Rabbi Cassi Kail’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Fighting Fire with Fire

Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019

Rabbi Cassi Kail

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was walking down High Street at Oxford University, where I was studying abroad. High Street is the main road connecting St Hilda’s College—my school—with Oxford’s vast libraries, lecture halls, and cultural centers. Although it was just a couple of weeks into the academic year, I had done this walk many times before. In the past I had seen the occasional swastika littering the sidewalk. I shrugged it off as just one lone anti-Semite acting foolishly. Today there would be no shrugging it off. As I crossed Magdalen Bridge, I could already hear the shouting. “All Jews are Zionists. All Zionists are Racists. All Jews are Racist. Down with the Jews.” Forty or fifty people were gathered on the college’s main road, screaming vitriol into the air. I remember their words, and their signs about racist Jews and apartheid Israel. But what I remember most of all is that students and professors either cheered them on or passed by without saying a word.

That Friday, I told a friend about it at the Jewish student union. “Yes,” she said. “They do that all the time. It can be hard to be a Jew.”

It can be hard to be a Jew. Over the past several years, antisemitism has been on the rise abroad, and in United States. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 1879 antisemitic incidents in the US in 2018, including the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in United States history.

From acts of violence, to antisemitic robocalls, flyers, and incidents at Jewish institutions, K-12 schools and college campuses, antisemitism is becoming all too prevalent in American culture. [i] In California alone, antisemitic incidents were up 21% last year. [ii] This year, vandals have desecrated private homes and businesses in San Pedro with swastikas. [iii] Just a couple of weeks ago, someone spray painted, “Six million was not enough” on the sign of a Los Angeles temple. [iv] Just a few months ago, there was a shooting at a California Chabad house. At a time of unite-the-right rallies, the BDS movement, and the vilification of Jews, it can be hard to be a Jew. Worse still, all of this is taking place within living memory of the Holocaust.

I try not to be an alarmist, but the reality is very alarming.

This is the first year I am addressing you on Rosh Hashanah morning. I would love to be offering a sermon about God, forgiveness, or loving the stranger. I chose to talk about antisemitism this morning instead for two specific reasons. First, I know that antisemitism is on our minds. I know because you have told me at onegs after services, over coffee, at Torah study, and in the Moadon during Torah School. I know it is on your minds because the temple passed a measure to have security at religious services and Torah School sessions. Second, I believe that we have no choice but to call out the antisemitism of our time for what it is.

Our people have dealt with our fair share of hatred. In each generation, we have fought back against injustice. From Moses standing up to Pharaoh, to Esther’s triumph over Haman, to Saul’s victory over the Amalekites, our biblical heroes have something to tell us about importance of standing up to those who wish to harm us.

In a text from Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Yitzchak focuses his attention on the courage of a young Abraham. Rabbi Yitzchak asks aloud why Abraham of all people was chosen to become the father of Judaism. After reading this morning’s portion in which Abraham nearly sacrifices his own son, you might be wondering the same thing.

Many Midrashim say that Abraham was chosen because he saw through the idol worship promoted by his father, Terach [v], but Rabbi Yitzchak offers reasons he finds far more profound.

Rabbi Yitzchak compares Abraham to a man who is traveling from place to place when he sees a birah dolechet—a palace in flames. “Is there anyone who is responsible for this palace?” He asks. The owner of the building peeks out and says, “I am responsible for the castle.”

Similarly, Abraham our father [saw the world aflame with injustice and] said, “Is it possible that this castle has no guide, no one to look after it?” The Holy Blessed One [God] peeked out and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe.” Hence, God said to Abraham, Lech Lecha, go forth. [vi]

God chooses Abraham, Rabbi Yitzchak infers, because Abraham has the presence of mind to acknowledge the fires burning in our world. [vii] Abraham took the time to notice them. This might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Just as I shrugged off the antisemitic graffiti on High street, it is all too easy to shrug off a joke about Jews at the kids’ soccer game, [viii] or a politician’s antisemitic tweet, or an antisemitic comic strip published by a well-known newspaper, [ix] as the isolated action of misguided individuals, or even as a fluke.

