By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“Thinking I really have to write about antisemitism, although I’m not sure how much more anyone can say. Maybe I will say just that.” The impetus for my statement was reading commentators asking where was the outrage about the antisemitism that has flared up in the U.S. since the recent fighting in Israel. It was also part of the e-mail I wrote to Diana Sochor, The Reporter’s layout editor. I often bounce ideas off her and always get excellent advice. She wrote back, “And yeah, what else can be said? Like racism, bigotry, and homophobia, it’s never going to be fully and permanently eradicated. Humanity isn’t mature enough or selfless enough for that, and there are always those who want to blame anyone but themselves for real and imaginary ills of the world.”
Harsh words for humanity, but unfortunately all too true. Most of the antisemitism I’ve experienced has been benign. My mother once reminded me that when I was in grade school, I came home furious one day because a friend told me that I killed Christ. My mom said my reply was, “I did not kill Christ!” But that’s what the Catholic Church taught my friend in her catechism class, so how was she to know otherwise?
In the Honor Society room in high school, a few students made antisemitic comments. I can’t remember what they were. What I do remember is that it was one of the few times I had a good comeback, something along the lines of “if I wanted to criticize you, I don’t have to talk about your religion.” One of them apologized to me later, something for which I always respected him. Then, years later, I learned that my best friend in high school – who was not Jewish – suffered from antisemitic comments because people couldn’t understand how she could be friends with a Jew.
Years ago – I can’t remember if I was in grade school or high school – my mom and I were talking about the Holocaust. She asked if I thought it could happen here. I said yes. Now that I know more about Jewish history and world history, I believe a genocide can happen anywhere. As Diana so wisely put it: “There are always those who want to blame anyone but themselves for real and imaginary ills of the world.”
I’ve always been very open about being Jewish, but I have to admit being more cautious about it in recent circumstances. My chaplaincy work takes me on back roads through New York state. Although I wear a kippah while doing that work, I have taken it off when going into a convenience store if I stop to get something to drink on the way there or back. Do I really think something could happen? The real question is, do I want to take that chance?
I grew up listening to my mom talk about the Nazi rally that was held in Madison Square Garden before World War II and the fear that the U.S. would enter the war on the side of Germany. I watched with horror several years ago during the alt-right march in Charlottesville, VA, when marchers were chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” I laugh at the idea that Jews control the world – please let me know where I can sign up for a job – but cringe that people actually believe it.
Antisemitism will always exist and it may not make any difference to say the following, but it needs to be repeated: No matter what you think of Israeli politics, that is not a good reason to violently attack Jews. No matter what you think of Jewish political power, that is not a good reason to attack Jews. No matter how you feel about the Jewish religion, that is not a good reason to physically attack Jews. Actually, there is no good reason to physically attack anyone: white, black, brown, or Asian; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, etc.; straight or LGBTQ+. But, unfortunately, people are always looking for a scapegoat so we are obligated to condemn each and every act of violence and hate.