June 2, 2020 •
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It’s clear it’s antisemitism. But how to fight against this hatred isn’t as clear cut
By Clifford M. Kulwin, Rabbi Emeritus Temple B’nai Abraham

An assailant with a machete storms into a rabbi’s home in Monsey. Shooters bent on killing Jews go on a rampage in Jersey City. A recent Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study finds “a dramatic increase in physical assaults” on Jews in recent years.

I don’t know anyone who rejects the notion that antisemitism in the United States is on the rise.

Daily, we hear about violent attacks, defacing of Jewish buildings, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, “Cosmopolitan Jew” references in the public square (e.g. George Soros controls the media), and other antisemitic acts.

Jews are genuinely worried about their personal safety. I hear it all the time. Forget about “it can’t happen here.” Many now curb the visible aspects of their Jewish lives: they visit Jewish institutions less often, alter their dress, and maintain a new and unwanted sense of alertness as they go about their day. The subject dominates conversations within the Jewish community. It’s what we talk about.

Public officials have been quick to respond, but their responses must reflect a critical reality: antisemitism is a complex phenomenon.

In the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, Crusaders destroyed entire Jewish communities and killed all the inhabits, in the name of avenging their Lord. This is religious antisemitism, based on the belief that Jews killed Jesus. And it continues. Yes, the Nostra Aetete statement of 1965, and every reputable historian of the era, assure us this was not so, but two years ago another ADL study found that over a quarter of Americans believe that the Jews killed Jesus.

In a Facebook post just after the deadly shooting at the Jersey City Kosher Supermarket, Jersey City Board of Education member Joan Terrell-Paige demonstrated another kind of antisemitism: “African American homeowners in the Jersey City neighborhood were ‘threatened, intimidated and harassed’ by the Jewish newcomers, whom she said threatened to ‘bring drug dealers and prostitutes to live next door to you’ if homeowners wouldn’t sell their houses.”

This is economic antisemitism. In the post, Terrell-Paige accuses Jews of using economic wherewithal to get what they want, at the expense of those who are too poor to fight back.

And if we assume that a handful of unscrupulous individuals did just what Terrell-Paige says they did, by choosing not to attack them as individuals, but rather going after an entire people, she demonstrates a third kind of antisemitism: racial antisemitism, the belief that Jews as a race seek control over other races, an antisemitism of which Adolf Hitler was especially fond.

In fact, in Mein Kampf, Hitler calls Jews a race that exploits other races, the same charge essentially made by Terrell-Paige. How ironic that Hitler would have despised her, an African American, as much as he would have despised me, a Jew!

There are other antisemitisms, too, like social, ethnic and even literary antisemitism, in the form of Dickens’ Fagin, who embodies every negative Jewish stereotype imaginable, and T.S. Eliot’s poem Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar.

But how do we define antisemitism? I go back to the definition I learned from a rabbinical school history professor 40 years ago: Antisemitism is opposition to Jews, as Jews. By this definition, the December 10 supermarket shooting was an act of antisemitism, as was last week’s machete attack in Monsey, N.Y., as was 2017’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and 2018’s synagogue attack in Pittsburgh.

But we also have to be aware that, sometimes, the anti-Jewish part of an antisemitic attack is not all that’s important.

Within hours of the Monsey attack, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo labeled it an act of “domestic terrorism.” Yet it now appears machete wielder Grafton Thomas was seriously mentally unbalanced. Wouldn’t it be more productive to focus on how someone so severely ill slipped through the system?

David Anderson and Francine Graham arrived in Jersey City intending to shoot Jews. They committed a horrible, antisemitic slaughter. But as well, Anderson had a history of armed violence and spent several years in and out of jail. What does it mean that someone like him was able to secure firearms?

Terrell-Paige’s remarks are straight, undiluted antisemitism. The backlash, against her, starting with Governor Murphy, has been reassuring to witness.

And the thousands who marched in Charlottesville, sparking President Trump’s notorious remark that “there are good people on both sides,” knew exactly what they were saying when they shouted “Blood and soil, Jews will not replace us.”

Public officials have announced their commitment to address this increase in antisemitism. That’s good. But while the definition of antisemitism is straightforward, engaging it must be as multifaceted as the problem. Increased police patrols in vulnerable neighborhoods are essential, but they are just a start.

Are the roots of a specific incident economic or religious? Is it racial? Does an attack have more to do with gun control or mental health? Is it a domestic manifestation of the Middle East conflict? Or a radical preacher exhorting followers to avenge a 2,000 year old crucifixion?

Answers to questions like these will be complicated. They will require study and analysis. They will have to combine law enforcement, education, cultural advocacy, and public policy. But anything less is lip service.

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