Combating the darkness of antisemitism by spreading more light - opinion

For most of Jewish history, the Jewish community was focused on protecting themselves – ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. To protect is essential, but our mission is to project.

PRESIDENT OF the Austrian parliament Wolfgang Sobotka forged his own path as a fighter against antisemitism and bigotry. (photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
PRESIDENT OF the Austrian parliament Wolfgang Sobotka forged his own path as a fighter against antisemitism and bigotry.
(photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Over Purim, I led a cohort of students from Yeshiva University to Vienna to help provide support for the Ukrainian refugees. 

As a part of the mission, we convened a conversation with the president of the Austrian parliament, Mr. Wolfgang Sobotka. Mr. Sobotka’s grandfather was a Nazi but he has forged his own path as a fighter against antisemitism and bigotry. 

And there we sat together, dozens of Jewish men and women, students at Yeshiva University, with someone whose grandfather served in the Nazi Party trying to figure out together how we could provide support for Ukrainian refugees. It was a remarkable conversation and, in a larger sense, a reflection of the incredible opportunity of the era in which we live.

For most of Jewish history, the Jewish community was focused on protecting themselves – ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. We protected ourselves against harm, we safeguarded our traditions and mesorah, and fought back against our oppressors. Of course, antisemitism is still a serious issue with which we contend – and our duty to protect the Jewish people and Jewish traditions remains. We must be vigilant and devote extensive resources to identifying and combating antisemitism throughout the globe. 

But it is important to remember that this is not the purpose of the Jewish people. To protect is essential, but our mission is to project.

YESHIVA UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman speaks with students on campus in New York (credit: YESHIVA UNIVERSITY)YESHIVA UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman speaks with students on campus in New York (credit: YESHIVA UNIVERSITY)

In the fight against antisemitism and bigotry, too often our collective global efforts are focused exclusively on protection. We call out antisemitism, we heighten security. These are crucial measures. But, to paraphrase Rav Kook, the best way to fight against darkness is by shedding more light. Part of our response to antisemitism and suffering of any kind must also include efforts to add more light, alleviating suffering with proactive healing, responding to evil by increasing our collective holiness.

A model for us to consider is Shabbat. Our tradition teaches us to be shomer Shabbat, to safeguard Shabbat. In this way we imitate God, who was the first to refrain from work on the seventh day. But at the same time, God is mekadesh – He not only protected the Shabbat, but also sanctified it. Likewise, we don’t just protect the Shabbat, we sanctify Shabbat.

AND SO it is with our values. We need to protect those values that mean most to us, to be shomer Shabbat, so to speak, but we must also elevate and project our values; we need to sanctify the world. We safeguard and we sanctify – one preserves, the other advances. And so, too, with the Jewish people. Our people require safeguarding, but it is all too easy to slip into an exclusively protectionary mindset. We also inhabit a second reality – and that is the opportunity to be mekadesh, to sanctify – bringing our values out into the world.

This has been a marked focus of our education at Yeshiva University. At YU, we are not just combating antisemitism, we are actively projecting Jewish values to the world. As the flagship Jewish university, we dispel darkness by shedding light. 

We shed light when we have a glowing beit midrash packed with students studying Torah late into the night – not just to become rabbis but to become leaders of industry, professionals, and the entrepreneurs of the next generation. We shed light when the world watches the athletic success and sportsmanship of our basketball team. And we shed light when our students proactively go out into the world and serve as shining examples of how committed and proud Jews act with compassion and love for all.

When the Yeshiva University delegates met with our friend, Mr. Sobotka, we sat in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. It’s a magnificent edifice, centuries old, with a chilling history. In March of 1938, Adolf Hitler stood from the balcony of the palace to announce the Anschluss, the unification of Germany. And there we sat, decades later and just a few feet away, Jewish students of Yeshiva University with Austria’s head of parliament, thinking together about how we could assist Ukrainian refugees. In that very place of historic darkness, we projected a new light.

In this rapidly changing world, the Jewish people have opportunities that previous generations could have only dreamed of. And with these opportunities come newfound responsibilities: we need to protect and project. 

It is the consciousness of this holy mission that elevates all of our day-to-day activities and interactions, whether it be with family, neighbors or co-workers. From cubicles to corner offices, from batei midrash to Zoom rooms, in boardrooms and classrooms, inside your own home or in public discussions with international leaders – to protect and to project – the mission and responsibility of each Jew is to embody and forward our values to our family, our community and the world around us.

The writer is the president of Yeshiva University. Founded in 1886, it is the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, bringing together the ancient traditions of Jewish law and life and the heritage of western civilization.