Sign In Forgot Password

Responding to Antisemtism  | Shemot, 5780 

01/21/2020 02:48:55 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld


On January 27, world leaders will gather to mark the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’ liberation. They will gather in a world with growing antisemitism. We see this from the right and left; different races and nationalities; from fringes and even elected officials; from the uneducated and even in elite schools; in national stories and sadly in our day-to-day lives.

This week I met with teens from our shul who shared with me their own stories. One boy shared that he was physically threatened for being Jewish while walking home from synagogue. Two boys told me that while waiting for their bus, a different school’s bus drove past and the kids on that bus yelled slurs and spat upon them for being Jewish.

This visible growth of antisemitism is very serious and it is unfortunately spreading.

Of course we know that there is nothing new about antisemitism. This Shabbat we are celebrating the bar mitzvah of Gerry Steinkeller. Gerry is a hero of mine—a hero of our congregation. He is a Holocaust survivor who never had the opportunity to celebrate a bar mitzvah during the dark, dark years of the Shoah, so we celebrate with him today.

As evil as the Nazis were they too did not invent antisemitism.

As long as the Jewish nation has existed there has been antisemitism. The first time the benei yisrael are called an am, a nation, is in parashat Shemot, and almost immediately we see antisemitism.

The Torah tells us that a new king arose in Egypt, and as we have unfortunately seen throughout history, a wicked political leader will too often use Jews as a convenient scapegoat to solidify his power.

The Torah tells us:

Vayakam melech chadash al mitzrayim…. Vayomer el amo am benei yisrael rav veatzzum mimenu. Havah nitchahmah lo….

A new king arose in Egypt that did not know Yosef. And he said to his people, look at the nation of the Sons of Israel, they are more numerous and stronger than us. Let us outsmart them….” (Shemot 1:8-10)

Bes Halevi (19th c.) explains through a close reading of the verses exactly how Pharaoh systematically brought antisemitism into Egyptian society.

“When Pharaoh decided to hurt the Israelites, he realized that he needed a pretext, and therefore he acted “shrewdly” and called together a cabinet meeting and he discussed with his advisors the wicked nature of the Benei Yisrael. Pharaoh said, their nature is very bad; they aren’t loyal people; they don’t love our country; and they don’t like Egyptian people. They are atzum. They like to acquire lots of money and possessions. And all their wealth is mimenu, they steal it from us, through their greed and charging of interest. Therefore, let us outsmart them…by spreading the word about their bad ways. This will give us the ability to afflict them.”

It is haunting to read these words of Beis Halevi. Haunting because he teaches us that the roots of antisemitism go back to Pharaoh. Haunting because he lays out the blueprint that we have seen antisemites use time and time again: political leaders rallying an entire country to hate Jews through sophisticated propaganda and canards.

Pharaoh dehumanized Jews. He said the Jews are not human. We can’t trust them. All their money comes from our backs. The Jews are an infection about to destroy our country. They don’t like us. They are not like us.

A hero of mine, Deborah Lipstadt, recently wrote a very important book, Antisemitism: Here and Now. She explains that antisemitism is a form of bigotry where the haters punch up by claiming that Jews are too successful and control everything. Sadly, she is all too correct as this is an ancient tactic, begun by Pharaoh in Egypt.

What is the best way for us to respond to antisemitism?

This past week I testified about antisemitism to the DC Council.

I suggested to the Council that as a city we should accept upon ourselves a three-fold response to antisemitism: a spiritual response, a vocal response, and an identity response.

A spiritual response reminds us that we will ultimately be stronger if we respond to hate with love. If in response to an act of hate we dedicate ourselves to giving more charity, or helping a stranger, then we will be giving the most powerful possible response to evil. Evil wins if it is able to turn us into a hateful vengeful people, but if we are able to maintain a focus on doing good things then we will overcome any hate that is thrown our way.

The Midrash explains that the Benei Yisrael were able to keep their identity in Egypt by holding on tightly to certain mitzvoth. One of those commandments that it lists is by not talking lashon harah (bad speech). I find it very powerful that the message of the Midrash is that the Benei Yisrael were able to keep their identity by not doing something bad like speaking in a bad manner (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5). When someone acts in a disgusting manner towards us there is an immediate temptation for us to act in a harsh manner towards them or to others. But a spiritual response reminds us that we will ultimately be stronger if we respond to hate with love.

I saw this very message delivered by Rabbi Rottenberg the Chassidic rebbe of Monsey whose home and Chanukah celebration were invaded at a melave malka celebration on the night of December 28, by a man with a machete who was attempting to kill Jews and, in fact, did inflict horrific damage.

I traveled to Monsey on the very next Saturday night in order to support the rebbe and his community; to sit at his tisch and hear his Torah. The message of this rebbe was that obviously we must take the necessary security measures in order to protect our community, but ultimately that is the domain of law and order authorities. Our role, he said, must be to remind our neighbors that we are children of Gd created in the image of Gd and that what makes our country great is our diversity.

