American Anti-Semitism in 2016 by Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
American Anti-Semitism in 2016 by Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
This 2016 election cycle has revealed much beauty about the possibility of America, but it has also revealed much ugliness about America as well. I want everybody in this room to think of the racial tensions that have erupted - the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime.
And now I'm fairly confident that the racial insensitivity we all just considered was not anti-Semitism. But that's exactly what I'd like to speak about today is the insensitivity directed at us - and our national homeland the State of Israel. As a Rabbi, a Jew, and a father of three Jewish children, one of the most worrisome revelations of this election cycle is the wave of open and socially acceptable ugly anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rhetoric and bullying pervading this great country of ours.
In the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, there appeared a story on May 9, 2016 about a freshman at Stanford University named Madeline Chang. Curious why all of her friends were so divided, she decided to attend a student government meeting about sanctions against Israel. The title of the Haaretz article is “From the BDS Front Lines: How the on-campus brawl is turning young Jews off Israel.”
In the article Chang tries to explain - “Literally, all my Jewish friends were sitting on one side of the room and all my other friends - most of whom look more like me - were on the other,' she recalls, describing the scene she encountered last year upon entering the rowdy auditorium hall. 'On each side people were waving and begging me to join them, and I felt totally paralyzed.”
The article also describes a UC Davis junior Zoe Robinow, whose mother is Jewish. The article quotes Robinow as saying, “Whenever BDS comes up, it's like, Why is this even an issue for discussion when most people have no idea what it's about?” asks the neurobiology major, who describes herself as a “mixed feelings kind of person.” The article goes on, “Even in California, the epicenter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, many Jewish students say they have yet to form an opinion on whether they endorse a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that involves one state, two states or no state at all.”
No state at all? No state at all?!
I had to read the words over and over to believe what I was reading. Are these California University Jewish students in the article so self-absorbed and so preoccupied with their own social standing that they can't risk publicly supporting the right for a Jewish State to exist AT ALL?!
Many of us now know about UC Berkeley's Course titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” Through the Ethnic Studies Department, a senior by the name of Paul Hadweh, proposed a graduate-student led course to, “explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine" - meaning to say - to explore the possibility of a region without Israel. To receive the single credit students were supposed to present, “researched, formulated, and presented decolonial alternatives to the current situation.” The LA Times reported two weeks ago on September 19, The class was suspended after one session for a review “following a storm of criticism that it fostered anti-Semitism and indoctrinated students against the Jewish State.” The suspension has now been lifted and classes have now resumed sessions at Berkeley.
The LA Times explains that Paul Hadweh “called the revisions he made in consultation with ethnic studies faculty members 'cosmetic.' 'There were no substantive changes,' said Hadweh, 22, who is majoring in peace and conflict studies. 'It was not the revisions that allowed the course to get approved, it was the pressure from people across the globe - We are once again facing forces against the Jewish People. Forces that have existed for thousands of years. In our Tehillim, Psalm 137, we read the famous words:
If I forget you O Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand.
I'm not sure if any of us have ever visited a non-industrialized country, but if you think your right hand or your good hand is important now, then just wait and see how important it is in the non-industrialized country and you will only begin to understand the words of the writer of the psalm. The Psalmist tries to express an instinctive sense that Jerusalem, that Israel, is so integral, so essential to our make-up, to our DNA as Jews, that simply put, we cannot live without a connection to that piece of land. In an election year, choosing is about priorities. I would hope that most people in this room share concern about Israel, share concerns about the American economy, about social issues and about international affairs across the globe. Choosing for whom to vote is about prioritizing these issues. I will not endorse a candidate. But I take this most valuable time during the High Holidays to encourage you to not undervalue the State of Israel in your list of priorities.
At this point, anti-Israel decisions in the UN are expected. Anti-Semitism in Europe and abroad is expected. But for the first time, I am concerned about the United States. The New York Times reported on August 3rd that Dr. Joy Karego, an assistant professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, was placed on paid leave after she posted on social media that the CIA and Mossad funded ISIS. She wrote that the Mossad was behind the killings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo. And she wrote that Israel shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane in 2014. All of her claims are obviously false. But note, that's a PhD in academic achievement on paid leave - paid leave. No amount of education or knowledge or academic achievement can cure good old fashioned Jew hatred.
You see, the anti-Israel efforts on college campuses haven't yet impacted Israel's economy through boycott, divestment or sanctions - Thank God. We have stopped the effects on Israel through state and federal legislation and through organizational initiatives. However, the anti-Israel efforts on college campuses DO SUCCEED at marginalizing Jewish students. It takes the most unique, miraculous event of the twentieth century - the founding of the State of Israel - and turns that into a family tragedy for which we should be shameful.
