Tearing Down Anti-Semitism, Not Each Other

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Below is the sermon delivered by Rabbi Sarah Bassin on Friday, February 8, 2019.

Parshat Teruma 5779:  Tearing Down Anti-Semitism, Not Each Other

A few years ago, when I was still in school, a few friends from rabbinic program and I took a trip to Las Vegas. We were nearly an hour into trying to decide where we would go for dinner. At a decision making impasse, we stood in the middle of a large hallway… annoying ourselves… when it became clear that the nearby wrestling event from that evening had ended. A swarm of people spilled into the hallway — headed our direction — a massive chanting flood of people. My friend Samantha promptly shoved all of us into the entrance of the nearest restaurant and said, “I’m sorry. When I see a mob, the Jew in me says go! Get out of the way. This is where we’re eating dinner.”

It seems we have always been ready to pick up and go. Our ancestors got used to carrying their most precious assets in jewel and gold form. When the going got tough, we could easily pocket our life’s savings and go. This was as true in World War II was it was in the medieval period. But our troubles date back even further. Even before Christianity. Four centuries before Jesus came on the scene, a Greek intellectual dubbed us misanthropes for our unwillingness to worship other gods. It was considered rude in the era.

Anti-Semitism is baked into our society… and we will constantly be in the process of trying to push it back into the dark corners of where it belongs.

The need to flee on account of persecution is so deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche, there’s even evidence of it in our most ancient texts. After fleeing Egypt in a rush. After being attacked by Amalek while wandering in the desert, we built in the possibility of flight into our most holy space.

In the midst of our tabernacle construction laid out in the Torah portion… with all of the intricate details about how high to build the walls, the dimensions of the altar. One details stands out to me. When we built the ark of the covenant — to house the ten commandments we were given — God gives us explicit instructions: “The carrying poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it.” (Exodus 25:15) The medieval Italian commentator Chizkuni notes how odd this is since the ark was stationary 99% of the time.

Did we know back then that this was going to be our fate? Were we ready for someone to hate us… for us to have to pick up and go…and that we would have to be ready to take our most valuable possession — our covenant with God with us at any moment?

Our history of anti-Semitism looms large. And I fear that were are in yet another stage in history where anti-Semitism has found its way out of the dark corners polite society had once relegated it to.

A historian mentor of mine — Rabbi Reuven Firestone once gloomly but accurately noted — anti-Semitism never disappears. It just gets pushed beneath the surface.

Anti-Semitism is baked into our society… and we will constantly be in the process of trying to push it back into the dark corners of where it belongs.

So if that’s the case, I want us to have a conversation about how we’re doing on our strategy with this as a community. Because I would argue… we’re not doing so hot.

There is anti-Semitism on the left. And there is anti-Semitism on the right. But we spend far too much effort arguing which form we think is worst — pointing fingers at the opposite side of the political spectrum from where we stand. Those of us on the left point to the physical violence of the extremism on the right. Those of us on the right point to the insidious intellectual facade of anti-Semitism on the left. Enough is enough. We must take on anti-Semitism wherever it is we have the most influence. And we must not shame the people who chose to fight by staying in relationship — no matter how unimaginable that may seem to us.

Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, was a student at a university in Florida when word got our that the god son of the infamous white nationalist David Duke attended the same school. Derek Black followed the ideology of his godfather… promoting white nationalism through social media.

The reaction of the vast majority of the school was complete condemnation and isolation of Derek. But Matthew had a different approach. He started inviting Derek to shabbat dinner. Week after week. And Derek would come. It was through these shabbat dinners that Derek understood the poison of the ideology he was taught as a kid… and why he left white nationalism.

Matthew’s community railed against him for his welcoming of Derek. How could he have a neo-Nazi at his shabbat table?

But ultimately, it wasn’t the isolation that changed Derek’s mind. It was an outstretched hand.

To be honest, I don’t know if I would have had the ability to do what Matthew did. I probably would have been among those yelling to isolate and shame Derek for his nationalism. And it would have felt good. But it wouldn’t have made a difference.

In our fight against anti-Semitism, what feels good isn’t always what’s most effective. Outreach is the answer in every case. Not every story will be the story of Derek Black. But in the very least — I think that we need to be more generous with each other as we have different responses for HOW to take on the scourge of anti-Semitism.

There’s a lot about anti-Semitism that’s out of our control. But not everything. So before we grab our jewels and flee. Before we reach for the poles in the ark of the covenant to run, let’s do our best to push anti-Semitism beneath the surface into the dark corner where it belongs. Let’s do what we can to tear down anti-Semitism…. Not each other.

                                                                                          – Rabbi Sarah Bassin