After all, Jews are successful. We have influence. We are politicians, doctors, lawyers, economists, journalists, teachers, CEO’s, and business owners. According to a recent Gallup poll, 69% of the US population thinks favorably of Israel. [x] Americans feel “warmer” about Jews than any other religious group, according to a 2017 Pew poll. [xi] Surely antisemitism can’t be that big of a problem!

But when a shooter enters a temple and kills people because they are Jewish, and when Neo-Nazis walk down the streets of Charlottesville, VA screaming, “Blood and Soil” and “The Jews will not replace us,” perhaps the time for shrugging is over.

Abraham sees the fires of injustice and calls them out for what they are. So must we.

At times that is easier said than done.

In her book, Antisemitism: Then and Now, Deborah Lipstadt writes about a group of students at Oxford who are debating whether antisemitism is coming from the left or the right, politically.

A group of liberal students contend that “while antisemitism has always found a fertile field on the right, their liberal ideology is by definition averse to it. They believe that a genuinely progressive person could not be an anti-Semite.”

“Those on the right guffawed at that and insisted that antisemitism has a long history on the left—they reminded us that the USSR persecuted its Jews—and [antisemitism] is today securely and structurally embedded there.” [xii]

Antisemitism exists on the far-right. We see it in Neo-Nazi publications such as the Daily Stormer. After recent attacks, “our real fear now was that the once-marginal haters—the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, the creeps and loons who celebrated mass killings from behind their iPhone screens—were no longer marginal,” explains Bari Weiss in her new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism. “They had become the visible exemplars of a new political and cultural style that had overthrown long-standing sets of norms about tolerance, basic decency, and civility. The speech and behavior that had, until recently, been confined to basements and backrooms was now visible on Twitter and cable news.” [xiii]

Antisemitism is prevalent on the left as well, though there it is more elusive, hiding in moral platitudes and in criticism about the state of Israel.

Let me be very clear. It is okay to criticize Israel. It is okay not agree with everything that Israel does, just as it is okay to criticize actions of our government that we do not support. Our criticism does not make us disloyal. Rather it is important component of any democracy.

Antisemitism emerges when Israel is judged more sternly than other countries. The Center for Systematic Peace quantifies the human cost of armed conflict. The Israel-Palestinian conflict has cost 22,000 lives in six decades, coming in at 96th place among armed conflicts and 14th place among ongoing conflicts. When the United Nations calls out Israel for its behavior more than Syria, Iran and North Korea combined, antisemitism is present. When academics are boycotted in Israel, but there are no boycotts against academics in China, India, Russia or Pakistan, antisemitism is present.

At the heart of such boycotts is the group BDS, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. Under the banner of “human rights” this group depicts Israel as a colonial presence in the middle east with no claim to the land. It asks Israel to take sole responsibility for the problems in the middle east, without acknowledging that Israel also has a claim to the land. The goals of the group are to isolate Israel in hopes that the state will cease to exist. BDS movement founder, Omar Barghouti, described BDS as the “Final chapter of the Zionist project.” Achmed Moor, a pro-BDS author wrote, “Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself.” BDS doesn’t want Israel to be better; it wants Israel to cease to exist.

Many well-meaning progressives align themselves with BDS, because they want Palestinians to be treated with dignity. They are not aware of BDS’ nefarious underbelly. Progressive groups align themselves with BDS for the same reason. When they do, antisemitism often comes to the table.

Woman’s march leader Tamika Mallory aligned herself with Louis Farrakhan, who once called Jews, “the synagogue of Satan,” saying, “you have wrapped your tentacles around the U.S. government, and you are deceiving and sending this nation to hell.” This was a man who once said “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite.”

The Dyke March in Chicago sent 2 lesbians away because their rainbow flag contained a Jewish star. [xiv]  Flags with Jewish stars were banned from the march in DC two years later. [xv] On college campuses, many progressive groups refuse to work with Hillel, or with Jewish students unless they first denounce Israel’s apartheid ways.

