To bigotry no sanction: Antisemitism in America

American Jewry is strong and can survive this crisis.

Racism in America (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Racism in America
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
It is bitterly ironic that the worst occurrence of murderous antisemitism ever in the United States took place in a synagogue called the Tree of Life. There, instead of life, the worshipers found death. It is also ironic that this took place on the Shabbat when the Torah portion of Vayera was to be read – although it never was at the Tree of Life – because in that portion the Lord says that Abraham “is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the world are to bless themselves by him” (Genesis 18:19). Later in that same portion that idea is repeated, “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…” (Genesis 22:18). Instead of blessings, what was heard that fateful day was curses, cries to kill Jews – all the Jews.
Jews have long considered America to be a blessed land for them. It has been many decades since antisemitism in America has drawn such attention, but then never before in America have Jews been slaughtered in such numbers while praying in a synagogue. That does not mean that synagogues in America have never been targeted and forced to take security measures. There have been bomb threats and swastikas on synagogues before and some synagogues therefore have felt the need for security. For many years I officiated at Adas Israel in Washington, DC, on the High Holy Days when there were police patrols and armed security. But, of course, that synagogue also played host to the Israeli ambassador as well as to prominent members of the American administration and the Supreme Court. That kind of security – and even more drastic measures – has long been common at synagogues in London and on the continent. The news of the massacre in Pittsburgh reached me while in France. I spoke at a memorial meeting held at a synagogue in Nice and a large force of military police armed with machine guns patrolled the area. America was different – until it suddenly was not.
What we may have forgotten was that the difference in America was not that there was no antisemitism, but that there was no official antisemitism and no governmental antisemitism there. Before World War II, antisemitism flourished in the US. In many a hotel Jews and dogs were not allowed. Whole sections of cities and suburbs were free of Jews because of covenants that forbade selling to Jews. The idolized Lindbergh was an open antisemite and could have become president, as Philip Roth reminded us. Antisemitism was openly preached on the radio. Prominent universities had quotas for Jews – even though the quotas were larger than the percentage of Jews in the population. Nevertheless, ever since shortly after the American Revolution the separation of church and state has been enshrined in the Constitution and America has never been officially a Christian country. Washington’s famous declaration to the Jews – “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support… May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid” – was seen as America’s official position on the status of Jews. Unfortunately these days there are those who wish “to make him afraid.”
In the years following the Shoah, such open antisemitism was much less to be seen – until recently. When I lived in America, including the 5 years I served as a pulpit rabbi (1968-1973), I personally encountered no open antisemitism. There was plenty of ignorance concerning Jews, especially in more far-flung areas where Jews were seldom seen. When I was an Air Force Chaplain serving in South Dakota, for example, I recall being asked when speaking to a church group if it was true that Jews were not allowed on the flight line at the nearby air base. I replied that it was most unlikely since the deputy commander of the base was a Jew. In recent years things have changed. For years now the campuses have become filled with a mixture of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but pure racial or religious antisemitism came to the fore openly only in the last few years when a Pandora’s box was opened in America and the dark underside of America that had always been there – white supremacy, hatred of blacks, Jews, minorities, immigrants and others – emerged openly once again. Under such circumstances it could not but happen that sooner or later someone would take this hatred to its logical conclusion and decide to kill Jews – and where better than in a synagogue?
There is nothing new in this itself. What is new is the fact that antisemites, white supremacists and neo-Nazis no longer feel that they have to hide in the dark. Rather they are emboldened to speak and march in public and to use the social media to express what they have always believed. Perhaps the enormous support expressed for Jews and Judaism after Pittsburgh will bring about a change in the atmosphere in America. It is hard to know, but it certainly behooves American leadership, from the top down to make every possible effort to change the atmosphere in the public arena, to reduce and eliminate the attitude that it is alright to speak negatively and hatefully about groups and individuals who are different from the majority. Our leaders have to follow Washington’s example and adopt Lincoln’s attitude of “with malice toward none” before we can expect a change and a lessening of hatred on the American scene. Perhaps then antisemitism will no longer be acceptable.
This is a sad and difficult time for American Jews. The feeling of security, of innocence, of living in paradise has been shattered and it is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate it again as it was. But it seems to me that we must also be careful not to exaggerate. America today is far from Nazi Germany of the 1930s. Most Americans have a positive attitude toward Jews. The government – whatever one may think of it – is not controlled by a group calling for the destruction of the Jews. Anti-Jewish laws are not being contemplated. The police and the army are not on the side of the antisemites. For happily, what Washington said remains true and “happily the government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” That dark underside of America that has crawled out into the open does not represent the majority of Americans and, most of all, America does not have the past history of antisemitism and exclusion of Jews that was common to European lands. The Inquisition functioned in South and Central America but did not reach the United States.
American Jewry is strong and can survive this crisis. Jews in America have been a blessing to America and can continue to be so if both they and American leadership take the firm steps needed to protect themselves and to change the atmosphere in the public sphere from one of hatred and demonization to one of love and acceptance. Perhaps then we will see the fulfillment of the words of Isaac, “Cursed be those who curse you. Blessed they who bless you!” (Genesis 27:29).