Hanukkah...and anti-Semitism.

December 6, 2018

It's Hanukkah. Candles. Lights. Gifts. Joy.

 

And yet, I have these words going through my head:

 

Jews have been hated because we were communists and because we were capitalists

Hated for being cosmopolitan and for being too insular

Hated for being elitists and for being refugees

Hated because we blended in too easily and hated for being different

Hated for being stateless and homeless and now hated for having a powerful state

 

 

These are roughly the words from Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl (right) mere days after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. They were so powerful and so true, they seared into my brain.  Anti-Semitism is truly "the longest hatred."

 

 

The Longest Hatred 

 

 

Anti-Semitism has roots in the pre-Christian pagan Mediterranean but really took off with Christianity. In a great misfortune, the Christian scriptures were written at the worst possible time. 

 

There were two problems. First, Christians needed to blame someone for Jesus' death other than the Romans since Christians lived under Roman rule and would not be safe if their founder was viewed as an enemy of the state.

 

Hence, while Pontius Pilate is depicted as unusually spiteful and ruthless in all other sources, the Christian gospels make him into a "well-meaning weakling" (in Elaine Pagels' words), who succumbs to pressure despite his earnest wish to set Jesus free. Instead the death is blamed on the Jewish leaders or sometimes simply...."the Jews."

 

Second, the scriptures were written when Jews and Christians were splitting and mutual animosity ran high. As a result, the gospels (amidst much beauty) also have horrible passages in them about "the Jews" (which I put in quotes because Jesus and every supporter he had were all Jews too).  One of these is the Blood Curse in Matthew in which the whole Jewish crowd says of Jesus' death:

 

               "His blood be upon us and on our children" (Matt 27:25)

 

It is doubtful any crowd in human history uttered such a sentence. If people believe the accused is guilty, it is on the accused's head, not theirs (i.e. he is to blame). But if you are the accused's ally (i.e. Matthew) and think he is innocent, you may curse those passing judgement, saying his death is on their heads. Matthew seems to place his view into the mouths of the Jewish crowd so they condemn themselves. The "and on our children" was especially cruel - it meant future generations could and would be blamed as well.

 

Once set in scriptures, these animosities could not be forgotten but were there for every generation to discover anew. Jews were targeted in the Crusades, blamed for the Black Death, and Martin Luther's especially virulent anti-Semitism sewed a strong version in Germany that would one day help feed Nazism. 

 

Canada in 2018

 

Anti-Semitism receded in the West after the Holocaust, given the horror of what occurred. But as that atrocity recedes in memory, anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, the US and Canada.

 

The latest hate crime data showed hate crimes in Canada increased 47% (!) in 2017. Hate crimes against Jews rose 60% to 360 incidents, about one per day. Anti-Semitism accounted for 18% of all hate crimes despite Jews comprising 1% of the population.

 

As this data was released, 4 orthodox Jewish boys were beaten up by a gang of up to 20 boys who yelled at them about Hitler. The boys were going to their yeshiva. I know that yeshiva...we visit it every year during our Discovery Week program.

 

Hope. And Even Beauty

 

Despite this ugliness, I have also seen much hope just in this month. First, the #ShowUpForShabbat call to attend synagogues the week after the shooting filled buildings throughout North America. I attended Holy Blossom, one of Canada's largest, and it was packed with people sitting in the balconies. But far more powerful was the protective crowd outside of Muslims (and some Christians) who came to form a protective ring around the synagogue. 

 

The Jews inside were tearing up at the support, especially from the Muslim community. I heard one woman say "I wish my parents were alive to see this." 

 

It was one of the most moving religious services I've ever been too (and, um, I go to a lot). Key political leaders also showed up and, whatever cynical spin one may give that, it matters that they were there. 

 

Within the same month, two other events lifted my spirits. First, at the parliament, there was a closed door meeting between local Jewish & Muslim leaders with an Israeli interfaith delegation (featuring Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Druze leaders at the highest levels). A kind soul invited me and it was a welcome change from the violence that makes the news from the Middle East. These prominent faith leaders spoke of how their Jewish and Muslim kids play with each other in Israel and walk into each other's sacred buildings without a second thought.

 

 

And finally, I received another invitation to the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. Their director, Avi Benlolo, had brought together Muslims, Christians, Jews and others to talk about how hatred against one group inevitably leads to hatred against others. Avi leads the centre and is creating educational programs that reach thousands of youth every year.

 

Hanukkah is about light but not a pollyannish light. It was after a battle, after losses had been sustained. It was a light of miracle but also of great effort. Anti-Semitism shows no signs of disappearing. But there are many fine folks who are also not going away. Who are working to create light amidst the darkness. 

Happy Hanukkah.

 

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