This emphasis on praising our diversity was not the message of a classic liberal, but of a Chassidic rebbe whose followers speak Yiddish and intentionally dress differently. He emphasized that in response to this attack we should all embrace our neighbors.

That is a spiritual response.

It reminds us that in response to antisemitism we must double our efforts at strengthening our community. In this context we have invited our Shepherd Park Neighbors to a community Diversity Shabbat Dinner on 2/28. I want to especially encourage everyone to attend that Shabbat dinner as a spiritual response to the rise in antisemitism.

A vocal response means that we must speak up and seek justice for any threat we feel. We cannot afford to dismiss it as unimportant. We must call it out for what it is: bigotry and hatred.

A vocal response requires demanding that there are programs in place to reduce antisemitism in all our schools.

A vocal response requires us to cry out in response to antisemitism. It is not for our own individual sake that we must do this, but for all of ours sake: for the sake of those who will be the next target of the haters. When I heard about the attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey, each time I wrote to Mayor Bowser and asked, “What are we doing about this in our city? Our city is not immune to this hate.”

In this context, I encouraged those teens who were called antisemitic slurs to write a letter to the principal and ask: “How can it be that your students would speak this way to us?” I was so proud that two teens from our congregation –Meir Stein and Eitan Netter –accompanied me to the Council and bravely testified about antisemitism that they have experienced.

  1. Talmud tells us that Pharaoh called together three of his advisors and asked them how to destroy the Benei Yisrael. first advisor he turned to was Bilam. Bilam advised Pharaoh to throw the boys into the river. For this Bilam was eventually killed. next advisor was Yitro. When Yitro heard what Pharaoh was up to he ran away. He said he wanted no part of this evil ruler. For this he was rewarded with having descendants who sat in the holy Sanhedrin. third advisor was Job. He sat there quietly and kept his head down. Says the Talmud, for this he was punished with the tremendous afflictions that befell Job (Sotah, 11a).

Asks Beis Halevi, why was Job specifically punished with afflictions? How is that measure for measure?

He explains that Job’s defense was, “what good will my speaking up do in the presence of Pharaoh. There is no point.” So Gd gave Job afflictions. When one has afflictions, one cries out. What good is crying out going to do—its not going to stop the pain? But when we are in pain, we do it anyway. We cry out to show we are in pain. By Job not crying out he showed he wasn’t in pain.

When we hear or experience antisemitism we must cry out. We must report it to the police and to people in authority positions. It is not for our own individual sake that we must do this, but for all of ours sake: for the sake of those who cannot report it, for the sake of those who will be the next target of the haters.

Two weeks ago I took our children to the No Hate No Fear Rally in NY where 25,000 Jews marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in response to antisemitism. While marching we luckily saw my teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Our son asked Rabbi Weiss what were we trying to accomplish by marching that day.

Said Rabbi Weiss: It’s a show of tremendous unity. It’s a message to those that were attacked that they are not alone. Its a message to those who do these despicable acts that they are not going to get away with it. By speaking out we show that we are strong.

A third response is an identity response.

We as a city must encourage people to be proud of their identity.

When the haters throw slurs at us and commit violent acts they are attacking our identity, our spirit, our soul. To this we must, must respond by emphasizing our pride in who we are. Everywhere we go, we Jews must declare we are Jewish.

As I sat with the teens, the question arose, is it now too dangerous to wear a kippah in public? I said, “Even if you normally do not wear a kippah now more than ever all of us should wear kippot.”

These teens then inspired me by suggesting that we should go a step further. They said we should print up hats that say, “Jew Crew,” and encourage everyone to wear it. In these days of increased antisemitism just wearing a Jewish hat is an act of solidarity with the Jewish community. Indeed, these teens traveled to the Council and said to the Council Members: “Imagine if at the next Council session the entire DC Council put such hats on in solidarity with the Jewish community.”

Our Torah portion is called Shemot, names. A person’s name is one’s identity. A name demonstrates our dreams and goals. When the haters throw slurs at us and commit violent acts they are trying to damage our identity, our spirit, our soul. To this we must, must respond by emphasizing our identity. By emphasizing our Jewishness. Everywhere we go, we must declare we are Jewish.

This crisis of antisemisim is an opportunity for us to look within ourselves and to remind ourselves of who we are and what we stand for.

And there is no one in our congregation who better represents what we stand for than Gerry Steinkeller

If there is anyone who would be excused for giving up on life, on Judaism, on the Jewish people, but Gerry’s life is a testament to the attitutude that WE WILL NEVER GIVE UP. If he can maintain his faith in Hashem, then so can we. If he can maintain his pride in his yiddishkeit, then so can we.

Thank you Gerry, for showing us the way in these turbulent times. I do not know how much more time we will have together on this world, but I do know that I will forever cherish every second that we have together.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783