nation. Armed with the hope stemming from the Exodus, the resilience of Psalms and a deep understanding of the flow of time from the lost paradise to the messianic era, Jews got back on their feet again and again. Destruction of their temples, exiles, expulsions, Crusades, Inquisition and Holocaust failed to defeat them. So, in essence, anti-Semitism is jealousy of the achievements of the Jewish people, which, according to common sense, should not have existed. It is a sore reminder to some nations of their past crimes against the Jews and a source of frustration for others who cannot fathom the rise of Jews to power in the New World, in postwar Europe and especially in the State of Israel.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia