Congregation B'nai Israel

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Blinking Yellow Lights

by Rabbi James Prosnit

Rosh Hashanah 2017/5778

As I began to prepare for my remarks this morning I thought back on the many sermon’s I’ve delivered over the past almost three decades, and realized that while I have addressed a lot of topics, I’ve never preached on Anti -Semitism. On the contrary, I have spoken quite regularly about how in the history of the Jewish people there has never been a Jewish community more secure, more affluent, better established than ours — the American Jewish community of today. And by the way I still believe that to be true.

Perhaps I have shied away from the subject because it is so easy to address this topic in a way that is alarmist, hysterical and manipulative; and perhaps because I believe with all my heart that the source of our loyalty to Judaism should not be the sad fact that some despise us. Our love for this tradition, our commitment to this faith, should be rooted in its inherent beauty and meaning – not in anger or fear.

But there is something unsettling in our land and I think for many of us a wake-up call came this summer as we witnessed Nazi flags and anti-Semitic chants flooding the streets of Charlottesville. Now of course we’re not naïve – we’ve known about neo Nazis and white supremacists and hate groups for years, but the proud public display, even of a few hundred brought the subject to the headlines and served as a dramatic reminder that this lethal obsession, this ancient and virulent form of hatred still exists. Unchecked it easily morphs into different forms, appears at different times and comes from both the right and left wing fringes of our society and we need to talk about it.

About 20 years ago, the anthropologist Karen Brodken wrote a book with the provocative title, How Jews Became White People. She looks at the acceptance Jews have received in this country since the post-World War II years and the diminishment of our ethnic separation from the majority culture. The Greatest Generation as it has become known tended to be children of immigrants. They were born into a world in the early part of the last century when anti-Semitism was at its peak. Restrictive immigration laws were first past in 1923 and were designed to keep more people like us from coming in to this country. These folks began their families with the Holocaust and the execution of the Rosenberg’s indelibly etched into their psyches.

Their children, however, me and those of my generation and our children have for the most part grown up white middle class suburbanites, unaffected by the barriers and quotas that kept our parents and grandparents out of certain jobs, neighborhoods and universities. I remember my mother telling me after being graduated from college she was a finalist for a position as a legal secretary at a New York Law firm (there were gender dynamics then as well) and when she met with the managing partner he asked her if she would be taking any other days off aside from the ones that were federal holidays. When she said yes, two in the fall – she did not get the job. I know many such stories exist in annals of your families as well.

According to Brodken’s thesis the Jews of that earlier generation lived at a time when Jews were not white. They had an ethnoracial identity that separated them and kept them apart – either by choice or by prevailing patterns of discrimination.

Now I have to be careful, because there are different understandings and definitions of race. I am well aware that sitting in this congregation today and in most congregations throughout the country the Jewish people are increasingly filled with differing shades of color – and we rejoice in that to be certain. A trip to Israel reminds us that Jews come from Africa and Asia and look quite different from the Ashkenazic image that exists in many minds. But with that caveat sincerely expressed, I believe most of us under a certain age who sit in this or any Reform or Conservative congregation this morning have come to see ourselves as generic American white folks who happen to be of the Jewish religion. When we profess an ethnoracial identity it tends to be more part of our romanticized memory than of our present way of life.

But I wonder –did any of this change this summer when guys carrying tiki torches wearing white shirts, khakis and New Balance sneakers walked down the streets of a great university town declaring Jews will not replace us” and pining for “blood and soil,” the English translation of the Nazi belief in “Blut und Boden. Did we all of a sudden begin to see ourselves as distinct; as other? Yes it was a small fringe group, drowned out by far more folks protesting against their hatred, and their message extended well beyond just their loathing of Jews, but we heard their voices loud and clear.

And no Mr. President, those were not good people, who wondered aloud why you let your beautiful blond daughter marry that Jew. I dare say, if a good person showed up to the march with the ideological belief and intention that it was simply time to “unite the right” and had seen who his fellow marchers were, he would have walked away. Good people don’t stand in front of a synagogue on a Sabbath morning openly and menacingly carrying semi-automatic weapons, chanting sieg heil at those walking in to pray. There is no moral equivalence between those spewing virulent hate and those protesting against it. Yes we decry any violence –but let’s make no mistake about who and what precipitated the conflict.

Around the country Anti-Semitic acts have increased since November. The New England Holocaust memorial in Boston was defaced and shattered twice this summer. Swastikas appear more regularly on homes and cemeteries and highway overpasses from the Bronx to California and yes here in Connecticut, too. Hate literature is distributed more freely and the ADL reports that anti-Semitic acts have increased 87% since the first of the year. A child in our religious school was told she couldn’t join the Kool Kids Klub. Spelled KKK.

Eric Ward an African-American civil rights strategist and program officer at the Ford Foundation believes that anti-Semitism is at the core of white nationalism. Once Jews became assimilated “they functioned as a magic, invisible bullet. Behind all of the more progressive changes in America — advances for Blacks, for LGBT people, for immigrants stands a diabolic evil that controls, television, banking, entertainment, education and Washington D.C. – and guess who that is! Ward warns that this attitude is not as far to the fringe as we might like to think, it has found a home in some very high places!1

But if we are to be true to a full understanding of the subject and our world today we must agree that the voices have not just been right wing ones emboldened since the November elections.

On the far left, an equally insidious, but more subtle form has been emerging. From this direction many seem to have a problem with one country on earth – and it just happens to be the only Jewish-majority nation around. No other nation awakens their passion the way that Israel does. Only democratic Israel is constantly in their crosshairs.

Now, some of those who despise and vilify Israel today insist that they have no quarrel with Jews – indeed, they say they are opposed to anti-Semitism in any form. So why, then, do I consider this loathing for the State of Israel to be anti-Semitic?

Let me first say what I am not talking about: criticism of the state of Israel or its policies, even if that criticism is vigorously expressed. Israel, like all countries, is far from perfect; it is fair and legitimate for it to face criticism. Goodness knows you have heard me condemn certain policies on numerous occasions; and you will find no place on earth more critical of the Israeli government than among Israeli Jews themselves. Such is the blessing and messy nature of a free democratic country.

But I would label as anti-Semitic the belief that Israel should not exist, that its existence is a crime, that a Jewish state, by its very nature, embodies racism. The idea that Jews alone among peoples and despite a well documented 3500 year history much of which took place in the land itself, should not have their own state in a world of nation states is the latest form of anti-Semitism. And I would label as such those critics who habitually single out Israel for condemnation while ignoring far worse actions by other countries or who liken Israel’s actions to those of Nazi Germany. It is legitimate to expose Israel’s flaws in the hopes of improving the society or encouraging it to grow and prosper alongside an equally prosperous Palestinian State –it is illegitimate to do so in a way that embarrasses; isolates or demeans its national sovereignty.

While there are people who support this boycott divest and sanction movement better known as BDS, who I would not label as anti-Semitic, I would suggest that this campaign was founded as an attempt to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. It dovetails with a new kind of Anti-Semitism that demonizes Israel, holding the Jewish state alone responsible for the lack of peace in the Middle East, and blaming everything from AIDS to the global financial crisis to the 9/11 attack, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on a Zionist plot.

Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote, “When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, ‘Jews get out of Palestine.’ He said: “they don’t want us to be there; they don’t want us to be here; they don’t want us to be.”2

On campus today when Jewish students are told they can’t hold office in student government because they support Israel and that would be a conflict of interest or when they are ejected from a Pride rally because their LGBT banners are decorated with stars of David or when Israeli scholars are blocked from international conferences — we know that this is not just criticism of Israel’s policy, this parallels the intolerance and anti-Semitism of those on the right.

These Anti –Semitic voices from both directions are spreading a political message once contained at the fringes of our society into a broad beat pulsing beneath the entire American political conversation.

It is a long standing and lethal obsession, less a doctrine than a series of contradictions. Writes Rabbi Janet Marder, “In the past Jews were hated because they were rich and because they were poor, because they were capitalists and because they were communists, because they kept to themselves and because they infiltrated everywhere, because they held tenaciously to a superstitious faith and because they were rootless cosmopolitans who believed nothing.” 3

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs writes “The best way to understand Anti-Semitism is to see it as a virus. Viruses attack the human body, but the body itself has an immensely sophisticated defense, the human immune system. How, then, do viruses survive and flourish? By mutating. Anti-Semitism mutates, and in so doing defeats the immune systems set up by cultures to protect themselves against hatred.”4

There is a temptation to say that this new mutation, the one that I have been speaking about this morning is perpetuated by the lunatic fringe on both sides of the extremes. But today I am less comfortable in saying that than at any time in my rabbinate.

I began my remarks my suggesting that at no time in Jewish history have Jews had it better than we have it today. And I still believe that strongly, but when yellow blinking lights appear we had best take note and slow down and watch closely what’s going on. We have a Jewish organizational structure in groups like the ADL and AJC to be vigilant; and we have an American system that still clearly stands up and is ready and willing to call out the haters.

The one thing we do not have is as strong of an ethnic identity as we had in the past. Alana Newhouse writes in Tablet magazine, “From the very beginning, there was a tacit agreement made between this country and its Jews: You, America, give us liberty and freedom from the extreme degradation and oppression we experienced everywhere else and, in turn, we Jews, will gift you with our … Jewishness … our Jewish thinking, and Jewish reflexes. With the ideas and impulses, honed over thousands of years, that could help a country create an unmatched economy, unparalleled creative industries and artistic and literary cultures, social and civic organizations, and more.”5

In other words we fed into American ideal that our differences would translate into our nation’s strength.

But Newhouse concludes, “America, at least so far, has kept its side of the bargain. But we have not.”

So the paradox: The less Jewish we are, the less American our country becomes.….. By diluting our Jewishness, my focusing on our whiteness, we are depriving America of the gifts our ancestors brought here, and in doing so we are damaging a country that has been good to us. Had more of us actually looked and acted like this, we might not have been caught unaware.

My core message this Rosh Hashanah — the best antidote for the disease is for Jews to assert the particularity of our nationalism, our religion, our ethnicity, and when we do, we not only protect ourselves; we make America great for everyone. “America needs its Jews to be Jewish again—now more than ever.6

1 Ward, Eric,
2 Oz, Amos, A Tale of Love & Darkness, p.60
3 Marder, Janet,
4 Sacks, Jonathan, Future Tense,p.92
5 Newhouse, Alana
6 Ibid — paraphrasing