The Jersey City shooting is only the last in a large recent run of antisemitic murders. At the same time, several Los Angeles Jewish institutions, ranging from the American Jewish University to day schools to a synagogue, have been vandalized. And we remember that Temple Sinai was vandalized with antisemitic writings during the High Holy Days a little over a year ago. What I had thought was underground or submerged or even almost stamped out is clearly on the rise.
I would attribute this largely to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the way he spews white nationalism, within which antisemitism is endemic. By inviting white nationalists to come out of the shadows, he has invited them to do their thing with us. And they have gladly accepted the invitation.
Here we are just about at Chanukah, which commemorates other attempts to silence us, stop our practices, force us to give up our heritage. The Maccabees saw that they had, in the words of Perchik from Fiddler on the Roof, “… something that I would die for, someone that I can live for too; now I have everything, not only everything, I have a little bit more: besides having everything, I know what everything’s for.” Love, family… fighting for the rights of the vulnerable, standing up to power, keeping our identity and values and connection to the holy… That’s our Perchik, the descendant of Judah and his brothers and his band of fighters.
And here we are with the Executive Order on Antisemitism, based on the Working Definition of Antisemitism. On the surface, I want to applaud it. And then, I feel my knee jerking, because it came out of THIS White House. And then I think…well, try to take a look at it. How would I feel if Obama had done something like this?
And then lo and behold, Obama DID do something about this. As Kenneth Stern, one of the authors of the Working Definition, wrote, “The [Obama] Department of Education made clear in 2010 that Jews, Sikhs and Muslims (as ethnicities) could complain about intimidation, harassment and discrimination under this [Title VI] provision.”
So it’s there already.
Again, since this is the season of Chanukah, Hillel comes to mind—the great rabbi of the turn of the Common Era, who often debated and disagreed with his partner, Shammai. We follow the decisions of Hillel almost all the time. For example, we light one candle the first night, two the second and so on, which Hillel supported, as opposed to Shammai, who wanted to start with eight and have us count down. Hillel’s reasoning was that the light is holy light and we always want to increase holiness rather than diminish it.
The Talmud teaches that eilu v’eilu—these and these are the words of the living God…but we use the decisions rendered by the school of Hillel, because he and his students would treat their opponents with respect, stating the reasoning of the other side first, before stating their own.
So I decided, in honor of Chanukah, when our people were prepared to die rather than give up their heritage, but adapted to live to continue it, and in honor of Hillel, to try to look at this Executive Order from the point of view of the White House and then see what I think. I consulted with a variety of writers, rabbis and scholars and just plain Jews writing in journals, blogs and newspapers.
So, here goes: as Tevye would say, on one hand:
First, antisemitism is on the rise now as it wasn’t in 2010. So protecting Jews, especially on college campuses, where we know—from Berkeley to SF State to UCLA—that Jewish students are facing serious exclusions, seems important. A classmate of mine, Rabbi Neil Blumofe in Austin, wrote recently on Facebook:
just last year, at the University of Texas, a student walked out of a presentation that I was giving in a Religion and Journalism class, because I identified as a Zionist. She proceeded to malign a Jewish student in the class throughout the semester because the student volunteered that she had gone on Birthright. The offending student was removed from the class and then ultimately, reinstated. For the Jewish student, this caused a crisis of fear and anxiety about her burgeoning relationship to Israel and to organized religion.
It is getting progressively worst, and wanting to protect them is important.
And it is possible that just affirming what is already there, placed there by the Obama Department of Education will give it a little more force. It provides a more expansive definition of antisemitism (which might be part of the problem—more on that in a minute).
In addition, according to Harvard Law professor Daniel Hemel, it is NOT reclassifying Jews as a nation or a nationality—it is adding Jews to the list of people protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as the Obama administration did.
On the surface, it sounds great. Or at least good.
But here are the down sides of it. As Tevye would say, “On the other hand…”
It is likely that it will be used to squelch the ability of Palestinians—or anyone—to criticize Israel. I am an opponent of BDS in general, largely because the main people in it do not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist at all. But I am also a proponent of the two state solution, and believe that the occupation does not serve Israel well, and definitely does not serve the Palestinians well. And so I can see how they (and we) might have some grounds to want to criticize the government of Israel. Let’s think about Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel—as different from Medinat Yisrael—the state of Israel—the government. And as different from Am Yisrael—the people of Israel (Jews). They all have overlap in a Venn diagram, but are different, especially in terms of antisemitic speech. One can condemn Netanyahu without being antisemitic—in fact one can do that and be a profound lover of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.
If universities are worried about their federal funding (think of all those Pell grants, for example), they might be less willing to let their students bring in Pro-BDS speakers. Professors might choose to cover other aspects of Jewish history than what is happening now. And groups will threaten and likely file lawsuits against universities (as they have done), which would dampen free speech without much effort at all. I think this is a real concern, even as the Executive Order claims to protect Freedom of Speech. Universities are supposed to be places that promote free exchange of ideas, always keeping in mind that free speech entitles one to be nasty, but common kindness asks us to think about whether we want to.
Jared Kushner, in his NY Times op-ed piece, said that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. While it definitely can be, it doesn’t have to be. There are tests for that.
One of the examples given in the Working Definition as an example of antisemitism is that it is not okay to say that Israel is a racist country. If I were Palestinian, I would likely believe that to my core, based on my experience—indeed, I myself might think that as well. How can we prevent them from saying it?
There is also a concern that critics of Israel will accuse Jews of using the instruments of the state to suppress political opponents. It reminds me of the centuries of us being “court Jews”—who were sort of protected by the landed gentry or royalty—serving as tax collectors and moneylenders, and hated by the rest of the people in the area for those jobs, let alone the underlying antisemitism.
But also important to me, in assessing my knee jerk reaction, is that this President consistently trafficks in antisemitic tropes himself: just recently, he described a group of Jews as money hungry people who had to vote for him, because the Democrats would destroy the economy and money is all we care about. He talked about our disloyalty to Israel, when we are Americans. He spoke about the “good people” on the side in Charlottesville who chanted that Jews would not replace them. He wants Jews to count his money. And on and on. The order might not think of us as a nation, but he surely seems to.
Then, the order was announced at the White House Chanukah Party, attended by Pastor Robert Jeffress, who says that Jews are going to hell—because we don’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and Rev. John Hagee from Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which supports Israel, because they want all of us to go to Israel so that the Rapture can happen—which means he expects and wants all of us to convert or die. He has warned of an international Jewish plot led by the Rothschilds to undermine American sovereignty, called Hitler a hunter sent by God to kill Jews who refused to move to Israel (and therefore a good thing?), and described the Anti-Christ as a half-Jewish homosexual. So he invited two profoundly antisemitic people to his signing of the executive order on antisemitism.
Finally, I think the President has chosen to do this because he is trying to peel off just enough Jews to help with his electoral victory next November. He doesn’t need all of us, just a few.
Shutting down free speech, even speech we find hurtful, is not a way to prevent antisemitism, and will not protect us from vandalism and physical violence. Standing up for our values, and standing with other people in vulnerable positions as well as ourselves, will strengthen our alliances—for ourselves and for others. Doing that, I believe, will serve us better.
Thanks to Daniel Hemel, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Rabbi Shmuley Yanklowitz, Professor Robert Levy, Kenneth Stern, for their writings and conversation on the topic.