Elie Wiesel pointed to the Bible’s opening account in Exodus as the first and enduring expression of antisemitism. A new pharaoh came to power and announced: “Behold, a people- the children of Israel- are numerous and mighty among us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they continue to increase and if a war approaches, they will join with our enemies and fight against us, driving [us] from the land” (Exodus 1:8-10).
We Jews are indeed unusual. Unlike other faith traditions, we are both an extended family and a faith. We are united by a shared story informed by sacred texts that shape a culture of curiosity, debate, study, and taking the needs of the weak into account. Here in America, we have never had greater freedom and opportunity and we have have made extraordinary contributions to American culture and financial institutions. And yet, there are some who reframe the words of the Pharaoh: “These Jews are too powerful and seek to undermine our way of life. They are a cabal who would support our enemies.”
Recently, I listened to a CSP lecture by Holocaust scholar Thorsten Wagner, who asked, “Do you think that the Nazis considered themselves immoral for what they did to the Jews?” To answer the question, he played a recording of Heinrich Himmler, the head of Nazi security, addressing leaders of the SS in 1943 in which he explained that eradicating the Jews was a noble act of self-defense. He explained that the Jews were greedy and devious and had undermined the Germans during WWI, leading to the defeat. We have no choice, he emphasized, but to destroy them lest they succeed in destroying us. The foundation of that claim was built on lies and fear.
I am a child of Holocaust refugees and I recoiled from making analogies from our past to America. And yet, when white-supremacists marched with burning torches in Charlottesville, Virginia last year they chanted, “The Jews will not replace us.” When political ads ran nationally in recent times speaking of the threat of “globalists” and showing Jews who were key players in American economic and political life, I shuddered. The assailant who massacred Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on a recent Shabbat morning, explained in a social media post, “HIAS [the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Why does anti-Semitism persist? Because we are a distinctive-religious people with success out of proportion to our numbers and our very survival is a mystery that stokes irrational fears.
What can we do to prevent it? Know that words shape beliefs that lead to action and justification for even the most horrific acts. We must actively nip lies as they arise, challenge fear-mongering, and speak courageously about values that endure and give our lives purpose. As HIAS leaders have said, “We started as an organization to help immigrant Jews and became an organization that helps immigrants because we are Jews.”
America is different. In Pittsburgh, police officers risked their lives to protect Jews. Flags hung at half-staff throughout the country. Our neighbors of diverse religious backgrounds cried with us and expressed their heartfelt condolences and support. And yet… I am on guard. But as our Israeli co-religionists have taught us, we cannot let terrorists dictate our lives, and in the case of America, alter our commitment to ensuring this great nation’s laws of fairness and respect for the other.
RABBI SPITZ is a caring mentor to his congregants at Congregation B’nai Israel and a scholar. He lives in Tustin, California with his wife, Linda; they are the parents of Joseph, Jonathan and Anna Rose.