Responding to the New Anti-Semitism: Educate and Activate

By Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, Esther Kustanowitz and Miriam Brosseau

[The following article is the result of a “blind” collaboration among several Jewish professionals. ELI talks program director, Miriam Brosseau, shared Dara Horn’s ELI talk on anti-Semitism with a small group – none could see who else was in the request – asking them to respond to the talk with their own thoughts on the Jewish understanding of the origin of anti-Semitism, and how Jews should address it. Below are the fruits of their labor.]

Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head once again. In tweets and in the streets, we’re seeing images that seem eerily familiar to many Holocaust survivors, and (thankfully) alien to many others.

The recent spate of anti-Semitism has been attributed to the conflict in Israel – the more that the rockets fly back and forth over Gaza, the more people seem to be comfortable emerging to hurl epithets not just at Israel, but at all Jews – guilty even in absentia, guilty by association. Anti-Jewish sentiment has certainly been amplified by the conflict, but you can’t amplify what wasn’t there to begin with. To see just how much insidious, everyday hatred there is, you can now read “Everyday Anti-Semitism,” a tumblr (blog) devoted to charting these incidents worldwide (France, Belgium, Morocco, Thailand … the list grows).

Addressing anti-Semitism as Jews is tricky, because our liturgy is always pointing us towards wanting to do good and stray from evil. But we have to be careful not to always equate good with reward and evil with punishment, thereby mistaking that we somehow brought this hatred and destruction upon ourselves for sins we have committed. We must recognize that it is the misunderstanding of others that led to anti-Semitism and the wrongful education of the perpetrators.

As Dara Horn noted in her ELI Talk, even the Haggadah knows that this has been going on for a long time – we repeat annually in the Seder, that in every generation, there are those who stand against us and try to obliterate us, but that God saves us. However, our rabbis also taught that we can’t rely on God for miracles. Together, those two teachings create a collective construct:

a) Educate: We need to be alert, vigilant, informed, to know our history – what happened to us in the past informs our present, our actions, and therefore our future.

b) Activate: Because we cannot rely on the divine to intervene, we need to be active in creating our own futures.

The good we can do in this world is educating others, always, about who we are and what we stand for and our desire to live in a peaceful world. And, above all else, we must never fall into “victim mentality,” by using our liturgy and our rabbinic literature to justify that mindset. Rather, we should embrace it to remind us that the world is imperfect and there are times when we fall victim to things that are out of our control. It is how we respond that will, hopefully, prevail in the end.

Some of us believe that there’s a divine context and a reason for our being here. Others of us may believe we should live moral lives simply because we share the planet with other humans. However we approach it, we cannot rely on a miracle from God. But we’re in this together, as a community – so let’s educate and activate that community to shape our own miracle.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood (@lizwood1982) is the Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Queens, NY and loves everything related to social media, social justice, and socializing with others in meaningful Jewish encounters.

Esther D. Kustanowitz (@estherk) is a prolific writer, editor and consultant based in Los Angeles. She serves as Community Manager for ELITalks, and Story Editor/Director of Digital Content for Pictures From the Fringe. Her current project is “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): Loss and What Comes After.”

Miriam Brosseau (@miriamjayne) is the Program Director of ELI talks and Director of Engagement at See3 Communications by day; by night she can be seen in the “biblegum pop” duo Stereo Sinai and playing guitar with the Hasidic all-girl alt-rock band Bulletproof Stockings.