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Antisemitism All Over Again

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780 Sermon


Times of Israel Blog—October 1, 2019
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

Let’s talk about antisemitism—again. To be honest, I don’t very much want to talk about it. I
would prefer to talk about just about anything else. I always prefer to speak about the positive,
about what makes us sing rather than cry, what makes us dance rather than what makes us
afraid, but this year is different. How could I not talk about antisemitism in a year when not
just one American synagogue was attacked but two, when Jews were murdered as they did the
most Jewish of things, give thanks for the blessing of the seventh day? How could I be silent
when eleven Jews were murdered as they gathered for Shabbat prayers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of
Life synagogue? The sacred phrase, tree of life, now has a tainted resonance. How could I as
well speak about something else when the State of Israel continues to be vilified and even
compared to Nazis in progressive, liberal circles? How can I remain silent when those who
murder Jews are praised among those who profess to champion the rights of women and
minorities? How can I talk about singing and dancing when synagogues are vandalized, when
Jews are attacked in our city’s streets and the walls of our own nearby park spray painted with
swastikas? I could go on. But I need not. The examples come at an almost daily pace.

I very much wish I could pick up the phone and speak with Annie. For those who did not have
the privilege of knowing Annie, she was a long-time member of our synagogue who died a little
over a year ago. She lived a long life, well into her nineties. She raised a daughter, was blessed
with grandchildren and even great grandchildren. But it was not always an easy life. She
survived the Holocaust, living—if you can call it that—for nearly a year in Auschwitz. At various
times, she hid in a barn, was captured and beaten, and most dramatically of all, jumped from a
moving train when her father realized it was headed to a death camp. On that train was the
last moment she saw her mother and sister. I can still her speak about the feel of her mother’s
hands helping to push her out of the train’s small pried open window. Every year Annie used to
come to our sixth-grade class to tell our students about her experiences. She would always
remind them that she survived because of the help of friends and even strangers but also
because of a lot of luck. Sometimes she would give credit to her mastery of several languages.
She would then admonish the students and say, “Remember to do well in school. You never
know when you might need that learning.” I also thought she survived because she was
blessed with an extra dose of koach, which can best be translated as inner strength and
courage. Perhaps it was even more than one dose. She was by far the most courageous person
I ever met. I used to joke that even though I had to bend down to hug her, she was also the
tallest person I ever knew.

I recall as well how she never failed to tell me when she disagreed with a sermon. I remember
one time in particular. It was Rosh Hashanah, during one of my first years at the synagogue,
and I gave a sermon that was quintessentially life affirming and positive. I don’t recall exactly
what I said, but it was before 9-11, and I wanted to make the case that our Jewish lives should
be built not on what antisemites say or do, but on what Judaism inspires us to do. We should

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be Jewish because we want to be, not because that’s who they say we are. Somewhere in the
course of the sermon I believe I said something along the lines of antisemitism is a thing of the
past or that at worst it exists only on the fringes and that it will never be a worry here in the
United States. I don’t believe the cantor had even finished the last verse of Adon Olam before
Annie was marching toward the bima to be the first person to greet meet as I descended the
stairs. And there I was confronted with what I came to know as the Annie finger wave. She
waved her finger at me as only someone who has lived so many years and who has experienced
so many things could do. It was a loving rebuke that came without shouts and screams,
without angry words and vitriol. It came as it could only come from someone who had
experienced the horrors of what I only read about in history books. She said, “Rabbi,
antisemitism will never go away. It’s always there. It may not be so loud now. But it’s always
lurking beneath the surface. Never, ever let your guard down. It will come back. It always
does.” I did not know how to respond to that critique, to one that came from such terrible
experiences and so I uncharacteristically said nothing. We hugged and wished each other a
shanah tovah. But to be honest I did not believe her.

And so, now more than ever, I miss Annie. I so want to speak with her about what we see
happening in our world today. I want her to teach me all over again. I want her to help us
understand what’s going on. But I am left without my teacher. And I feel as I imagine many of
us do, lost, and perhaps frightened, looking for answers but without a guide. This place, this
United States of America, was supposed to be different. And so, what are we to do? How are
we to confront this menace? How are we to confront this murderous ideology?

Let me offer a few tentative suggestions. First of all, can we stop pointing fingers at the other
side of the political divide and say it’s all because of them? It’s not only an issue for Democrats.
It’s not only a problem made by Republicans. There is plenty of blame to go around. Let me be
blunt.

Republican leaders continue to provide oxygen to ideologies that denigrate minorities. Our
president most especially fails to condemn and marginalize Nazis who chant, “The Jews will not
replace us.” Make no mistake. The more often minorities are demonized, the more Jews will
also be victimized. There is a direct line between Christchurch and Pittsburgh. Read the killers’
hate-filled manifestos. Jews will not replace us and Muslims do not belong here are two sides
of the same coin. America will always be a nation of immigrants. Such murderous views are all
about some distorted idea of those guys are stealing away from us what is our rightful place.

