Dear TEE community,

Hearing about the controversy over Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on the Holocaust last week, I was reminded of a story told by one of my rabbinic school teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet:

I had been invited [to Madras as a] participant in a conference on philosophy and religion…I was due to speak one afternoon and a polite young Indian man came up to me and told me that he was especially interested in my paper on Judaism. I was delighted at this recognition accorded to my own religion given that so many were represented here. Clearly he valued the particular quality of the Jewish faith that had somehow appealed to him even in this place so far from the Jewish world that I knew. “Yes,” he added, “I am very interested in the minor religions.” (Jonathan Magonet, The Explorer’s Guide to Judaism, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998)

For those of us who are Jewish or close to Jews, it can be difficult to remember how small a minority we are. Jews are approximately 2.4% of the US population. In Monroe County, with approximately 742,000 people, about 20,000 are Jews. While our history and traditions play a large role in the way we experience the world, they have little or no impact on the consciousness of the vast majority of Americans. After I spoke about antisemitism on Evan Dawson’s show a couple of weeks ago, numerous acquaintances told me they had no idea about the discrimination Jews faced in the United States or some of the historical events I mentioned.

I do not believe this ignorance is willful or malicious. How much do we know about other minority groups in our country or region? For example, I grew up in Buffalo without ever knowing about the Yemeni Muslim community which came there in the 1950s to work in the steel mills. If it were not for personal and professional relationships I’ve been lucky enough to develop over the years, I would have remained ignorant of the differences and diversity among Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’i, and other “minor” religions in the United States (although not necessarily the world). Even in the case of the majority religion, Christianity, I would venture to guess that few Jews know the difference between a Methodist and a Lutheran or why there is controversy as to whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a Christian denomination.

While there will always be those whose antisemitism is based on hatred, I believe that there are many more whose attitudes reflect a general lack of knowledge. For that reason, we should make use of every opportunity we have to educate our non-Jewish family, friends, and acquaintances about the reality and impact of antisemitism. One of my central beliefs is that real change comes about only through relationship – we come to care about the harm of antisemitism (or racism or sexism or homophobia or other forms of oppression) because we see the harm done to those we know and care about.

I also believe that we should address the apparent ignorance of others with some humility, acknowledging the limitations of our own understanding. Reminding myself of how little I probably know about someone else’s tradition, I can approach them without anger. In interreligious gatherings, I often hear antisemitic comments which I know are unintentional. When I speak with the offender afterwards I always begin by affirming that I realize they meant no harm. At the same time, I think it is vitally important to say something about the impact and implications of their words so that they have the opportunity not to hurt others.

Finally, as I wish to educate others, I hope to become more open to examining my own ignorance and misconceptions about others. I feel grateful to live in a time and place where we have the opportunity to live and engage with many religions and cultures. I believe that it is only through those connections that we will build a society of mutual care and understanding.

Rabbi Drorah Setel