Antisemitism is coming from the right, and from the left. And we, like Abraham need to identify it for what it is.

Last year my colleague, Rabbi Angela Buckdahl, addressed her congregation at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. She said, “Be honest. Were you more outraged that Tamika Mallory refused to denounce Farrakan or were you more outraged by Trump’s inability to flatly denounce the white supremacist after Charlottesville? Are you making excuses for one of them? In order to be principled in this fight, we must be willing to call out the antisemitism on our own side of the aisle. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the one on our side exists only at the powerless fringe, or that it is outweighed by more important ideological alliances. But we have to be as intolerant of antisemitism from our political allies as from our foes.” [xvi]

When it comes down to it, antisemitism is antisemitism. Whether it comes from the left or the right, its objective is the same, to scapegoat and hurt the Jewish people. Rather than allowing ourselves to be torn apart by partisan politics, let us remember that we are all part of the same Jewish people. Antisemitism in any form hurts us all.

“To the Hasidic Jew getting beaten by young men in Crown Heights, or the Jewish college student served an eviction notice in her dorm by anti-Zionist activists, or the rabbi now missing a finger because it was shot off by a teenage neo-Nazi, the particular strain of this disease motivating their tormentors doesn’t much matter” argues Bari Weiss. “Regardless of what was in the heart or mind of the anti-Semite, the Jew still has a bloody nose” [xvii]

Abraham was chosen for a reason. He had the courage to notice the fires of injustice in our world, and to call them out. But God gives him a message. “Lech Lecha—go forth,” God says.

It would be nice to be able to put out the fires of antisemitism. Unfortunately, that is beyond our control. What we can do is go forward—together. What we can do is to recognize that every single person in this room is on our side. And when we join together, we are so much stronger.

Because of the moral voices of Jews and non-Jews alike, this week the UN made a statement against antisemitism, acknowledging that “the objectives, activities and effects of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement are fundamentally anti-Semitic.” [xviii] Tamika Mallory stepped down as a chair of the 2019 women’s march. There is reason to have hope.

We have a choice in how we respond to antisemitism. We can contort ourselves to fit in with everyone else, or we can, in the words of Bari Weiss, “drill down into the wellspring that made us special to begin with.” [xix]

Back in 1897, Hertzl had to make the same choice. In an essay called “The Menorah,” Hertzl wrote about himself in parable form. He was a man who hadn’t been particularly religious, or connected to the Jewish people. He saw antisemitism in the world, and believed that it “would soon subside. But instead, it got worse. Although he was not personally affected by them, the attacks pained him anew each time. Gradually his soul became one bleeding wound. This secret torment had the effect of steering him to its source, namely, his Jewishness, with the result that he experienced a change that he might never have had in better days because he had become so alienated. He began to love Judaism with great fervor. At first he did not fully acknowledge this mysterious affection, but finally it grew so powerful that his vague feelings crystallized into a clear idea to which he gave voice—the thought that there was only one way out of this Jewish suffering—namely, to return to Judaism.” [xx]

“The only answer to Antisemitism is Jewish growth, is Jewish knowledge, is Jewish joy, is a deepened Jewish commitment, a more powerful internal Jewish cohesion, a more vigorous dedication to Jewish and Zionist outreach…” wrote college student Ze’ev Maghen after an antisemitic speaker came to Columbia. “You combat Antisemitism by promoting that which the anti-Semite wants to crush, Jewish vitality.” [xxi]

We fight antisemitism by joining together. Just a year ago, community members gathered in this very temple after the shooting at the Tree of Life temple. They wanted to offer their support and ensure that we knew we weren’t alone. The police, fire department, politicians and area clergy alike made time to be here for us. This year, Temple Beth El will have another service, commemorating the one-year anniversary of that tragedy. Already, we have politicians, clergy members and first responders who wish to be present. The response to antisemitism—and to any kind of hatred—is to form partnerships and alliances, looking out for one another.

