December 9, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
The noise we have been hearing in the past few weeks about a rising tide of Anti-Semitism right here in America is disturbing. The thing about Anti-Semitism is that just when you think it has receded from view and is no longer a serious problem in one sector of society or one nation in the world, it comes back… and there is now increasing concern that Anti-Semitism is making strong inroads here in the United States.
The new American Jewish concern about heightened degrees of Anti-Semitism comes as a result of some of the very ugly themes of the recent presidential election campaign, particularly the focus it brought to what is called the Alt-Right movement, and the alternative—that is, fake—news that some of its elements have spawned. There were a number of instances during the presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath of anti-Semitic chants, of reporters blasted with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi harangues, of commercials that hinted at Nazi-era slurs about Jewish control of world finance or the media, and other disturbing incidents that we haven’t seen in America in many years.
After the election, the appointment of Steve Bannon as senior advisor and chief strategist to Donald Trump with a White House office was met with Jewish concern, fear, and anger. Bannon heads the Breitbart fake news website with its preference for conspiracy theories and its many anti-Semitic followers and bloggers. And on college campuses the left-wing anti-Israel Anti-Semitism has now been joined by alt-right anti-Jewish propaganda on many campuses.
Mark Potok, a Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which carefully monitors anti-Semitic activity, notes that there was a rash of post-election hate crimes in the 10 days after the election, including 80 incidents of swastika graffiti. In America.
As Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, said recently, “In short, the American Jewish community has not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930’s.”
It should be noted that many of these anti-Semitic individuals and electronic media types and websites are usually, at the same time, very pro-Israel, in part because they are also usually highly nationalist in nature. This seemingly strange combination of people who express dislike of Jews—as Bannon has reportedly done—while also lauding Israel has muted some Jewish criticism, but it has not allayed the deep concern expressed by most Jewish leaders.
While America has a significant history of anti-Semitism, in the past fifty years the definite trend has been away from acceptance of Anti-Semitic attitudes and restrictions in public and private life. According to any measure you wish to use, Jews in 2016 America experience a level of acceptance in society that is nearly unprecedented in our long history. It would be very premature to pronounce the recent rise of on-line and in person anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery as a foundational change in this trend.
But it is disturbing, and, as always, we Jews need to be highly aware of the possibility of rising Anti-Semitism even here, in the golden age of American Judaism in the country that has given us such incredible freedom to be both fully Jewish and fully American. Because religious freedom, like all freedom, must be guarded and protected for all religions in our society.
This recurrence of Anti-Semitism begs the question: just what is it about us Jews that is notably different from other Americans in 2016? After all, we are now very much part of the mainstream of American society; while we form about 2% of the total population of the United States, we have 3/8 of the Supreme Court justices—plus one permanently unconfirmed nominee—, 10% of the Senate, and 8% of the House of Representatives. There have been 18 Jewish Congressional Medal of Honor winners—18 is a great number for that, isn’t it? And we even have 2 guys in the NBA right now, Jordan Farmarr of the Nets and Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings. In our society it can be hard to say what truly differentiates a Jewish American from a Protestant or Catholic or secular American. Are we still different in any way?
The ethnic form of Judaism is surely less significant than it was, although there are some elements of that identity remaining. Of course, we still joke about this subject regularly—you know what a Jewish triathlon is? Gin rummy, then contract bridge, followed by a nap. But that’s an old joke, and nowadays you are more likely to find Jews working out in a gym than praying in a synagogue. These days the true Jewish triathlon is eating, complaining, and arguing.
In spite of the recent recurrence of Anti-Semitic language and imagery here, a recent survey of the US population found that only 14% of Americans held anti-Semitic beliefs. Frankly, I think 14% of American probably could be found who hate the flag and apple pie.
In Robert Putnam’s book, American Grace—he is the Jewish political scientist from Harvard who is the author of the famous book Bowling Alone, former head of the Kennedy School of Government, and one of the most influential academics in the world, and a past guest of the Too Jewish Radio Show—he cites the statistics he and his colleagues discovered in surveying America on religious matters. The religious group that scores the highest in the opinion of others is Jews—that is, us—and most American non-Jews would very much like their children to marry a Jew. Whatever form anti-Semitism took in earlier generations, we have come a long way…
Or so it would seem. But, of course, there can be something much more subtle at work. You may have heard about the concept of micro-inequities, a new term to me, if not a new reality. Micro-inequities are the small ways in which people who have religious or cultural differences are treated that creates an unwelcoming environment.
