Build Coalitions of Decency To Fight Hatred

By Eric Yoffie

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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A mere 10 years ago, we felt confident that antisemitism was no longer a significant threat. But we were wrong. Most of us have been exposed to more antisemitic discourse during the last two years than we have seen in our entire lives.

We note with horror the monstrous canards that continue to circulate in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including the charge that Jews rule the world and are to blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks. And in Europe, which bears the mark of Cain for its complicity in the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict has become a means of absolving guilt. In turning Israelis from victims into Nazis, they seek to cleanse their consciences by casting their sins upon us.

We see yet again that, of all forms of racism, antisemitism is the most tenacious. It is also the most promiscuous, adapting itself without difficulty to every conceivable ideological system. We find it today in right-wing nationalism and left-wing anti-globalism, in radical Islam and reactionary forms of Christianity.

In our tradition, antisemites are identified with Amalek who ambushed the Children of Israel from behind as they fled from Egypt. The Torah commands us to remember Amalek at all times, but also to blot out his memory — that is, to make perpetual war against those who hate us, to destroy their works and to give them no victories.

But even as we embrace this task, we worry about our community. Yes, we must march, donate and protest, and we ignore antisemitism at our peril. But some of our communal leaders have lost their way. It is almost as if they welcome the crisis we face and are most comfortable on a war footing. And convinced that antisemites lurk everywhere, they urge us to forget about others and take care only of ourselves.

Many in the Jewish community, however, see things differently. As serious as the threat is, we know that we respond to it from a position of strength unparalleled in our 4,000-year history. There exists a sovereign Jewish state with a powerful army to protect the lives of its citizens. And here in North America, our community is at the height of its influence. Who would have imagined even a few years ago that a traditional Jew would be a serious candidate for president of the United States and that half of the other candidates, or so it seems, would have some Jewish connection in their family trees?

Many Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism. We will not withdraw into a ghetto of our own making. The best way to combat antisemitism and defend Israel is to build more and better bridges. As our enemies construct coalitions of hatred and terrorism, we will construct the broadest possible coalitions of decency. And this work must begin now.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Jewish community actively participated in a lay-driven interreligious dialogue in North America. But in recent decades, local interfaith work has declined precipitously. In many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model Seders.

We know the reasons. Threatened by assimilation, Jews felt the need to look within and to fortify ourselves internally. During the 1960s and 1970s, along with a growing awareness of the Holocaust came greater suspicion of Christianity. And when Israel was threatened with obliteration before the Six-Day War in 1967, we were shocked by the silence of our Christian partners. We have been divided on Israel ever since, as many mainstream Protestant churches continue to issue what we see as anti-Israel statements and resolutions.

But we can no longer afford relations that barely exist. If we are serious about combating antisemitism and helping Israel, it will not happen by talking to ourselves. We must reach out to our neighbors and listen for God’s presence in their voice. Only in this way, speaking our fears while hearing the fears of others, will we build a shared commitment to a moral future.

We can start by reaching out to our Christian friends. In recent decades, most denominations have changed their theology on Judaism so as to atone for an inglorious past. They are anxious for a true dialogue with Jews.

It is critical that we listen to Christians when they ask us to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people and their right to statehood. Likewise, it is incumbent upon Jews to express our passionate support for Israel in her quest for survival and security, and expect our Christian partners to condemn terrorism in all of its forms.

In order to begin this dialogue anew, the Reform movement is asking each of its congregations to invite a local church to participate in such a discussion, and is providing a seven-session guide for use as a possible curriculum. Four national Protestant and Catholic bodies have endorsed our call and urged participation by their members. Our hope is that others in the Jewish community will join us in this effort.

Our other challenge as Jews is to fight the battle against antisemitism without letting it define us. We must refuse to put antisemitism at the center, or anywhere near the center, of our Jewish identity. The synagogue is a soldier in the war against antisemitism, but our primary task is to educate our members to walk proudly with an eternal people. It is to convey the message that Jews have always seen themselves as a people loved by God and not a people hated by gentiles, knowing that the first can be passed on to our children and the second cannot.

Yes, we will fight antisemitism with every fiber of our being. But as Jews, we insist that a major part of that fight is to create Jewish families, study Torah, do mitzvot, support Israel and hear God’s voice even when evil threatens. It is to identify with our unique and towering religious tradition and, above all, to continue to live as Jews.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, previously known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This column was adapted from a speech delivered November 8 at the group’s biennial convention in Minneapolis.






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