Then again, Democrats give far too much legitimacy to those who make the absurd claim that
Zionism is some terrible injustice, a sinful colonial occupation, or that Israel is the worst human
rights offender in the world, comparable to Nazis. Representatives Omar and Tlaib, for
example, conjure conspiracy theories in which Jews, or Jewish groups, control American foreign
policy. While the deadliest acts of antisemitism committed in the past year were perpetrated
by far right white nationalists, the antisemitism of the left may in fact be more insidious
because it creeps into the nooks and crannies of the university; it is discovered in the most
rarefied of intellectual circles, and that most certainly spells trouble for the future. On the left,

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antisemitism is not illuminated by Tiki torches. Instead it hides beneath a veil of progressive
values.

Make no mistake dangers lurk around every corner. And so, on both counts, we must look
within and ask ourselves, can I remain committed to my values, whether they be liberal or
conservative, without making excuses for the antisemitism that hovers nearby?

It’s not just on their side. It’s on our side too. Let’s stop pointing fingers at them and start
pointing fingers at ourselves. Stop making excuses for your side and start owning the problems
within. So, if you are a devoted Democrat, I want to hear you loudly call out the antisemitism in
the party you claim as your own. And if you are an ardent Republican, then call out the hate
that is given breathing room within your party. It’s all too easy to say, “It’s all their fault.” It’s
so easy to send congratulatory emails to like-minded friends that say, “Look at how bad they
are. The Democrats are just as bad as Corbyn’s Labour Party.” Or, “Look at how awful they are.
Republicans are giving license to racism.” Antisemitism is found on both the right and left.

Suggestion #2. Just because antisemitism is a threat no matter which side it comes from does
not mean we fight all antisemites in the same way. The antisemitism of the right and left
cannot be fought using the same methods. Different strategies are required. We should not
battle supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as we do white
supremacists. The same approach will not work. There are shades within this struggle. It
cannot all be portrayed in black and white terms. Antisemitism is the same—because at its root
it harbors some outsized, distorted view of Jews—but then again, not all antisemites are the
same.

Recently I met Roberta Kaplan. She is a remarkable woman. Again, she appeared a towering
figure. She is the lead counsel in a lawsuit filed against those who organized the attacks in
Charlottesville. In this lawsuit, supported by Integrity First for America, the legal team is using a
law first written after the Civil War that makes it illegal to conspire to do violence. Through the
use of a team of computer experts, they are unearthing emails and text messages that prove
just that. The leaders of the antisemitic violence in Charlottesville meticulously planned their
hate filled and violent rally. And what is the net result? She is tying them up in the courts. So
much so that to date they have been unable to organize another similar march. This year’s
attacks were committed by lone actors, fueled by online hate. And here, we are making
headway in shutting down the forums these antisemites use to talk with each other. Tech
companies are belatedly, albeit somewhat hesitantly, beginning to join this fight. We have
discovered and must now admit that as wonderful as the internet might be such fringe thinkers
find common cause online with people who share whatever crazy, and dangerous, ideas they
might harbor. The internet has made fringe thinking appear mainstream. These are fitting
strategies to fight right wing antisemites. Deny them the funds. Deny them the tools to
organize. Throw up roadblocks at every turn.

But it is easy to identify antisemites when they wear hoods and paint swastikas. It is
straightforward when you can shut down their shadowy ways of communicating with each

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other. It is much more difficult when antisemites hold PhDs and advocate for women’s rights
or lead the charge for those in the LGBTQ community. Jews’ faith in the university, in liberal
ideals, is being tested. For many Jews, it feels like we have been abandoned. On the left
antisemitism hides behind a hatred of Israel and Zionism. And here throwing up roadblocks, or
in the specific case of Representatives Omar and Tlaib, denying them entry into Israel, does not
serve our fight. I recognize that it was emotionally satisfying when Israel did as is their right,
and denied these congresswomen entry, but it undermined our struggle. There are Members
of Israel’s Knesset who hold equally problematic views. All we accomplished was to amplify
their views and make them into even greater heroes. We have to be smart and strategic in this
fight. Here, on the left, the fight is an intellectual fight. I am not so naïve, or idealistic, as to
believe that such naysayers will be convinced of the rightness of our cause, and the wrongness
of their views, when they are welcomed into Israel, when they see its vibrancy, as well as its
pitfalls, with their own eyes, but I do believe that Israel, and the Jewish people, should be first
and foremost about hope rather than fear. Israel is strong. It is a great nation. It is a bustling,
and at times frustrating democracy—most especially right now—that has a first-rate military
working day and night to protect its citizens, as well as Jews throughout the world. We should
no longer look at it as the perennial victim.

