February 12, 2020 at 7:38 p.m.

A rabbi’s response to growing anti-Semitism

A rabbi’s response to growing anti-Semitism
A rabbi’s response to growing anti-Semitism

By Rabbi Matthew Cutler- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Not too long ago, over a thousand people came to Schenectady to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. It was on the same day when nearly 25,000 Jews gathered in Manhattan to stand up to the rise in anti-Semitism. In our community, it was an interfaith experience led by Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, the Capital District Board of Rabbis, and the local Jewish Federation. Here, people gathered; people of different colors, people of different backgrounds, people of different faiths and no faith — all to proclaim that this type of hatred will not be tolerated in our community. Statistics indicate that hate crimes are being committed at a greater rate now than in the last two years. Incidents against minorities — Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants — are nothing new, however the recent significant increase in incidents is disturbing. How bad is it? The Anti-Defamation League released a report showing a 57 percent increase from 2018 to 2019. These incidents range from swastikas drawn on buildings and desecration of cemeteries to acts of deadly violence against Jews.  

Locally, we haven’t seen that intensity, but many in this community have experienced anti-Semitism first hand — a remark here or there, an off color “Jewish joke” told in front of us, a post that appears in our Facebook feed.  People have shared with me that a lot of the comments are coming from teenagers and school officials have been notified; in some cases, local police departments have gotten involved. 

Let me share with you some of the things that people have shared with me in the last two years; all these issues involve children: 

•??Children concerned about other students greeting each other with Nazi salutes in school hallways
•??Loose change thrown at Jewish students who are told to pick it up because Jews like money
•??A picture of a school district website with a picture of Adolf Hitler superimposed to show it as the news of the day 
•??Families receiving prank phone calls that leave anti-Jewish messages on voice mail, the caller ID spoofed to hide the identity of the caller
•??Jewish students being called “Jew” derogatorily by classmates 
•??Jewish students feeling uncomfortable as non-Jewish students tell anti-Jewish jokes in front of them 
•??A parent needing to drive their middle-school student to and from school because he is afraid of walking the gauntlet of students who have played “kick the Jew” when he got off the bus 
•??A primary grade student who came off the school bus and asked her mother why the Jews killed Jesus 
•??A child telling her Jewish friend that her mother doesn’t want them to be friends anymore because she is a Jew  

Anti-Semitism is a different sort of hatred, the most durable and versatile in history; it easily shape-shifts to fit the purposes of many ideologies. You can hate Jews because we are communists or capitalists, foreigners or residents, immigrants, elitists, have strange ways or are too assimilated, bankroll the left (George Soros) or bankroll the right (Sheldon Adelson). You can hate us because we were weak and stateless or now because we are Zionists and defend Israel. There is always a reason and, of course, it is?never?just because we are Jews. Yet somehow it is always because we are Jews. And when the public discourse rises to a fever pitch, swastikas will start to appear and Hitler’s name will be invoked as a role model and Jews who complain will be told it is no big deal. To many, Jews represent “the other.” Blame it on the Jews!

That is part of the reason why anti-Semitism is flourishing now. Our country is polarized and we live in a culture that states that if you are different from me, then you are my enemy. We have lost the ability to see the face in God in another who practices a different faith or is of a different color or is from a different country of origin. And the Jew is the proverbial canary in the coalmine, always among the first to be singled out for hatred and violence. The roots of this run deep, and numerous pages have been written by scholars and religious leaders on why that is so. In my opinion, it is because we are seeing a cultural backlash to years of societal power shifting in our society, from those who traditionally held it to those who have been “othered.” The extremism of white supremacy is being given a forum to thrive. And to quote Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to?do nothing.” Even President Donald Trump failed to denounce those who marched in hatred and with violence in Charlottesville by proclaiming that there are good people on both sides. Friends, do not fool yourselves — there are no good people who march under Nazi banners or white supremacy flags, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” And since then, synagogues have been shot up during services, the people inside murdered as they prayed. Since then, assaults on Jews have happened in the streets and in our own homes because we are Jews.  

As a Jewish community, we have seen this before. Jewish history is filled with incidents of anti-Semitic discrimination assaults and murder. There are those still alive among us who witnessed the brutality of the Nazis and their sympathizers first hand. It is essential to understand that genocide did not appear overnight. There was a clear pattern of escalation. Jews were responsible for the evils of the world, they said. Jews are a different race — an inferior one at that, they proclaimed. The Jews controlled the media and the banks, they asserted. The Jews don’t deserve the same rights as others, they legislated. They encouraged violence against the Jews and government-sanctioned destruction of property owned by Jews. Once dehumanized and vilified, the Jews were easy targets for genocide. And since places of death like Ausch­witz were liberated 75 years ago, our promise and our conviction is to bring “never again” to reality.

Please note that what is happening to the Jews is not isolated to just me and my fellow co-religionists. It is happening to our Muslim neighbors. It is happening to people of color and people born outside of the United States. It is happening to those who have a different sexual orientation than us … or who are (for whatever reason) “other” than us.

As people of faith, how are we called to address this growth of hatred and the violence to which hatred gives birth? This cycle has to end. There are numerous interfaith coalitions that exist so that people from different backgrounds can stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity. But don’t wait for the leaders to do this; there are simple steps that each of us can do to help stem the tide of growing anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry. Here are some suggestions of action items: 

•??All leaders, whether in congregations or in government offices or in community services, must speak out against anti-Semitism and violence. 
•??Each and every one of us needs to be vigilant. If we hear others say something, even in jest, that reflects a hatred of Jews or others, stop them and call them out on it. 
•??Pledge to use your words with care and sensitivity to others. 
•??Do what makes you feel connected. Remember that we are never alone. 
•??Create opportunities in your community for Jewish people to share about their experiences and about their faith. Ignorance breeds hate. 
•??Show up at solidarity events to affirm that anti-Semitic violence is not tolerated in our community. 
•??Do what makes you feel loved. Ask for love from others and share it back. 

If we want to end anti-Semitism in our community, the task belongs to all of us. Act. 
Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and human rights activist Ellie Wiesel wrote: “People must remember that peace is not God’s gift to His creatures; peace is our gift to each other.” Let us grant each other that gift by seeing the face of God in one another, and by eradicating anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and hate.

Rabbi Matthew Cutler is the senior rabbi at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady.


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