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Anti-Semitism: How Shall we Respond

March 3, 2017

The immortal words, “the envelope please”… along with, “and the winner is…” or “And the Oscar goes to…” have captured everyone’s attention and taken on new meaning after the fiasco at the Academy Awards presentation earlier this week. In one of the biggest mix-ups of all time, an incorrect announcement was made for the Best Picture award.


Unfortunately for the two people from the accounting firm responsible for the calculations and presenting the envelopes, when La La Land was mistakenly announced, they did not know what to do. Apparently, once they stopped tweeting and playing with their phones and realized something had gone terribly wrong, they simply froze.  Although there was a protocol in place of what to do should something like this happen, calling upon them to go on stage immediately, and which they had told people about in several interviews when asked what they would do should the very scenario that occurred take place, they stood there and did nothing.


The real hero of the night was Jordan Horowitz, (an “MOT”, by the way), the producer of La La Land who assertively had the presence of mind to come forward to the microphone and calmly and firmly announce, “There’s been a mistake. You guys won best picture.  This is not a joke.  Come up here,” he said motioning to the Moonlight team to come up and receive their award as he grabbed the correct envelope and held it up for all to see.


He was a model of class and graciousness, as well as of assertive action. Because he acted decisively, he will be remembered positively, whereas the two who stood by and said and did nothing are out of a job.  The truth is, in the grand scheme of things the Academy Awards are really relatively trivial and insignificant.  But I think there is a lesson to be learned from the contrast in the way the two acted.


And I thought about what happened, believe it or not, in light of the reports about the hate crimes and anti-Semitism that we are reading and hearing about of late.


Since the beginning of this year alone, there have been over 120 bomb threats in 36 states against Jewish institutions. Almost 100 Jewish institutions, 12 Jewish Day Schools, and 2 ADL offices have received threatening calls.  At least three Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, with twice as many anti-Semitic hate crimes reported by the New York Hate Crime Task Force than the same period last year.  All of this has led Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish organizations to call upon world leaders to take forceful action because as he pointed out, the threat is global and must not be left unchecked.


Anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon, which is why it is correctly called, “the world’s oldest hatred.”


Some suspect that the current political climate and extremist rhetoric moving to the mainstream is the cause and reason for the current spate of anti-Semitic acts. Others have pointed out that there might not be a rise in anti-Semitism, but just that it is being perceived that way because it is being reported more.  An interesting article I read pointed out that The New York Times ignored and did not report on Jewish cemetery desecrations in years past and questions if the new-found interest in reporting is politically based.


There was an undisputable and disturbing rise of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel activity especially on college campuses in the previous eight years, with Jewish students confronted and accosted on their way to class and in their dorm rooms. The anti-Zionist hostility was often accompanied by its fraternal, if not identical twin, anti-Semitism.  Too many were silent and excused the inexcusable, ignored, or offered feeble rationalizations or justification of unjustifiable acts.


Just because it was wrong to be silent then does not, however, mean that the current acts should be minimized or excused. Anti-Semitism in all forms is wrong and should be universally condemned regardless of its source or origin, by those on all sides of the political spectrum.


The heightened awareness of what is happening today offers a unique opportunity for us as a people and as a nation to reflect on what it all means, how to respond, and to evaluate our values.


On Friday I attended an extraordinary outpouring of support at the JCC in Rockville. Those who participated included both of our United States Senators, three members of Congress, our County Executive, 7 of the 9 members of the County Council and other public officials.  They were all there to send one common message.  A message first stated by George Washington in a letter he sent in 1790 to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in which he assured the Jewish citizens that America would not tolerate anti-Semitism, writing the famous words, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”


But most impressive about yesterday’s gathering was the outpouring of support and display of unity by over 100 clergy of all faiths and denominations who came in a massive show of support and solidarity with the Jewish community at a time when we are being singled out and threatened.


As I stood on the stage next to Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Muslim imams, representatives of the Sikh and Hindu faith, and others, I felt deep appreciation for the embrace.


While the purpose of terrorism or threats is to frighten and intimidate, this was a welcome antidote and sign of unity and affirmation that hatred is not the dominant voice in our community. The source of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and hatred stems from stereotypes and preconceived notions of the other.  It occurs when we generalize and do not see the humanity or individualism of those who are different than us.


And I realized that just as I was so glad to see that we Jews were not alone and that others joined in this expression of support, I thought about how important it is for us as Jews to stand with others who experience similar forms of hatred. Based on our values and experience we must lead the way and be in the forefront of efforts to oppose those who make similar prejudicial judgments and who intimidate or terrorize members of other faith groups.


How else should we respond?


As JCRC Director Ron Halber said yesterday, “The purpose of these phone calls is to sow fear and anxiety in the Jewish community, to make us think twice about going to synagogue to pray, to send our children to school, or to use our community centers to access all the extraordinary programs and services they have to offer.” And the best response is to not let whoever is making the calls succeed.  We do that when we continue to celebrate our faith, when we attend Jewish celebrations and when we reinforce and recommit ourselves to practice our tradition.


Today’s Torah reading, where we are commanded to build a mishkan, a place of holiness so that God’s presence would rest on earth is especially relevant.  The rabbis pointed out that God told Moses that he would dwell among the people and that His presence would become felt and manifest on earth as a result of our building a sanctuary.


A debate among the rabbis is recorded in the Talmud and midrash over whether the commandment to build the Tabernacle came before or after the people built a Golden Calf. I would like to suggest a novel interpretation this morning. The command to build the Tabernacle, which became the paradigm for the Temple and the model for the synagogue was issued after the battle with the Amalekites, after the struggle with the archetype anti-Semites, who sought to prey upon the weak and to destroy the Jewish people.  The response then, as now, was to build a House of God!  That is why the command to the Children of Israel to build the Tabernacle was issued when it was.


Let us therefore follow in the steps of those who came before us and like them resolve to build and strengthen the very places those who hate us want to destroy. Now more than ever, we need to assert the centrality and importance of the synagogue.  Let us come and fill our places of worship, as well as our day schools and Jewish community centers.


So on this week before the holiday of Purim, a holiday when another villain sought to terrorize and to annihilate our people, let us resolve not to let hatred win and to do what we can to turn back the forces that continue today, as they have throughout history to intimidate us. Let us stand against hatred and intolerance in all forms and against bigotry towards all minorities and all who are different than us.


We can either act forcefully and decisively, or we can be like the two who stood on the side of the stage and did nothing.

Also published on Medium.


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.