Zionism is about transcending Jewish victimhood. The anti-BDS legislation will backfire. I
realize this is an unpopular, and contrarian, view. This fight is instead in the marketplace of
ideas. You can, as I am sure a great many will, dismiss my idealism and my single-minded
devotion to opening the table to those who hold views I abhor, as well as views that might even
be dangerous, but please heed my strategic concerns. Our efforts have served to amplify these
hate-filled voices. These laws have allowed BDS supporters to portray themselves as victims of
those who wish to suppress free speech. And I worry this will only gain them more followers.
The leaders of BDS, and the congressional representatives who support their cause, are not the
same as Hamas terrorists. So yes, shut the doors tight against Hamas and other such enemies.
But open the doors to BDS supporters. I recognize this is a scary idea. Have strength. Have
faith in Israel’s might. Summon the koach—the inner resolve.

Let Israeli innovations speak louder than the anti-BDS legislation. Let the naysayers try to drive
through New York’s streets and highways while not using Waze; let them forgo immunotherapy
treatments developed in Israel; let them not find inspiration from some of Israel’s great writers,
like David Grossman or actresses, like Wonder Woman (aka Gal Gadot). Sure Israel is
imperfect—it is made up of human beings after all. And there are legitimate critiques to be
made, and debates to be had, about its policies and decisions. Of course, Israel can do better.
But in this case, that is beside the point. The antisemitism of the left does not see the
occupation, or the settlements, or the denial of Palestinian rights, as the problems but instead
Zionism itself as the problem. It sees Jewish power as a sin. It is not. Its view is that Jewish
victimhood is the only appropriate reality. Again, it is not. So how do we fight this hate?
Locking the doors will not work. Instead, we must not be cowed by fear. That’s what the State
of Israel truly means. That’s what it means to be a Jew in the twenty first century. That is what
it means to be raised in an age when there is a sovereign Jewish state. We will never be
victims. And that is more a statement about how we should view ourselves rather than what

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happens to us in the world. It is a state of mind. We will never again look at ourselves as
victims.

Be unafraid. Call out antisemitism. And be smart and strategic. What might work against one
antisemite does not necessarily work against another. Do not ever allow these hatreds to
dissuade you from your love of being Jewish and your belief in America. Do not ever allow
hatred and violence to stifle your singing and dancing. America is different. Why? Because we
want it to be so. And because we make it so.

After the graffiti was spray painted in our own backyard local lawmakers needed little prodding
to stand up against it. No one dismissed it as benign. And after the massacre in Pittsburgh’s
Tree of Life synagogue I received condolence notes from all manners of people. I received
messages of support and offers of consolation from all corners. Friends, and strangers, reached
out to the one rabbi they know to say they were saddened and horrified by what happened.

Our local clergy, and their congregants, joined us in prayer. They stood by us and offered their
solidarity. I was actually in Israel during the time of the shooting and so, late one night, I
quickly emailed Reverends Jeff Prey, Michael Piret, Kevin Smith and John Yenchko, the local
clergy with whom I get together for lunch every few months, and said, “I don’t know what I am
going to say, but I know we will need some extra prayers and songs at this coming Shabbat
service. I also know I would like you to be there. Can you come? Will you be able to attend?”
And they each responded, “Of course, I will be there.” And then one after the other added,
“Can I bring my congregants?” I only realized later what did not need to be said, “I need you
there.” I did not have to say that. My friends, and colleagues, understood this. That is what is
different about America. It was as easy as email to ask for support. They all said an attack on
any house of worship is an attack on us all. They all pledged that we will stand together.

But if you think that this difference happens by accident then you are mistaken. It requires
hard work and devotion. Friendships that transcend religious differences, relationships that
reach across political divides, must be nurtured and cared for. America is different only if we
make it so.

Annie always concluded her talk with our sixth-grade students with the words, “Do not judge a
person by how they look. Treat every person as an individual. Don’t treat people as categories.
There are good and bad people in every group.” I think of her teachings now. I need to hear
her voice in my ear. And to be honest, I misspoke at the beginning when I first said that she did
not shout. There was one thing she always said with a raised voice. And it was this, “Am Yisrael
chai—the people of Israel shall live!” She would point that finger in the air and shout so loud
that sometimes our students became startled. And she would scream, “Am Yisrael chai.”

On this Rosh Hashanah, as we enter a new Jewish year, we need to summon Annie’s koach, her
inner strength and courage. We need to emulate her stature. We need to hold our heads high
and shout, “Am Yisrael chai.”

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Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel shall live.