For me, it happened when the white supremacist marchers in Charleston shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” For others it happened when thirteen people were murdered a year ago in the Tree of Life synagogue. For all American Jews, the past few years have signaled an end to what journalist Bari Weiss has called a “holiday from history,” demanding a reconsideration of our position in the United States and the enduring nature of antisemitism. Until 2017 I truly believed that America was the exception, a place where Jews would not experience collective persecution. I am no longer certain of that.
Seeing and, perhaps more importantly, hearing the marchers in Charleston I realized that their vile beliefs and attitudes were something that had been there all along, an underground sludge now making its way to the surface. The routine antisemitism I had dismissed as insignificant was, in fact, the tip of an iceberg showing no signs of diminishing.
Some time after the Charleston march but before the Tree of Life shooting, I was alone in the synagogue on a Saturday morning, preparing for our weekly Torah study. I had gotten to Temple about half an hour early and unlocked the door as I usually did. I was in the office when I heard someone come into the building. I went out into the hall and saw a large white man, with a short haircut and an oversized jacket. I felt uncomfortable but decided to greet him the way I would any new person coming through the door. My discomfort increased as I spoke with him and couldn’t get a clear answer about why he was there. I decided to call Jule Rayburn, who lives around the corner, and when he arrived we asked the visitor to leave. Which he did, quite peaceably. I still don’t know why he was there and I don’t know if he presented any threat but I do know that, for the first time in my life, I felt afraid in a synagogue, my synagogue.
Before Charleston, I certainly had been aware of an increased expression of antisemitism in this country. Growing up, the discrimination I experienced was relatively subtle – social exclusion, or the need to explain my absence from school at Jewish holidays. It was something altogether different for my children, living in an age of social media, where antisemitic comments and jokes were frequent and mindlessly repeated by their friends. But somehow I didn’t think there could be a real threat.
Like Judaism, antisemitism has a long and complex history which is beyond the scope of a single sermon. There are numerous books and more appearing every day which seek to describe and analyze it. What I would like to do today is focus on a few points which are not widely discussed and which are important to understanding and resisting antisemitism.
In contemporary discourse there is frequent reference to “antisemitism and other forms of racism.” Antisemitism is not a form of racism. Seeing it that way is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it erases the unique history and experience of the Jews. Antisemitism has a specific origin in the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity. It also ignores the different dynamics of racism and antisemitism. The violence of racism is consistent. People of color in this country are routinely disadvantaged and seen as inferior. Antisemitism is cyclical, alternating between relative prosperity and persecution. Jews are seen as a threat not because they are inferior but because they are mysteriously superior, cunning manipulators in a vast range of global conspiracies.
This confusion between antisemitism and racism is related to another misunderstanding. Racism in the United States was institutionalized through slavery and, following the Civil War, by laws and behaviors that systematically denied people of color full citizenship. Jews have had a different kind of history here. In fact, the United States was the first place in the world where Jews were citizens and had recourse to the legal system for their defense. This is not to deny the discrimination and violence Jews experienced throughout our history, just to point out that it was not built into the fabric of American institutional life in the way that racism was.
Antisemitism comes from another, much older framework, Christian hegemony. Author and activist, Paul Kivel, defines Christian hegemony as “the everyday, systematic set of Christian values, individuals, and institutions that dominate all aspects of [a] society.” The origins of both Christian hegemony and antisemitism lie in the first centuries of the Common Era, when various factions within the Jewish community began the separation between what would become Judaism and Christianity. In the process, Christianity developed several core beliefs which led to the hatred and persecution of Jews. These included:
1. Blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. Two thousand years later this continues to play a role in popular culture, from Jesus Christ Superstar to The Passion of the Christ.
