Standing up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism

Yom Kippur Morning

October 5, 2014

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Standing Up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism 

As many of you know, from 1987 until 1992, our family made its home in Jackson, Mississippi while I served as the rabbi of Jackson’s only synagogue.  In a sea of some 500 churches, Beth Israel Congregation was the lone Jewish outpost.  Living and working in what many called the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” was an incredible experience for me as a rabbi.  Having served a total of six years on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at Temple Shaaray Tefila as the Student Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi and finally Associate Rabbi, Jackson was a true step out of the familiar for Laura and me. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary in New York and just days later set out for Jackson.  We were two Jews from New York, about to encounter life in a culture different from anything we’d imagined.

Jackson was a fantastic place to really begin my rabbinate.  I’m not discounting my first years after ordination at Shaaray Tefila. They were an important foundation on which to build my rabbinic self. I still find the lessons I learned in New York City valuable, over twenty-seven years removed from that experience. However, I used to think that the ink on my certificate of ordination dried as the wheels of our Delta flight touched down in Jackson. I was no longer a part of a clergy team.  I was the team – coach, player and bat boy.

Just before Rosh Hashanah I was shocked to learn of an incident that brought national attention to my former hometown. The current Rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation found himself at the center of a tempest arising from an incident at a local business. The incident, about which I am certain some of you have heard, involved the rabbi going to a local restaurant to grab lunch.  He ordered the day’s lunch special and a Greek salad. The man behind the counter, who turned out to be the shop’s owner asked my colleague whether he wanted a full size salad or “the Jew size.” My colleague was taken aback as he asked, “Did I hear you correctly?” The owner proceeded to ask the customer before him, “Are you a Jew?” The rabbi affirmed that he was, at which point the proprietor became abusive and threw the rabbi out of his shop.

I clearly remember how folks would query me about my experiences of anti-Semitism during my years in Mississippi.  I would say then, as I affirm now, that I experienced relatively little anti-Semitism in Jackson or even more broadly during my years in the South.  I did find there was more widespread ignorance when it came to Jews, Judaism and Israel, than there was anti-Semitism.  An important part of my response was to offer a community-wide six-week Introduction to Judaism course.  Each year found well over 200 members of the Jackson community coming to our synagogue to study with me. I was blown away by their response and interest. Those classes were among the many highlights of my tenure in Jackson.  Living and working in a place with a troubled history of racial and other problems, I learned it is important to distinguish between prejudice and ignorance – simple lack of knowledge or experience.

I wish I could apply what I learned in Jackson to this summer’s disturbing eruption of anti-Semitism, and worse, attacks on Jews in so many corners of our world. I can’t. What we saw come to the fore this summer cannot be explained away as ignorance.  Who would have imagined that in London in 2014 there would be need for a rally protesting against anti-Semitism? As one British writer put it in early September, “In 2014, anti-Semitism went global all at once. In July, an anti-Israeli demonstration in Paris broke into racist rioting: Jewish-owned shops and synagogues were targeted. In Berlin, they were chanting: “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone.” In his pre-Rosh Hashanah message, Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman wrote, “In terms of anti-Semitism globally, by any measure the year 5774 was an annus horribilis for the Jewish people. Passions whipped up by crowds protesting the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza leading to open displays of hostility against Israel.  Rather rapidly those displays gave way, in many instances, to ugly anti-Semitic outbursts.”   Some acted out violently against Jewish institutions, homes and businesses.  Who would have thought that in our lifetime we’d again hear chants of “death to the Jews” on the streets of Berlin? Who would have thought that Jewish stores would be marked and face boycotts, or that Jews on the streets would be attacked in broad daylight?” And while relatively speaking it’s a blip, could you have imagined it possible that a candidate running for the US Senate in 2014 would post lawn signs reading, “With Jews we lose.” For me it hearkened back to 1973 when we saw bumper stickers proclaiming, “We need oil, not Jews.”

There are those who have been warning us in recent years that what we are seeing are the same warning signs that were ignored in the 1930s in Germany.  They argue that the handwriting is on the wall and that we in the Jewish community who deny it are naïve.  Believe me I have had my share of such conversations and debates.  We are not, I believe, reliving the 1930s, which saw the rise of Hitler, first to political power, and then as the leader of one of the worst genocidal campaigns in human history. Nevertheless, that does not lead me to suggest that the events of this summer should be ignored or declared an anomaly.  The rise of anti-Semitism this summer must awaken us to the reality that there is work to do – even in places like Boston, here in Newton, and more broadly.