After the shooting in Poway, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein gathered members of his community. His fingers were bleeding but there was something more important than his pain. He looked his community members in the eye and said, “Do not let this moment define us. It will not define us, but rather Am Yisrael Chai. The nation of Israel lives, will always live on!”

The fires of hatred are burning in this world, but there is something far more important burning in us, a love for one another, a love for our Jewish identities, and our determination overcome the adversaries who stand in our way. Let us not be defined by those who wish to seek us harm. Let us be defined by our strength, our courage, and our pride. When we do, it isn’t so hard to be a Jew at all. In fact, it’s a blessing.

[i] See Adl.org/audit2018
[ii] See https://jewishjournal.com/news/nation/california/301089/report-ca-anti-semitic-hate-crimes-increased-by-21/
[iii] See https://jewishjournal.com/news/los_angeles/304140/swastikas-found-on-several-homes-in-san-pedro/
[iv] See https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/los-angeles-synagogue-targeted-with-anti-jewish-message
[v] See Midrash HaGadol Bereishit 11:28, Midrash HaGadol Bereishit 12:1, Bereishit Rabbah 38:8 and 38:19
[vi] Bereishit Rabbah 39
[vii] I first learned this text from Devorah Weisberg’s commentary in the HUC’s 2017 College Commons Bully Pulpit entitled “Charlottesville: HUC has Something to Say”, https://soundcloud.com/collegecommons/charlottesville. In it, she offers three helpful frames for the text: 1) acknowledging problems and naming them; 2) asking who will take responsibility; and 3) Fire doesn’t have to be on our property for us to do something about it.
[viii] A local Muslim leader told me that she recently heard parents sharing disparaging comments about Jews at her child’s soccer game.
[ix] In April the New York Times posted an antisemitic cartoon on its international edition’s opinion page. This is their apology: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/28/business/ny-times-anti-semitic-cartoon.html.
[x] See https://news.gallup.com/poll/247376/americans-not-liberal-democrats-mostly-pro-israel.aspx
[xi] See https://www.pewforum.org/2017/02/15/americans-express-increasingly-warm-feelings-toward-religious-groups/pf_17-02-15_feelingthermometer_gp200px/
[xii] Lipstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now. New York, Schocken Books, 2019.  p44.
[xiii] Weiss, Bari How To Fight Anti-Semitism. New York, Random House, 2019,  p.56. Even William Regnery II, founder of Richard Spencer’s white supremicist thinktank remarked that he was happy with the trend. He said “White nationalism went from being a conversation you could hold in a bathroom to a front parlor (Aram Roston and Joel Anderson, “The Moneyman Behind the Alt-Right,” Buzzfeed News, 2017, https://soundcloud.com/audmapp/excerpt-the-moneyman-behind-the-alt-right-buzzfeed-news)
[xiv] https://www.jta.org/2019/06/14/united-states/despite-dc-controversy-other-dyke-marches-welcome-jewish-pride-flags
[xv] Weiss, Bari How To Fight Anti-Semitism. p 88
[xvi] Angela Buchdahl’s sermon “Yom Teruah: Sounding The Alarm For Anti-Semitism” for Rosh Hashanah 5779 can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lq8Z9n4uQvk.
[xvii] Weiss, Bari How to Fight Anti-Semitism, p. 33
[xviii] http://thejewishstar.com/stories/bds-and-anti-semitism-linked-in-unprecedented-united-nations-report,18340
[xix] Bari Weiss,“To Fight Antisemitism, be a proud Jew” New York Times 6 Sept. 2019,  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/anti-semitism.html?fbclid=IwAR32Bh5K0hdCmhNEG48SlQysdpzd1as_qRI8QDHEL73IEdv-bl2DFW4EalQ
[xx] For the full text of Herzl’s essay, see https://herzlinstitute.org/en/theodor-herzl/the-menorah/
[xxi] Maghen’s full letter can be found at http://www.doku-archiv.com/antisemit/FightAntiSem.html.