2. Believing Christians have replaced Jews as the true people of Israel and chosen of God. This idea, called supercessionism, is expressed in the practice of calling the Hebrew Bible the “old”, which is to say, “outdated” Testament, in contrast to the “new,” valid one. It was also why the Charleston marchers were chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
3. Seeing Jews as inherently evil for rejecting Jesus and Christian teaching. This led to two schools of thought concerning the Jewish community. One argued that we should be extinguished while the other, more liberal, view held that we should be allowed to live in degraded circumstances as an example of what happens to those who spurn the gospel. This “teaching of contempt” was not repudiated by Christian churches until after World War II.
4. Understanding Christianity to be the one, true faith. This means that there can only be one acceptable religious, intellectual, and cultural framework. Such a worldview demands conformity and is unable to tolerate diversity of opinion or practice. Any non-Christian becomes an “Other,” seen as less human or worthy of life.
As Christianity gained power and empire, antisemitism became woven into the fabric of the resulting nations and cultures. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment brought new twists on the old themes. Just as Carl Linnaeus worked to classify flora and fauna, others began to interest themselves in cataloging human beings and their societies. Because Christianity defined itself as a religion whose main concern was belief, these early Christian researchers assumed all cultures were organized in the same way. This was how, in the words of scholar Leora Batnitsky, Judaism became a religion. The word “Judaism” itself was an invention of that time. Earlier Jews defined themselves as part of the Jewish nation—what Mordechai Kaplan came to call “a religious civilization”—and spoke of Jewishness (“Yiddishkeit”), not Judaism.
Another, far reaching result of this cataloguing project was the invention of race. In 1795 Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a professor at the University of Göttingen, created a division of human beings into five groups based, not only on geography, like earlier taxonomies, but also on his perception of their beauty. Thus began the project of racial classifications connected to ideas of superiority and inferiority. In a very non-scientific development, terms that described language groups, such as Indo-European and Semitic, became used for what were perceived to be racial groupings. Hence, Jews became “Semites” and by 1879, Jew haters began to label themselves “anti-Semites.”
On the positive side, Enlightenment belief in a secular public sphere allowed the concept of Jewish emancipation to emerge. If Judaism, like Christianity, was a religion and religion was a private matter, then Jew and Christian alike could enter the public sphere as secular citizens. One could, in the words of Moses Mendelssohn, be “a German on the street and a Jew at home.”
The problem was that the so-called secular sphere was never devoid of Christianity. Another aphorism advises Jews to “dress British, think Yiddish.” In other words, Jews could succeed to the extent that they learned to act as white Christians. In the United States this presented an ongoing challenge. In his book, The Price of Whiteness, scholar Eric L. Goldstein examines the precarious situation of Jewish communities torn between their identification with American blacks (thinking of the oft repeated biblical injunction to care for others “for you were slaves in the land of Egypt”) and their desire for the security which came with being perceived as white.
One price of that security has been an implicit agreement not to name Christianity as the source of antisemitism. Jews and their representatives have not hesitated to call out perceived Muslim antisemitism but we have yet, even after Charleston, Pittsburgh and Poway, to speak of Christian terrorism. The violence Jews are now experiencing in the United States is coming from white supremacists whose ideology is deeply rooted in their Christian beliefs. Civil rights strategist, Eric K. Ward argues that, “American White nationalism…is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.” Because, as noted earlier, racism views people of color as inferior, white supremacists believe the devious and superior intelligence of a Jewish conspiracy must be behind the changes in American society which challenge white Christian dominance. In these movements
[A]ntisemitism has been a throughline from the Posse Comitatus,[of the 1960s] which set itself against “anti-Christ Jewry”; to David Duke’s refurbished Ku Klux Klan, which [focussed] on “Jewish supremacism”; to the neonazi group The Order, inspired by The Turner Diaries, which in the mid-1980s went on a rampage of robberies and synagogue bombings in Washington State and murdered a Jewish radio talk show host in Denver; to evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson who denounced antisemitism but used its popularity among their followers to promote an implicitly White supremacist “Christian nationalism”; to the contemporary Alt Right…which has brought antisemitic thought and imagery to new audiences on the internet—and now at White House press conferences.
[White nationalism] then and now, positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism.
