Recently, after much anticipation, The White House released a document setting out its comprehensive strategy to combat the scourge of antisemitism which has become impossible to ignore.
Much was said and written about the document; many were happy with it, others not. Everyone wishes something in particular had been included, deleted, amplified or adjusted. But I doubt there has ever been anything this significant or comprehensive in the fight against antisemitism in writing from an administration before.
And we do need something significant, even if the document fails to please everyone. Personally, I would welcome some changes, but given the range of constituencies involved, I believe this is an excellent start and a strong commitment. Time will tell, and I am optimistic about the outcome.
The White House antisemitism plan is an excellent start
Antisemitism has been growing exponentially over the last 10 to 15 years. I remember the terrifying feeling as a child of a planned march by neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, a city heavily populated by Jews, which ultimately didn’t materialize. The roar of Holocaust survivors and Jewish community leaders back then seemed to have a significant effect. Consequently, we were spared what could have been a painful disaster.
But the ugly monster of hate did not die, it just took another breather.
About 10 years ago, I received a disturbing phone call from someone who is not Jewish but has many friends in the Jewish community and is generally very supportive in a number of ways. They wanted me to know that they had just been at a prestigious dinner party the night before and someone shared an antisemitic joke.
“No one gagged”, the friend shared with concern, “and some even laughed. I haven’t quite seen that before”. When I asked this friend why they were telling me this, they replied, “I believe it is important for someone like you to know that something like that has happened. It seems things are changing, and you need to be aware.”
Hardly a decade later, we see terrifying numbers and statistics. Antisemitic incidents have always been shocking. Sadly, they are becoming more commonplace – up a staggering 36% in the last year alone. Pundits and commentators have begun to wonder aloud whether antisemitism is even starting to become accepted and “cool” in some quarters.
The COVID pandemic isolated us, thus leading to a rise in social media as an easy medium for hate, as its criteria for decency and legitimacy evaporated. It also brought about an explosion of antisemitic expression, and further removed the stigma once present for those who would spew hate.
Thankfully, there has been a lot of support for combating antisemitism and helping Jewish communities and institutions in practical ways. Leaders on all sides recognize the need to tackle this problem head-on. Law enforcement is also grappling with the right ways to balance freedom of expression and keeping our communities safe.
SO, EVEN those who might disagree with a statement here or there, or think a particular figure could do differently or better, we should at least take some comfort from the fact that awareness of antisemitism is on the rise.
At the same time, I feel there is something else regarding the Jewish community which is equally, if not more troubling in some ways than antisemitism; the alarming drop in Jewish affiliation and identity. This problem must become more present in the discussions of Jewish leaders and communities.
The same COVID pandemic which saw the dramatic rise in hate on social media, also saw a shocking deterioration in personal Jewish community interaction. And while many sectors of society have more than recovered (have you traveled recently?), the wider Jewish community still struggles to return to its pre-COVID state – and I don’t just mean attendance at events, even though that, too, is taking time.
Zoom and other means kept us connected on some level. But open identification by Jews – as Jews – is down, in some quarters sharply so, especially among younger and more secular members of the community, where as many as 40% do not identify as being part of the Jewish faith, only Jewish culture.
And I am horrified by the huge number of students and young professionals who have recently said that they, and many of their friends, now hide any identifying Jewish symbols from view.
Many tell me they would rather their friends, and in some cases, even roommates (!), not know they’re Jewish. Some are afraid it might ruin their career prospects, academic grades, or social standing, while others say they even worry about their own personal safety.
The release of the White House document outlining its strategy to combat antisemitism marked the end of the tenure of the official who oversaw its creation. By chance, it also coincided with Memorial Day. It may not be perfect, but it reflects the current administration’s desire to bring this troubling issue into sharp focus. We must be grateful for that, and use it as a stepping stone to further highlight this problem.
The release of the document also coincided with Shavuot, a festival in which we mark the actual beginning of The Jewish People with the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. While strategies to combat antisemitism can help protect us from our haters, Shavuot goes to the very core of who we “are.” The basis for my concern was brought into sharper relief by the timing of the release of this significant document.
TOO MANY Jews today are keenly aware of the fact that we are hated, as we have been, sadly, for millennia. But far too many are not sufficiently aware of our core identity. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once shared how he grappled to understand why, as a Jew, he was so reviled. Perhaps there was a valid reason, he mused. Until he realized that there was no valid reason. “The Nazis”, I remember him saying, “hated me before I was even born. How could they have any valid reason?”
Maybe there is an antidote to this conundrum – the answer to which lies within ourselves.
Last year, at the behest of the student leaders, we presented a unique event at The George Washington University, a campus which has, in recent years, had to deal with rising antisemitism, despite its large Jewish population.
The event, which drew hundreds of students, faculty and community members, featured special envoys to combat antisemitism from both Democratic and Republican administrations (the current envoy had not yet been confirmed), a bipartisan representation of Members of the House and Senate, and the university’s president. Students spoke about their experiences and ideas on the matter.
Before the event concluded I said, “Perhaps the most effective way to counter antisemitism is with an informed, proud and robust semitism.” By working to develop a stronger sense of Jewishness, we could all become more empowered to deal with this problem, I pleaded.
“Robust Semitism” became a “thing” among many students, young professionals and friends. I am becoming increasingly convinced that if properly developed, a larger effort to promote this concept would help to strengthen our Jewish community. (I am aware of the historic sensitivity of the word semitism, but the concept strongly resonates among young people.)
While it might be difficult to create a formal precedent in short order, it is possible for individuals to convince themselves and their circle of friends to do whatever they can to increase Jewish awareness and identity in their own lives. This can be accomplished either by teaching and studying themselves, or lending support to the many programs which help connect Jewish people to their identity and heritage – and to each other.
Better informed and connected, we become stronger. Our chances of successfully rising to this challenge requires drastic steps. If we start with ourselves and those closest to us and work hard at it, soon, the ripple effect will leave a powerful mark on the wider community.
We need to do more than simply talk about it. We must act now. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would constantly urge us to replace fear and negativity, the defensive and natural response, with a deep sense of inner strength and proactivity.
Let us hope that with our best efforts and the blessing of the Almighty we will, as we have throughout history, prevail once again. Jewish identity and education is ultimately the basis of Jewish survival.
Am Yisrael Chai!
The writer, a rabbi, is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own. His upcoming book, Capital Sparks, is expected to be released later this year.