By Rabbi Samantha Kahn
We had been driving for hours when I found a mix CD a friend had made me nearly two decades ago. Amused, we started listening and my husband and I laughed and reminisced with each song that played. That is until my husband suddenly skipped a song. “We can’t listen to Ice Cube anymore,” he declared.
Like many Jewish Americans of my general age and stage, I’ve been confounded by the surging use and defense of anti-Semitism by musicians, athletes, and actors in recent times. As a rabbi, I’ve studied, taught, and preached about anti-Semitism. I’ve been known to quote Deborah Lipstadt’s metaphor, accepting anti-Semitism as a virus that can never be truly eradicated. Like Herpes, once someone is infected the virus is always there, lying beneath the surface, dormant, waiting to cause an outbreak. However, I blamed the spread of this virus on a lack of education and exposure. While I understood it might never disappear completely, I longed for a vaccine to this particular virus, believing that with the right precautions we could flatten the curve in America. I relegated it to a disease of idiots and extremists, never considering there were rational or educated people purposefully infecting one another. That recently changed.
A few weeks ago our congregation and another local congregation were both vandalized with disturbing anti-Semitic images and accusations. Our congregation is still dealing with a lot of fear around the perpetrators’ release from prison, but I believe we can’t be paralyzed by one sick individual. Rather, we must continue to reach out to others, have important conversations, learn how to be their allies, and teach them how to be ours. So many in our community are now worried and wondering about the seeming outbreak we are facing – hoping we have seen the worst of it, but fearful this is just the beginning.
I decided I would include in my sermon this week the idea that real conversation can be a good antidote to ignorance, and lift up Nick Cannon, utilizing his efforts to apologize for his anti-Semitic remarks and truly hear the concerns of the Jewish community by meeting with a Rabbi and reading about anti-Semitism. For context, I decided I should watch Cannon’s full interview with Rabbi Abraham Cooper. After the videos of this interview ended though, YouTube immediately began to play the video of his original interview with Professor Griff. It was like driving by a car accident on the side of the road – I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. I listened to them discuss and reference “facts” and “truths” that were ridiculous conspiracy theories and discuss with utter disdain the Jewish community. They portrayed the Jew as a perpetrator of inexplicable horrors with a secret ultimate plan of trying to eradicate “melanated people” out of fear for our own survival. WHAT?!?!
What was happening? What was I listening to? How could they believe this nonsense to be true in any way? How could any person of faith, especially one who claims that their mission is to spread love, promulgate theories that diminish the value of any person? How can you demonize a group and not realize your words are the hateful and problematic ones? Better yet, how can you go from actively believing in these horrible things to becoming a seeming ally against anti-Semitism? Sadly, I realized Nick Cannon, like Ice Cube, was probably still infected, and no longer an artist I could watch or listen to.
While the Jewish community has become scapegoats for outlandish things throughout history – I truly believed it was limited in modern America. I felt that educated people no longer believed such ridiculous conspiracy theories, and people who speak about love and justice wouldn’t allow hate and blame to be perpetrated against others.
I was wrong.
Intellectually, I know there exists hatred and bigotry towards our Jewish community from the far left, from the far-right and from jihadist. Though it’s easier to point out when your political enemy is anti-Semitic than your friend, the fact is- we as Jews are fully aware that we need to call out all forms of anti-Semitism simultaneously. We all need to realize that this virus is continuing to spread rapidly in our times. And much like the reality we now face with COVID-19, we need to be aware that we will only be able to flatten the curve if we all work together to take the threat seriously. This doesn’t mean we need to live in fear, but it does mean we are no longer able to ignore that it is on the rise.
If we want to contain and limit the current and coming flare-ups, we need to do something. We need to stop believing our own mythology that this can’t happen in America and wake up and deal with the reality of antisemitism. We need to realize we’re not living in a place where anti-Semitism has stopped, but rather where it has been slowed and temporarily hidden in some places. We need to face the reality that truth and time are not a vaccine. While we shouldn’t let fear overrun us and allow us to start viewing every individual we meet as a potential carrier of the virus, we must continue to search for a real vaccine – maybe even multiple vaccines, one for each unique strand of this virus. I don’t know what magic formula will be able to make a dent, to stop the spread, to rehabilitate the infected. All I know is that we must continue to actively search for something that can help, even if we know we will never find a complete cure.
Rabbi Samantha O. Kahn is rabbi at Temple Sinai, Sarasota, Florida.