How do we take on antisemitism? One step is to educate ourselves. I have presented my views about the history and nature of antisemitism but there are many, many others. Some people think there’s a difference between Christian anti-Judaism and racialized antisemitism. Others believe antisemitism started before Christianity, in the Greek and Roman world and some think it didn’t begin until the 19th century. And I didn’t even mention antisemitism in other countries and the debate over whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Decide for yourself what you think.
Learn also about Christian hegemony. Christian traditions and beliefs impact everything in the Unites States including health care, the legal system, foreign policy, and the national calendar. Find out how your tax dollars are being used locally, what is being taught and celebrated in our schools, and protest the exclusion of non-Christian perspectives. Do not vote for candidates who believe America is or should be a Christian nation or that Christian doctrine should be a guideline for government. Do vote for candidates who acknowledge the threat to our democracy posed by the hateful and exclusionary views of white Christian nationalism.
While my view of American Jewish life is less rosy than it used to be, there is one way in which I think our experience here is unique: Jews are not alone. Among the thousands of people who came to Temple B’rith Kodesh after the Pittsburgh shootings were Black activists, migrant workers, Muslim leaders, and others who share our minority status and vulnerability. White supremacy movements target them as well and we can support and strengthen one another in our opposition to them.
Finally, the most important point of all: embrace Jewishness. In 1990 a Columbia undergraduate, now Professor of Middle Eastern History at Bar Ilan University, Ze’ev Maghen, wrote an essay criticizing his fellow Jewish students for spending all their time on protests and none on Judaism:
Ask yourself: why are we still here? What is the key to our unique, defiant, unparalleled survival against all odds and forecasts?… Surely none of you will tell me that down four millennia, and through the wrenching vicissitudes and savage depredations of exile, it was our appeals [and] protests …equitable treatment that sustained us, kept us in life, and brought us to this season. No, my friends, our history teaches us a different lesson: that those who, …choose to build, to educate toward cultural and national revival, to defy anti-Semitism…with Jewish learning, Jewish observance, Jewish strength and Jewish achievement-such are those who bring our people survival, salvation, a future.
…the only answer to anti-Semitism is Jewish growth, is Jewish knowledge, is Jewish joy, is a deepened Jewish commitment, a more powerful internal Jewish cohesion, a more vigorous dedication to Jewish…outreach…you combat anti-Semitism by promoting that which the anti-Semite wants to crush: Jewish vitality.
Of course, as a rabbi, I always think it’s a good idea to become more Jewishly engaged, but I wholeheartedly agree that deepening our commitment to our tradition and our community—choosing life, as our Torah portion this morning enjoins us—is essential in this moment. Whether you decide to be more visibly Jewish by wearing a Magen David or a kippah, to read more Jewish books, to engage more with synagogue programs, or to have shabbat dinner more regularly, connecting to the richness and joy, to our love of being Jewish is the victory over hate.
In 1939 a group of Hasidic Jews in Lublin were rounded up by Nazis and ordered to sing. One of the group began with a popular song, “Lomr Zich Iberbetn,” “Let’s reconcile.” The officer in charge ordered his men to begin beating the Jews. Another one of the victims changed the words to the tune and started singing “Mir veln zey ibirleben,” “We will outlive them.” A surviving witness reported:
“Instantly the song took hold among the entire [group], until it catapulted [them] into a stormy and feverish dance.” The commander at first laughed…but then “he realized they weren’t accommodating him; they were defeating him. He ordered them to stop.” But they continued. Even when the SS troops charged at them, swinging whips and clubs.
Last year, Jewish activist Hannah Temple found this story in a Yiddish song collection. She made a banner emblazoned with the words “Mir veln zey ibirleben/We will outlive them” and the phrase took on a new life. Mir veln zey ibileben—through our renewed Jewish lives we will outlive them.
Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.
 Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” https://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism
 Ze’ev Maghen, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,”
 Ilana Sichel, “The Nazi History of This Yiddish Protest Banner,”