So for Jews, this might take the form of a company lunch or picnic in which all the food options include pork; my wife had that experience at the university where she teaches, actually. Or it might come in the form of being assigned to work every Friday night or Saturday, when you would actually like to attend Shabbat services. Or it might be a failure of management to understand that we Jews have a lot of holidays—this would mean that you weren’t regular Too Jewish listeners, which is a kind of subtle anti-Semitism all by itself, don’t you think?—and that it is reasonable to take off both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur from work or school.
Or it might be a holiday concert in which nearly every single song is about Christmas…
These micro-inequities do exist, and they can be a problem. Generally, I don’t believe we experience much in the way of real discrimination these days, although there are still incidents on occasion, and the recent surge in on-line Anti-Semitic activity is a significant concern, as is the legitimization of formerly fringe elements in our society by the appointment of some of their sponsors to high office. But what the concept of micro-inequity makes one wonder about the real ways we Jews are still different.
One of them may simply be the way that we Jews interact. I was personally raised in a loud home, four kids, two parents, pets, and many friends and relatives around always. Nothing was ever done quietly. Everyone expressed his or her opinion—usually at a reasonably clear volume level, or we wouldn’t be heard at all. Ideas were always subject to argument, discussion, evaluation, and testing. What could have sounded to outsiders like verbal fighting was actually the normal process of discussion, and intellectual arguments were never meant to be taken personally. It was the nature of how we were and how we interacted, and it was all in the interest of figuring out what was best in a situation.
It was a kind of corollary to Descartes' famous dictum: cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. It was I argue, therefore I am Jewish…
In fact, so much of Jewish interaction is like the Talmud, our great text of law and lore, which is essentially one very long argument, 66 volumes worth, designed to discern what God wants from us in the world. As it says in Pirkei Avot kol machlokot l’sheim Shamayim, every argument for the sake of heaven will bring reward.
That’s the Jewish way. If we are awake, we are probably arguing, two Jews, three opinions, four synagogues, including the one you wouldn’t be caught dead in...
I think for many non-Jews, or Jews raised in a not-very-Jewish environment, this kind of spirited interplay is often misunderstood, and leads, among other things, to some of the micro-inequities we see in society. When somebody Jewish argues it doesn’t mean she or he is a troublemaker or difficult or doesn’t like you, it simply means they are trying to get to the heart of the matter and solve the problem the best way possible. It’s why we make good lawyers, and good scientists, and good accountants, and good doctors. And, yes, good rabbis.
Just not good yes-men or pushovers.
We Jews are good people. We give tzedakah at an exceptionally high rate, proportionally, if not always quite enough to our own synagogue. We are at the forefront of every good cause, seeking to improve the world. We know that tikun olam, improving and perfecting the world is not something we can count on other people to do, and we expect to have to work hard to fix whatever is broken in our society. If that provokes anti-Jewish sentiment sometimes, it is a price to pay to redeem our country from doing wrong.
It’s just that we can be a little testy, and just a trifle argumentative. With all the changes in our society, and the broad acceptance we can celebrate in America, we’re still a little different, and still a little loud sometimes.
And that’s not all bad; in fact, it’s not really bad at all. You might even see it as the fulfillment of the mission that started way back with our first father, Abraham, before Sodom and Gomorrah; and it continues in in our Torah portion, with our great patriarch and the real father of our people, Jacob, who argues with Laban and his wives and children, and frankly, if the chance presented itself, would argue even with a good thing… and who ultimately becomes, in next week’s Torah portion, Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God. That’s a Jew!
So long as that argument is done l’sheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven, and not a mere matter of serving our own ego needs, the argument can serve the purpose of God, and help to improve our world; well then that is Jewish, and good.
On this Shabbat, may the nature of our ability to argue for the sake of heaven be a reflection of our desire to improve the world, and thus serve God, and holiness. And may we relish that commitment to truth, and to righteousness, that lies at the heart of our identity, and for which we should be willing to argue…