Peoplehood ponderings

At antisemitism-focused Ruderman conference, rabbi whose son was killed on Oct. 7 focuses instead on halting internal Jewish turmoil

University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies examines rising antisemitism on the internet, around the world and in media

The focus of the University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies annual conference on Tuesday was the external threats to American Jewry and the State of Israel posed by rising antisemitism, but perhaps its most poignant moment dealt with internal turmoil facing the Jewish people.

Rabbi Doron Perez, the executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement and a graduate of the master’s degree program, cut through the academic and political lectures and discussions with an emotional plea for unity and intra-Jewish compassion as he described the moment that he and his wife learned that their son Daniel, a platoon commander in the Israel Defense Forces, had indeed been killed while defending the Gaza border after he’d been designated as missing for months.

“The whole world is going towards extremes. In every society there’s extremists. The Jewish people have extremists. But you know where the extremists should belong? In the extremes,” Perez said. “When the extremes start setting the tone for the majority, then we tear our society apart.”

Perez recalled the protests and arguments last year over the government’s judicial overhaul, casting blame on both sides for refusing to hear the other’s point of view. “It became the most divisive year — so much argument and so many debates,” he said. “The first time in my life in Israel that I saw that people [whom] I respected could not talk to one another.”

The religious-Zionist leader also criticized parts of the global Jewish community that did not personally, specifically identify with the suffering of Israel on Oct. 7 and instead lament the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives equally, comparing them to the “wicked son” from the Passover Seder, who earns that description for having removed himself from the rest of the Jewish community.

“If you no longer feel part of this people, if the cry of your own people being destroyed is no different than any other human being… anybody who says they love everybody the same doesn’t know what love is,” Perez said. 

“Anyone who says, ‘I don’t love my children any more than I love other children,’ doesn’t know what love is. If they don’t have a love for our people, who have been through so much together, if they’ve got no empathy for them, they’re not part of our family,” he continued.

“There has to be love for all people. Because all people are created in the image of God, and all the families of nations are all part of God’s people, and therefore there has to be love for everyone. But you have to first and foremost, with your family, your spouse, your children,” he said.

Perez began his address by discussing the moment last month when he and his family were informed that the military had determined that his son Daniel had been killed on Oct. 7, ending more than five months of uncertainty and worry that he was alive in Hamas captivity and being subjected to unimaginable horrors.

“I’ve never experienced such suffering as the 163 days of not knowing what is going on with our son. I’ve never experienced such suffering as my wife’s suffering… I felt as a father it was a little bit easier for me. It was much, much harder for my wife to compartmentalize anything,” Perez said. 

“I said to my wife on the Shabbat of the shiva, “Shelley, how are you feeling?” And I’ll never forget what she said. I didn’t know what she was going to say. She said to me, ‘Doron, in what world do we live that I’m feeling lighter and easier [knowing] that my son is dead? [That] on some level it’s a relief? I don’t even have to worry about him. I never had to worry about him. He didn’t suffer. He’s not suffering and he won’t suffer. I only have my own grief, but I can deal with it because it’s my loss. I can deal with my pain. I couldn’t deal with the nonstop concern about whether he’s being tortured, whether he’s eating, whether he’s sleeping. He hates the cold as well. I couldn’t deal with that. And not only I couldn’t deal with that, I didn’t know when it was going to end.’”

“Sadly, this year, the core theme of our conference was obvious based on the growing rise of antisemitic sentiment around the world, especially after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in a statement. “We can’t side-step this issue, as it has profound implications for American Jews and will impact their future as well as the relationship between the United States and Israel.” 

Giving the opening address of the conference, Galia Granot, the deputy director of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Israel office, stressed the significance of antisemitism in the United States for Israelis as well.

“It will influence the future of American Jews, as well as the future of the relationship between American Jewry and Israel,” Granot said. “And I am telling you, it will also influence Israel — we know the power that American Jewry has in terms of Israel’s national, social and economic security.”

Granot reiterated the foundation’s long-held belief that the relationship with American Jewry is a “strategic asset of great importance for the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” and lauded American Jews’ solidarity with Israel following Oct. 7.

“We can see and feel that American Jewry is coming together for its relationship with Israel,” she said. “There are difficult challenges, there is the young generation that must be considered, but even with that, there is still the feeling of unity and shared destiny.”

The conference featured discussions about antisemitism from a number of vantage points. Tal-Or Cohen, executive director and founder of the online antisemitism tracking nonprofit CyberWell, discussed the growing prevalence of anti-Jewish rhetoric across different social media platforms before and since Oct. 7. The several dozen attendees of the conference — most of them alumni of the Ruderman Program — also discussed what constitutes antisemitic content based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition. 

Academics from a number of backgrounds discussed antisemitic trends around the world: Pamela Nadell of American University explored America’s history of antisemitism; David Hirsh, CEO of the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, discussed the phenomenon in Europe in recent years, particularly post-Oct. 7; and Izabella Tabarovsky, a senior adviser at the Wilson Center think tank, described the connections between Soviet-era and contemporary antisemitic anti-Zionism.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, and Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Zvika Klein also discussed antisemitism in the media.