In My Own Words - Antisemitism – part 1 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“I wish I had a crystal ball.” That thought occurred to me when I was reading “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” by Bari Weiss. In fact, that’s not the first time that I wished for one. During the last few months, many people have been questioning whether the current rise in antisemitism, particularly in the U.S., resembles that which occurred in Nazi Germany. Yet, Weiss doesn’t just discuss the current administration, but the many different forms of antisemitism she sees across the world.
I’ve been lucky not to have experienced much overt antisemitism in my life and the first instance was lost to me for many years. For some reason as an adult, I asked my mom if she remembered why I stopped playing with a friend who lived down the street. My mom said that one day I came home really mad, saying that Kathy said I killed Christ. I guess I sputtered to Kathy that I had not killed Christ. While that sounds like a powerful and hurtful experience, even after my mom spoke about it, I still don’t remember it happening.
In high school, a few folks in the National Honor Society made some offensive remarks about my being Jewish. I don’t remember the remarks, just that for once I actually had a good comeback, something along the lines of “if I want to say something bad about you, I don’t have to say it about your religion.” One person later apologized to me. That’s something I do remember. Unfortunately, I later learned that a close non-Jewish friend had also experienced antisemitism: after we graduated, she told me that people asked her how she could be friends with a Jew.
That means that for most of my life I’ve lived in what Weiss calls “a holiday from history.” Weiss notes that she’s also lived in that holiday period: a time when Jews were not actively persecuted or killed – a time when no one was screaming all Jews had to die. Well, there have always been people who felt that way, but, during this holiday period, most people didn’t jump on their bandwagon and call for our destruction.
Weiss’ book is considered controversial because she discusses all types of antisemitism: that of the Right, the Left and Radical Islam. As she notes, most people are quick to condemn antisemitism from those they oppose. For many folks, the alt-right is easy to criticize. These groups remind people of Hitler – in fact, members of these groups often express their affinity to Hitler’s ideas about the Jews. But Weiss notes the antisemitism of the Left, which demands that people leave aside their Jewishness and declare that Israel – and only Israel out of all the nations in the world – has no right to exist. A simplification of Weiss’ argument shows Jews as caught between a rock and a hard place: the Right says that Jews are whites who betray their whiteness by siding with minorities and immigrants. The Left says that Jews are white, which means they are automatically labeled as oppressors, even when they are being attacked and killed.
Weiss also sees Radical Islam as a problem. She compares it to Christianity during the days of the blood libels, libels which are now being repeated in many Islamic countries. I should not have to write that Weiss is not anti-Islam, but that seems necessary in our polarized political climate. The fact that people immediately assume any criticism of Islamic culture is wrong means that you think it’s OK for someone to say that Jews are sons of apes and pigs who should die. That Jews are the cause of all problems in the world. That it’s OK to attack Jews because somehow it must be the Jews’ fault. Those ideas are found in the words and writings of followers of Radical Islam.
Whether or not you agree with Weiss’ analysis – and it’s difficult to not agree with many, if not most, of her ideas – the real question becomes what will the future be like. Do we need that crystal ball? Are we about to enter another era of terror for Jews? Weiss had some interesting answers that I’ll write about in my next column.