I refuse to be ashamed. Anti-Semitism is growing in the United States. The words are not new. The images are not new. But the source is new. The source of the most effective anti-Semitic smearing going on in America today is by liberal activists. It's found a warm home on college campuses but it has already metastasized throughout liberal American society.
Seffi Kogan, a fellow youth delegate of mine for the MERCAZ PARTY at the World Zionist Congress last year and now the Assistant Director of Campus Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, he wrote an article in The Forward titled “How BDS is Pushing Jewish Students Out of Social Justice Activism.” In it he wrote, “Today, to be a social justice advocate of any kind on many US College campuses requires a sort of litmus test: Do you want to fight the epidemic of campus sexual assault? Good, but you must also support BDS. And if you believe that women on U.S. campuses shouldn't fear rape each time they venture out at night, but don't want to sign on to an anti-Israel agenda, you might just find yourself pushed out of the sexual violence advocacy arena: As one student attendee at the AJC Global Forum 2016 put it, 'I want to be a part of the progressive fights my generation is currently waging, but I am deeply troubled and challenged by the anti-Israel sentiment rising amongst the far left.'”
Recently, in late August of this year, the Graduate Student Association President at UCLA Milan Chatterjee resigned his positon after a protracted battle over his refusal to agree to fund events that were anti-Israel or pro-Israel. He claimed that politics over Israel had no place in the Graduate Student Association budget at UCLA. Students for Justice in Palestine, Palestine Legal and the ACLU investigated Chatterjee and smeared his reputation until he simply resigned. His letter of resignation to UCLA Chancellor Block was published online and he blamed the forces aligned with and behind BDS, and then he transferred to NYU Law School to finish his last year.
On October 1st, this past Saturday's edition of The New York Times featured an article called “Anti-Semitism at My University Hidden in Plain Sight,” written by Benjamin Gladstone, a Jewish student, a junior at Brown University. As a student involved in liberal causes such as his presidency of the Brown Coalition for Syria that gives voice to the refugee crisis and involved in Jewish organizations at Brown as well, he claims that liberal causes and organizations at Brown would rather not have events than have events co-sponsored by Jewish organizations. Gladstone writes, “My fellow activists tend to dismiss the anti- Semitism that students like me experience regularly on campus. They don't acknowledge the swastikas that I see carved into bathroom stalls, scrawled across walls or left on chalkboards. They don't hear students accusing me of killing Jesus. They don't notice professors glorifying anti-Semitic figures such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt or the leadership of Hezbollah, as mine have.”
I spoke earlier this summer about the growing Israel hatred of the American Political left including Max Blumenthal, whose father is an advisor for Hilary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders' advisors including Dr. James Zogby. We have become accustomed to anti-Semitism from the political far right - the KKK, Neo- Nazis, white Supremecist movements. Just last week, Breitbart, a far right wing internet site whose former chairman is now a top advisor for Donald Trump, Breitbart.com published an article criticizing a Washington Post columnist by the name of Anne Applebaum for her criticism of Trump. These are words of the Breitbart article, “Hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” If you find that worrisome, go to the Breitbart article and see the comments under the article by proud American anti-Semites. It's terrifying.
But now it's time to recognize anti-Semitism from the political far left as well - the Black Lives Matter movement platform, the BDS movement on college campuses, anti-colonial academia on college campuses, and most recently the Green Party. This year, the Green Party nominated Jill Stein for President of the United States. And this is a quote from her website, “The Jill Stein campaign calls for ending support for governments committing war crimes and massive human rights violations, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. It supports the BDS movement as a peaceful, nonviolent set of actions organized by civil society across the world aimed to end Israeli apartheid, occupation, war crimes, and systematic human rights abuses.” I intend on being the Rabbi here at Adat Shalom for a long time. So just so there is no miscommunication, I don't believe BDS is peaceful. And I don't believe Israel is engaged in apartheid, occupation, war crimes or systematic human rights abuses. I do believe that Jill Stein only accuses two countries in the entire world of such crimes by name on her website. I do believe that in 2016, I have no problem identifying Jill Stein as an anti-Semite in spite of her Jewish heritage, in which she grew up attending the reform synagogue in Chicago North Shore.
Congregation Israel where my in-laws and my entire wife's family belongs. I do believe Jill Stein is blinded by her hate of Israel because there is perhaps no greener country in the world for the Green Party candidate to emulate than the State of Israel and its amazing environmental policies. Some of you might be thinking, maybe the problem is Rabbi Lebovitz. Maybe the Rabbi lacks the moral clarity and not the groups of social activists, racial activists and environmental activists I am describing today. Maybe I should take them at their word that all they want is for Israeli policy to change? Perhaps that's the only reason that the left singles Israel out for punishment? Six weeks ago on August 31st, journalist Collier Meyerson tweeted out from an Air France flight that an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who was supposed to sit next to her, took a look at her clothing and refused to sit next to her. As a response to her tweet, liberal MSNBC Host Chris Hayes responded to her, “perfect time to start a good, frank BDS conversation.”
