Members of the Ku Klux Klan face counter-protesters as they rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)
The attacks in Barcelona and Charlottesville have deeply disturbed the Jewish community. While no Jews were killed in either attack, in both cases the attackers were followers of ideologies that promote violent antisemitism.
However, the reactions in Europe and the United States were quite different. European Jews are far more sensitive to the dangers of antisemitism, and the Barcelona attacks have frightened them. A friend in London wrote me this week that “this is so awful – when is this going to end???? We constantly feel fear living in Europe – there’s always another incident.”
She is not alone in her view. A poll just published by Campaign Against Antisemitism shows that one in three British Jews are considering leaving the country. In Spain, the chief rabbi of Barcelona, Meir Bar-Hen, said: “This place is lost. Don’t repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late.” For European Jews, antisemitism is an existential threat.
America is not Europe. Jews are very much at home here, and well accepted in public life. Unlike European countries, nationality is not the foundation of American identity; instead, anyone who subscribes to the values of liberty and human rights is considered a true American. Acceptance of Jews has been the rule, rather than the exception, in American history; already in 1790, George Washington wrote to Touro Synagogue saying that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And since World War II there has been a dramatic decline in American antisemitism.
What we don’t realize is that the security Jews feel in America changes how we respond to antisemitism. When antisemitism is not perceived as an existential threat, it becomes easy to look at troubling events through a partisan lens; many Jews now put partisanship first. When this president equivocated in condemning neo-Nazis, partisans of one side denounced him loudly, while opposing partisans spun rationalizations, and when the previous president equivocated in response to radical Islam, the same phenomenon occurred, only in reverse political order.
Too many Jews first consider “cui bono,” who will benefit, before speaking out on antisemitism; once they determine the political outcome, they decide whether to make their voice louder or softer. I learned this first hand when our synagogue released a letter last week, which, among other things, expressed disapproval of the president’s handling of Charlottesville; the responses we got were predictable, and divided along political lines.
This politicization of antisemitism in the Jewish community is actually an indicator of how unworried Jews are about antisemitism. But that is a mistake.
Antisemitism is fundamentally mythical, an irrational explanation of the world. There is an old sarcastic remark that antisemitism “is hating the Jews more than absolutely necessary”; true antisemitism is not a grudge against a Jewish opponent, but a senseless hatred for all Jews. The Jews are seen, to use Bernard Lewis’ term, as “a cosmic evil,” a people who are destroyers, usurpers and oppressors. The demonic Jew becomes central to the antisemite’s view of the world. As Sartre observed, “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.” To the antisemite, Jews are stock characters in a bizarre cosmic drama. Because antisemitism is an irrational myth, it can flourish in any environment, in both good times and in bad.
That is why the events in Charlottesville require our response. There was a mob marching in the streets shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and there was a murder perpetrated by a Hitler enthusiast who drove his car into a crowd. Outside the synagogue in Charlottesville there were angry shouts, and intimidating men held a bay by a security guard; one well wisher at the synagogue, an elderly Roman Catholic, was so overwhelmed by the scene that she asked: “Why do they hate you?”
But they hate us, they really hate us; and we must never forget that. Even in good times we need to be vigilant.
To be vigilant means to respond to antisemites of every ideological stripe, from the Right and the Left. To be vigilant is to refuse to politicize our response to antisemitism. To be vigilant is to demand more of our leaders.
In 1985, president Reagan was going to visit Germany. During the trip, he was scheduled to attend a memorial ceremony at a German military cemetery in Bitburg that included the graves of 49 Waffen- SS members. Reagan was a steadfast friend of Israel, and many in the community wanted to keep quiet about the visit to avoid embarrassing the president.
Elie Wiesel was being given a Congressional Medal of Achievement right before Reagan’s trip. During the nationally televised ceremony, Wiesel addressed Reagan. He spoke of his genuine appreciation for Reagan’s efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Israel. Then he explained that “our tradition commands us to speak truth to power.” Wiesel then turned to Bitburg, and bluntly said: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Wiesel understood one must denounce antisemitism, in good times as in bad. We must speak up, even if it might antagonize our friends. We can never compromise when it comes to antisemitism. And today, more than ever, we must follow Wiesel’s example.The author is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.