At the same time, I see in this summer’s rise in anti-Jewish sentiment a connection to a concern I have had and about which I have spoken in recent years on many fronts. In this second decade of the 21st century, we have seen a dramatic rise in what I will call the rise of hatred of the other. We hear it in the distasteful chants at sporting events.  We see it in the public sphere and amongst too many of our elected officials.  As I have said before, it disturbs me that politics has become a blood sport. The incredibly distasteful way in which too much of politics are played by our leaders – in our nation’s capital, and at the state and local levels as well is, in my view, alarming.  We have seen it grow in potency since 9/11  and a part of it has been the rising drumbeat in some corners of broad-based anti-Islamic fervor.  To me, this culture of disrespect, and even worse, the rising tide of hate and intolerance, is among the prominent illnesses affecting our world in 2014. It’s not new. I have spoken on other occasions about the disintegration of respectful discourse and the widespread inability to respect others who hold views different than our own. When we attack a person, rather than highlight our differences with their ideas, we can sow seeds of dehumanization and de-legitimization. Both were important parts of Hitler’s program in the 1930s and 40s. In that sense I do see parallels. We certainly see it among certain elements within Palestinian society and quite disturbingly we see the same in the rhetoric and actions of certain elements within Israeli society when it comes to their Palestinian neighbors and even Arabs more broadly. Let me reiterate what I said ten days ago: I respect the rights of those who would express their outrage at Israel’s actions in Gaza this summer, or in relation to the Palestinians over many decades.  At the same time we must not be fooled.  The so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which claims to protest against Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians, is dishonest about its true intentions. BDS does not hold as its prime objective the isolation of Israel in order to force Israel to the negotiating table. The core of the BDS movement boldly lies about its ultimate objective, which is the destruction of Israel as a state.  While we must respect others points-of-view, we are entitled to respectfully call them out when they offer less than honest portrayals of their positions. And this movement played no small role in stoking the fires of anti-Semitism this summer.

We have been gravely offended by the dehumanizing rants against Jews in European capitals and other locations this summer.  Can we not see the same dehumanization and de-legitimization when we ignore the same in our own midst? It can be the Red-Blue divide in our country and politics, or racial and religious intolerance towards the other. We have assuredly seen such hate raised against the LGTBQQ community, or in too many corners broad-based attacks on the Muslim community.

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, my teacher, Yossi Klein Halevi, who has also become a cherished friend, published what I believe is the single best reflection on the many challenges that grabbed our attention this past summer. Yossi’s article is a very public heshbon ha-nefesh – a taking stock; an inventory of his feelings about the dramatic events of this summer.  Yossi begins, writing, “As we enter [the New Year], I am, like many of us, a confusion of emotions. I am angry and fearful, grieving and grateful, proud and ashamed and, despite everything, hopeful.” He then proceeds to catalogue his emotional roller-coaster ride through this summer’s news and events. I suggest that you read Yossi’s article after Yom Kippur.  A link to the article will be posted on our website.

As Yossi put it, “I am fearful for the future of Jews around the world. In this terrible summer, many Jews rediscovered the meaning of exile, of living in acute uncertainty, in dread. I fear for the future of the great Jewry of France, a creative and diverse community of Sephardim and Ashkenazim that is now questioning its long-term viability. I fear for the future of the Jewry of Turkey, a magnificent repository of intact Jewish life in a Muslim country, now under assault by a lunatic leader who demands that “his” Jews repudiate Israel, and commit an act of public apostasy, as the price for remaining citizens in good standing. I fear for the future of Jews in Venezuela and South Africa, where public figures close to the government have called for violence against fellow Jewish citizens.”  I share Yossi’s concern.  I could not have expressed it any better myself.

At the same time, I am not prepared to sound the shofar proclaiming it is the 1930’s all over again. The ferocity with which anti-Semitism took root anew this summer must give us pause. We must sound the call, the shofar call, as an alert to awaken us and call us to respond, to anti-Semitism, as well as to hatred, bigotry and all forms of intolerance that all-too-often we brush aside as ignorance or fringe.  I believe that this summer has shown us enough to suggest that we ignore the many expressions of hatred around us at our own peril. I believe that as a Jewish community, we must respond to the anti-Semitic tide rising in our world.  I said on Rosh Hashanah, I can respect differing points of view.  Freedom of speech and freedom to assemble are cherished ideals in our American value system.  The line between protected speech and hate speech, which can lead to hateful aggression, as we have seen this summer, is a fine one.

In this New Year, but ten days old, it is my hope that we will strengthen the hands of those organizations, both within the Jewish community and beyond which work to fight intolerance, bigotry, prejudice and the spread of hatred, especially when it is based in misinformation. It is my hope that together with our neighbors in Newton, in other houses of faith and throughout our community we will work to educate – and for ourselves, learn, about the other so that we can live in the world of respect and peace we so deeply desire.

A number of years ago, our family attended a program here at Temple Shalom with our then-7th grade son, Benjamin on anti-Semitism with a speaker from ADL. She shared a list of things that could symbolize Jewish identity in our lives. Do you light a menorah? Is it in your window for all to see? Does your home a have a mezuzah?  One question asked, “If you wear a Jewish star necklace, do you wear it inside your shirt or outside?” It offered us an interesting opportunity to examine our comfort with sharing our Jewish identities. I pray that we will stand up to anti-Semitism in order that some day soon, no Jew anywhere in this world will feel uncomfortable wearing a Star of David outside any clothing, or on their clothing, proudly proclaiming their Jewish identity. This summer darkened that day’s dawning – it’s up to us to shine the light – of civility, tolerance, and understanding by working for the safety, security and peace of all.


3 thoughts on “Standing up to Hate – Standing Up to Anti-Semitism

  1. Lori B. Gans says:

    Eloquently and brilliantly articulated, Eric. Thank you for delivering such an important message!

  2. Scott Birnbaum says:

    Amen to Lori.

    As Rabbi Gurvis said during Kol Nidre, we can also be hopeful.

    One hopeful postscript to the incident Rabbi Gurvis talked about in Jackson appears in the My Southern Living column on Jewish Learning::

    In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:

    I am so sorry that this happened to you.

    Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.

    I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!

    Let’s boycott this restaurant

    Unbelievable…it makes me sad

    Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!

    Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.

    I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.

    Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.

    That’s the real story here.

    May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.

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