Now, what is the connection between an ultra-Orthodox Jew and BDS? Absolutely nothing if we take boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel as strictly against Israeli political policies. No connection. Unless - unless - Chris Hayes sees BDS as a sanction not only against a strong Israel, but also as a slap against all strong Jewish identity. Hayes simply apologized and said his joke was taken out of context. I have to be honest, I such a pithy joke about Muslims or African-Americans, I assure you he would no longer host a show on MSNBC. The truth is that I wasn't planning on giving this sermon until a young woman walked into my office to interview for a job in our new religious school. I asked her where she went to school? And she explained that she was forced to drop out of Vassar after she felt threatened by the BDS movement. I couldn't believe it - Vassar? I thought Vassar was the most liberal, open, safe campus in the country.
Then I googled Vassar and BDS and found an article by The Forward called, “How Jewish Students Like Me got Bullied at Vassar BDS Vote.” It was all there. It described the bullying of Jewish students who try to support Israel at Vassar. This is the new anti-Semitism of 2016 America. It comes from the far-left and tries to disguise itself as regarding Israel. But we should recognize it as something old, something familiar, something we haven't had to face in our lives, something most of us have only heard about from our parents or grandparents. What is the answer? How do we begin to correct this growing epidemic?
But Rabbi, Teshuvah is done by the people who have committed missteps. We, our children, we're the victims. Friends, in 2016, I don't want to hear about Jewish victimhood. We are in control of our own fate. Teshuvah is a Hebrew word from the root Shuv - to return. Let's return to the matter. I ask you, I implore you to return to the matter of Israel. At a time when Jewish students are saying they're not sure what the answer is, I can tell you that's because their parents and their community did not bring them to think about this subject before.
If you forget Jerusalem, You will forget your right hand.
This is not the time to mince words with our children, our friends, our coworkers about Israel. If you care about Israel, this is the time to show it.
I love hearing about the terrific vacations of all of the people I know - I watch on Faceb Israel through your time and through your money, visiting Israel with your children, don't wonder why they don't feel a connection to prioritize Israel either. When you want to teach connection to synagogue, did you have your kids go on a teen trip to a synagogue? Of course not, you bring them with you and you explain why it matters. And they see you go as well. For Israel, we pack our kids up and send them on birthright and we expect that the tour guides will do our jobs. They don't. It's not enough.
The Talmud tells us that the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple and then banned all Jewish study. Rabbi Akiva refused to obey the Roman law and publicly taught Torah. Pappus ben Judah came by and found Rabbi Akiba publicly teaching Torah. Pappus asked him: "Akiva, aren't you afraid of the government, of the trends in society?" Rabbi Akiva tells him a parable, “A fox was walking by a river and watched the fish furiously swim from here to there. The fox asked the fish, 'From whom are you fleeing?' They replied, 'From the nets and traps set for us by men.' So the fox said to them, 'How would you like to come up on dry land, so we can live together?' The fish replied, 'You - the fox - the cleverest of animals - are in fact a fool. If we are fearful in the place where we have a chance to stay alive, how much more fearful should we be in a place where we are sure to die!”
Akiva said to Pappus, “So it is with us. If we are fearful when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, 'For that is your life and the length of your days' (Deut 30:20), how much more fearful should we be, should we cease the study of Torah altogether?!"
When Torah study was banned, Jews became afraid, but it became all the more important for strong Rabbis to stand publicly and teach Torah. We doubled down on our Torah study. When supporting Israel is being challenged at every level, at high schools, colleges, corporations, I say to you, if we are fearful of our kids supporting Israel in public, the answer is not to prioritize Israel lower so it doesn't draw attention. The answer to is stand beside our children as we support Israel together. Now, we have to double down on our public support for Israel.
Adapting the words of Rabbi Akiva, how much more fearful should we be, should we cease publicly supporting Israel altogether?!
This is the way in which we begin the conversation. Let's sit down with our kids, our family, our friends, our coworkers and begin by saying, “Israel is a nonnegotiable part of our identity because...” And then fill in the rest for yourself. Try it first with somebody you feel comfortable. Israel is a non-negotiable part of our identity.
Oh Master of the Universe, if we forget Israel, let us forget our right hand and our left hand. Let us stand with Israel with the rational, with the clear minded and level headed and let us use both hands to push back extremist hatred in this country from both sides. And let us say Amen.