First Things First: Recognize That It’s There

By Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro

I began as a very-eager-with-a-lot-to-learn seventeen year old madrich (counselor) in a Zionist youth movement camp; that essential experience was followed by two years as an advisor for the movement’s aidot (“clubs”) during the year, another summer camp stint as a worldly eighteen year old madrich, and a position as assistant teacher in our synagogue’s Hebrew School – all before High School graduation. Subtracting those couple of years (what did I really know then), but adding the years in camps, youth movements, Centers, Hillel and the Mandel Jewish Day School, there are over thirty years of working in, with and for the Jewish community. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with students in aleph (first grade) and with high school and college students; I’ve taught adult education and “senior” classes and Jewish leadership courses.

In all of those years and in all of those venues I’ve tried very hard to stay away from the anti-Semitism button. Teach about it, of course; try to understand it, absolutely. But be very, very careful about invoking it as Jewish motivation. Don’t even allow your campers/students/staff to infer that what was meant was, Live Jewishly because of what they did… Do Jewish because it’s the best answer to them… Wear that star/that shirt/that kippah – because that’s how we respond to it.

I know that that hesitation to wave the red flag was right, and that invoking a negative is not the best motivational tool for positive actions. Our principal at Ramat Zion Hebrew School in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles told us that we were not crying enough when he spoke to us about the Shoah (I think I was nine), because his wife and children had been murdered; and that we had to study and live Jewish lives because… because if we didn’t, it would grant a posthumous victory to Hitler.

Mr. Lowey can be forgiven, but his equation was wrong (and counter-productive) then, as it is now. His were first-person memories, first-person tragedies and first-person losses.

But today, decades later, the images summoned are much further removed, and those who choose to invoke them don’t have his visceral rationale to do so.

I wonder though, if those of us who are steadfast in not referencing anti-Semitism as the raison d’etre for Jewish life have gone too far. There is such a concern about misusing the topic that many tend to avoid it altogether. We’re quite adept at citing its existence in history – just look at our holidays. That They-came-for-us-we-defeated-them-let’s-eat dictum is a sadly clever mnemonic device to remember some of the Chanukkah/Purim/Pesach stories, and we’re perfectly all right with calling out Antiochus Epiphanes or Haman or Pharaoh – or even all of the Seleucid Greeks or Persians or Egyptians, as unfair as that is. All of that is deemed appropriate because it happened way back then. We discuss Amalek, we’ll speak about the Inquisition and the disputations and expulsions and ghettos of Europe, because, again, that was then and this is now.

We shy away, I believe, from a discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism because we don’t want to fall into the abyss of exploitation. Torquemada is a pretty safe villain, but shouting J’accuse to Louis Farrakhan and those who support him is, for some, just too complicated.

By nearly any measurement – governmental, “independent watchdog” or Jewish “defense agency” (ADL/AJC/CRC…) – anti-Semitism has skyrocketed in the last few years. A wave (when does a wave become a deluge?) of swastikas and graveyard desecrations and physical assaults has plagued Western Europe, so much so that a single attack almost doesn’t make the news anymore. Poland, France, Spain, the U.K., Greece, Argentina. The U.S. doesn’t get a pass either. Charlottesville (“Jews – will not – replace us!”), Hasidim attacked in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh.

Two Sundays ago, Fareed Zakaria, whose program on CNN usually focuses on international events, closed with a segment on the worldwide growth of anti-Semitism; last week, he saved his last few minutes for the same topic. He said that in the week since the original broadcast, he had received comments (“too many”) from viewers expressing their skepticism of the scope and scale of the problem – or even that the issue existed at all. He noted that in the week between the two airings of his show that there were a number of high visibility anti-Jewish hate crimes – in France, in Britain, in Eastern Europe. In the U.K. alone, there are one hundred incidents each month (and those are the ones reported). He rattled off some painful statistics: in France, a 74% increase in such acts; in Germany, 60%; one-third of Western Europeans polled said that Jews “use” the Shoah to evoke sympathy, and one-quarter say that Jews have too much power. A full third know “nothing” about the Shoah.

Zakaria ended his broadcast by saying that “This is a real problem – and it’s getting worse.”

I detest Shoah comparisons. At best, they’re evidence of intellectual laziness; at worst, they’re examples of cynical exploitation that demean those who were victimized. Such faulty parallels also don’t help to confront the actual issue at hand. This is not the Weimar Republic, and this is not the 30s. But even asking whether it is, or how close we are, is a fool’s errand.

While I’m not at all sure about how we address these matters, I do know that we have to do just that: address them, learn about them, talk about them. And yes, with students before they get to high school and college campuses. Age-appropriately, of course, and mindful that we do not want to fan the flames of Jewish paranoia. But those victims are not just faceless statistics. If they’re not our literal brothers and sisters, they very well could be. Treading carefully so as not to invoke those false comparisons, I can’t help but think about the many American Jews in the 30s and 40s who painfully asked themselves – post facto – Did I do enough? Did I do… anything?

Anti-Semitism – fittingly labeled the longest hatred – has not been confined to the dustbins of history; it’s neither historically or geographically divorced from our lives, here, and now. To brand something or someone as anti-Semitic is a poor and dangerous substitute for clear thinking and constructive action. To believe that it either doesn’t exist or “merely” exists far away or long ago is not only foolish. For Jews, it can be suicidal.

What I do know – and I believe that Mr. Lowey would be genuinely proud to hear one of his students say this – is that knowledge and pride form the best foundation from which this scourge is confronted. Knowledge of our past and our present, of the unimaginatively rich gifts we’ve bequeathed to humanity, is uplifting and empowering. An appreciation of the eagerness with which we reach out to ourselves and to others – a celebration of the extraordinary brilliance of Shabbat, the intricacies of the Hebrew language, the depth of our sacred Texts. The human gifts we’ve shared with the world, who owed their particular genius – whether in music or philosophy or science – to a grounding in Judaism’s values and intellectual underpinning.

Couple that knowledge with the enthusiasm and pride that it engenders – not boastfulness, but exuberance. The unbidden smile at seeing a blue and white flag, the joy of learning – together. The bedrock feeling of being part of something larger than oneself.

That knowledge – and that pride – are the armor that allows us to stand up, to bigotry that’s focused on us, or on anyone.

Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro has been Head of School of the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School (formerly, The Agnon School) since 2003.