One of my first jobs in the Jewish community was as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Washington D.C. I started the job in 1984 (an eerie year, for sure, if you are a fan of George Orwell). The top priorities of the community relations field at that time were: the campaign for Soviet Jewish freedom and emigration; support for the State of Israel; intergroup relations; and combatting anti-Semitism.
Published in the Times of Israel, May 16, 2023
I was far more committed to the first three issues than to the fourth. In fact, at that time, anti-Semitic incidents were declining, year to year, and seen by many law enforcement officials as something that represented a fringe phenomenon in the U.S. While I was very much in favor of educational programs and events to commemorate the Shoah, I thought that too much attention was being paid by the organized Jewish community to the threat of anti-Semitism, relying on a narrative that was more accurate for my parent’s generation than for mine. I often felt that the “anti-Semitism card” was employed as a strategy by Jewish organizations to mobilize Jewish solidarity and identity. While often effective, I questioned the wisdom of the strategy.
How things have changed! The ADL reported that in 2022, there was a 36% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. over the previous year. Campus and school incidents were up by 50%. And there were 91 bomb threats targeting Jewish institutions. There are many ways to explain the phenomenon but, in my view, chief among them was having a President of the United States who played to the most tribal fears of Americans by scapegoating immigrants and non-white Americans. After the Unite the Right Rally, organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017, when marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us”, President Donald Trump announced, ominously, that there were “good people on both sides” at the rally!
I hasten to add that Jews are not the only people at risk in America today. One of the seminal commentators on prejudice and intolerance in America is Eric Ward, the executive vice-president of Race Forward. Eric has written and spoken eloquently about the synergy between racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in America. They are all of one piece and, because they are, we must respond by forming alliances. No group should face intolerance alone.
History is replete with examples of what happens to societies when major public figures, no less a head of state, gives a wink and a nod to extremist rhetoric and behavior. There is a direct line between Donald Trump’s comments after the Unite the Right Rally and the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. It is sobering to think how close American democracy came to being undermined on that day. And, despite aggressive prosecution of the January 6th actors by the Department of Justice, the poisonous hatred that long existed on the fringes of American society, is now enjoying unprecedented status, attracting all kinds of individuals who have grievances about their social, economic or political status. Nazi Germany is not the only example of what happens when a dictator suggests that all the problems in a country are the fault of some minority group.
Jews and people of conscience cannot sit on the sidelines in the current environment. There are many efforts underway, both nationally and in communities across the country, to build bridges of understanding across lines of difference, be it religious, racial, ideological or ethnic. America is a pluralistic democracy. Teachers, clergy, elected officials and ordinary citizens must condemn all expressions of hatred and intolerance, whenever it rears its ugly head. We must seek out and/or create settings in which people can discuss hot button issues but do so in a way that is respectful and motivated by curiosity and not accusation. Finally, we must reject anyone running for public office who peddles in divisive rhetoric, pitting one set of Americans against another.
One of the core Jewish values is represented by the word echad, the word at the end of the Shma prayer. The word suggests that we must create a world that reflects Cosmic Unity, another way of speaking about God or the transcendent oneness of the world. It is not dissimilar from the Latin phrase on U.S. currency, E Pluribus Unum, out of the many, we can and must be, One.