Friday, December 23, 2022

Shining an Inside Light on Antisemitism

 As Gilda and I stood in chilly Times Square Monday evening at a rally to “Shine a Light on Antisemitism” coordinated by UJA Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, American Jewish Committee of New York, Anti-Defamation League New York/New Jersey and the New York Board of Rabbis, my mind kept mulling past and present discriminatory acts against Jews. 

I don’t mean by Kanye West or the Proud Boys.  Or Donald Trump. By Nazis, tsars or Communists. By a Greco-Syrian king (it is, after all, Hanukkah), by churches, by the Ku Klux Klan. By schools and businesses practicing restrictive admission policies. By landlords and real estate holders locking out housing opportunities. By the individual who has no moral compunction to attack a Jew simply because the opportunity presented itself on the street. 

They and many more antisemites are easily identified. No, what I couldn’t get out of my mind is the question, Can a Jew act antisemitically to another Jew? Was it happening even as I stood at a rally with placards proclaiming “We stand together” and “Fight Jew Hatred”?

Let’s not dodge the issue any longer—policies being proposed in Israel by a new government coalition, some already in effect from prior coalitions, are patently discriminatory against Conservative and Reform Jews, against secular Jews, against women, against Jews that do not practice Judaism in the same manner as the Haredi, the ultra Orthodox, do. 

Jewish sages taught that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and the Judeans conquered and exiled, because of internecine conflict among Jewish sects, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. 

Such a teaching should instruct greater understanding of differences today, but discrimination and restrictions exist. Sadly, not every Jew is willing to openly discuss this topic. 

The other day a high school classmate from the Hebrew day school I attended—it was called a yeshiva but shouldn’t be confused with the extreme Orthodox establishments of today that barely touch on secular studies; back in the 1960s my school was a bastion of liberal democratic principles and profoundly Zionistic—my classmate wished all of our classmates a happy “Chanukah” along with the hope “that we experience the true meaning of the Chag [holiday] and continue to be a shining light to the entire world.”

Never one to pass up an opportunity to express my viewpoint, I commented back to the group, “Let us all hope that we Jews continue to be a shining light to the world though news from Israel continues to display a diminishing light in terms of religious tolerance, civil tolerance and democratic principles.”


He avoided entering a dialogue “because we differ quite a bit regarding religion and politics.” Sadly, no one else among my hundred or so classmates on the email exchange voiced an opinion. How chilling that basic human and religious rights were being ignored or were thought to be too sensitive a subject to discuss. 

My wife and I, practicing Conservative Jews, as well as those who follow Reform and Reconstruction Judaism, are not accorded the same religious rights and benefits as endowed on Orthodox Jews in Israel. Indeed, all Orthodox Jews are not equal in the eyes of the new Israeli government’s ultra Orthodox ministers. The rites of conversion, circumcision, marriage and divorce are not universally recognized and respected by the Haredi across all Jewish sects, including those practiced by many Orthodox believers. Access to the Western Wall and prayer there by women are restricted by the Haredi. 

What we are witnessing is a theocracy in the making in Israel. 

Classic forms of antisemitism encompass acts of discrimination—physical, verbal, regulatory—against a person or group identified as Jewish in religious practice, physical appearance, in name or heritage. The Haredi are going one step further—they are not recognizing the inherent Jewishness of those who do not believe as they do. 

So, can a Jew act antisemitically to another Jew?  Apparently, if they don’t consider that person to be Jewish. 

What they do not realize is that the act of dehumanizing your opponent, in this case dismissing their Jewishness, ultimately dehumanizes oneself. 

I have been admittedly harsh in my analysis. But not alone. With the announcement of a new government by Benjamin Netanyahu with extreme religious and right wing members holding key ministerial positions, AJC issued a deeply reflective and hopeful congratulatory statement:

“Due to AJC’s long-standing working relationships with Israeli government officials on shared priorities, as well as our profound admiration and respect for Israel’s vibrant democracy and civil society, we trust that Israel will continue to uphold the values that have allowed it to stand out as a beacon of freedom in the Middle East, and as a source of pride and spiritual sustenance for the Jewish people as a whole.

“AJC will continue to work closely with the Prime Minister and Israeli policy-makers to help ensure that the inflammatory rhetoric that has been employed by some members of the governing coalition—rhetoric unrepresentative of Israel’s democratic values, its role as a homeland for all Jews, and its unwavering quest for peace—will not define the domestic and foreign policies of the new government.

“We firmly believe that the Jewish and democratic State of Israel will continue to embrace all Jews regardless of their beliefs or practice; that it will strive to live up to its promise of equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity; and that it will continue to pursue prospects for peace.”