With the rise of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Aaron Starr poses the question, “Why the Jews?”
By Rabbi Aaron Starr
Why the Jews? The week after Thanksgiving, speaking at the annual conference of American Muslims for Palestine, a political activist and former co-chair of the Women’s March took yet another shot at Israel and the Jews when she declared that the State of Israel is “built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else.”
Why the Jews? For those on the radical left, the mere desire for a Jewish country of our own and affirmation that Judaism is a people in addition to a faith is proof that we believe ourselves superior to others.
Why the Jews? Just prior to Thanksgiving, a Florida pastor with a significant internet presence announced that the impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump are part of a “Jew coup.” The pastor explained on his Godcast that “… the next thing that happens when Jews take over a country, they kill millions of Christians.”
Why the Jews? For the radical right, we Jews are trying to take over the world by eliminating borders and eradicating religious, racial, ethnic and national distinction with our prophetic message of universalism.
Of course, these messages are among the great paradoxes of anti-Semitism: Our enemies on the left are threatened by our commitment to peoplehood, especially as expressed by the State of Israel. Meanwhile, our enemies on the right are threatened by the teachings of our faith. Some enemies are threatened by both.
The Roots of Persecution
More than a century ago Theodor Herzl wrote in explaining the cause of Zionism, “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain we are loyal patriots, sometimes super-loyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences or their wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country. The majority decide who the ‘alien’ is; this, and all else in the relations between peoples, is a matter of power.”
Why the Jews? As Herzl reminds us, discrimination is a function of power. Built deep into humanity is the yetzer hara, that animal instinct, that tells us errantly that we are not strong or safe until we can wield power over another. For the last two millennia, the Jews, as perceived guests in others’ countries, were powerless and thus easy targets for those with low self-worth, for those whose fears overtake their rationality and for those too naive or too insecure to see the faults within themselves as the cause for their own misfortunes. Jews become an easy target for the empowered bullies living among us.
We suffer for our powerlessness, and we suffer when we possess power. Why the Jews? Because anti-Semites are jealous of the Jews. The nations of the world forbid us from being ordinary, so we strive for extraordinary. In Israel and in the diaspora, our achievements in the realms of medicine, philosophy, finance, philanthropy, politics, science, literature and the arts are extraordinary.
Our efforts to protect the environment, to end racism, to combat homophobia, to fight for the rights of women and other minorities are extraordinary. Our rituals that create a deep sense of spirituality and our traditions that profoundly strengthen the family are extraordinary. Certainly, none of the Jews’ achievements take away from others’ ability to achieve. Nevertheless, people feel jealousy toward us.
Why the Jews? Because we want to be ordinary, but our desire for ordinary threatens others’ desire for power. Why the Jews? Because the demands of faith and the bonds of peoplehood propel us toward extraordinary, and humanity is jealous of extraordinary. Whether it is against the Jews or others, human nature is that the powerful often take advantage of the powerless; human nature also often causes jealousy toward another. Such is the way of our world.
Responding to Hatred
There are many responses to the rising tide of anti-Semitism. As moral individuals, we must speak out against all forms of hate speech and bullying; moreover, as Jews, we must never let partisanship get in the way of our allegiance to each other. We must build relationships with interfaith partners. We must also in a myriad ways support Israel’s right to live in peace and security as a Jewish state.
We must combat anti-Semitism by investing ever more deeply in our own security; Federation has begun this initiative and even more dollars are necessary. Our community must also find a way to create pro-marriage and pro-fertility messaging and programs so as to increase the Jewish birthrate; to this we should add increased funding opportunities for assisted reproduction and adoption advocacy initiatives. Certainly, we must also remain understanding and supportive of individuals unable to marry or couples unable to have children (or more children).
Finally, we must respond to anti-Semitism with, well, Semitism. We ought to focus on the aspects of our faith that give us a connection to the Divine; the parts of our tradition that strengthen family and peoplehood; the customs of our religion, such as holidays and lifecycle celebrations, that give us joy; the ethics of our law code that demand we care deeply for our own and that we also work to treat every person with kindness and dignity; and we must carry to the world the message of our Hebrew Bible that gives us hope for a day when every person — Jew and gentile alike — shall sit under his or her vine and fig tree that none will make them afraid.
We must respond to anti-Semitism by being proud Jews and also by being practicing Jews who participate in synagogue life and in the life of the organized Jewish community. Finally, we must give thanks for the countless ways in which we as Jews are blessed, including and especially in the State of Israel as well as in the Detroit Jewish community. Anti-Semitism is on the rise; through our Judaism — through being extraordinary — may we Jews seek to merit the peace of the ordinary.
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.