Being a Jew When There are Swastikas in the Street

I want us to talk about what it’s like to be a Jew in North America right now.

For the past several decades, Jews, more specifically white, Ashkenazi Jews, have largely felt safe on this continent.  Watching angry, armed white supremacists marching in the streets with torches and swastika flags; hearing about members of the Charlottesville Reform synagogue hurriedly moving all the Torah scrolls from the shul in case the building is bombed or burned; learning about the surge of anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti in York Region, Winnipeg, Boston and other cities has made many of us feel shock and disbelief, afraid, angry and vulnerable.

We know that open hatred and bigotry have been on the rise, most pointedly targeting People of Colour and LGBTQ folks, women, Muslims and immigrants.  We know that part of this is backlash against the growing strength and paradigm shifting work of movements like Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter.  We have been watching as bigotry and discrimination have been given political legitimacy and social permission in the US.  In the face of this surge of hatred, though, it still somehow feels surprising that one of the main chants barked out on the streets of Charlottesville was “Jews will not replace us.”

I want us to talk about what it’s like to be a Jew right now, so that we don’t become numb or isolated in fear, so that we are awake to the specific ways these events are hitting us.  I want to remind us that this is NOT Germany in 1933.  We have allies and friends within our community and beyond it.  The world is different today than it was then.  I also want us to have a better understanding of the ways that anti-Semitism functions differently than most other forms of oppression and bigotry so that we can see it more clearly and stand against it alongside working to eradicate all forms of hatred and oppression.

Anti-Semitism sets Jews up in the role of middle agents rather than at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.  When the economy is good, when it benefits the larger society, Jews are given access to opportunities and resources.  There have been times in history when Jews have been welcomed and wanted in the courts of sultans and in the centres of commerce, actively brought in to countries as new immigrants and absorbed into the larger culture.  For stretches of time, it looks like we are safe and doing well.  It looks like we have all the privilege and protection of unhindered upward mobility and success, social acceptance and inclusion.

But that position is precarious and provisional.  And it comes at a cost.  It sets us up to be the target of blame, anger, resentment and violence for the decisions of the wealthiest and most powerful.  When people want an easy solution and an easy target for complex problems, the Jews are turned against and  scapegoated.  Rather than addressing the problems of an economy that is falling apart and a society that is changing very quickly, when Jews are blamed, those at the top are proctected while the Jews bear the brunt of an angry populace feeling frustrated, disenfranchised and powerless.  This has been repeated and repeated over centuries.

In this way, anti-Semitism is also cyclical rather than being relentless.  It is visible in cycles that ebb and flow.  There can be long stretches of time between blatant erruptions.  In an ebbing time, people can come to think that anti-Semitism no longer exists.  This has consequences.  It keeps anti-Semitism off the agendas of social justice movements and organizations.  It also means that when anti-Semitism occurs, even in those ebbing times, people don’t recognize it as the targeting of Jews.  Jews and non-Jews alike can be in denial of what it is, excuse it or justify it, or dismiss it as insignificant compared to racism or homophobia.  Anti-Semitism doesn’t actually ever go away.  It goes underground and simmers until it is useful, until there is an opening for it to explode, as we saw in Charlottesville.

Because of these dynamics, we Jews have learned to always be on guard for the next explosion.  Even when things are calm, some part of us is waiting, anxious, ready to run or hunker down or to come out swinging.  This limits our ability to thrive, to be relaxed, joyous and believe that we are wanted and that we truly belong.

Because of these dynamics, it has been hard for many Jews to build close, strong ally relationships.  It has been hard for us to trust that the non-Jews in our lives will be there for us, will stand up for us and will fight for us.  And mostly, we wouldn’t dream of asking.  And because of these dynamics, a lot of non-Jews lose sight of how important it is for us to know that you are with us and for us, that are you committed to ending anti-Semitism and being our advocates and loving, brave partners.

Throughout our history, our friends and neighbours have turned on us over and over again.  The looming threat of anti-Semitism and the traumatic memory of it makes Jews inclined to look for safety in power and in closeness to wealth when it is available.  This makes it difficult and frightening for us to be cricital of those who afford us some protection, as tenuous as it may be, or to look honestly and bravely at our participation in oppressing others.

This is such an important time to pay attention to what is stirring in your heart and mind as we confront all of this.  It is an important time to talk about it with fellow Jews and with dear non-Jews.  It is important to observe the ways that anti-Semitism is being used in the ugly campaign of hate and white supremacy.  This is a key moment to deepen our relationships and reinvigorate our commitments to fight against anti-Semitism, racism, classism, ablism and LGBTQ oppression in the specifics of each form of hate.  And to deeply notice that we are all human and in this together.

Beginning on Tuesday, August 22nd, for this next month, we blow the shofar every morning.  We begin a process of waking up, responding to the call to do more than merely lead careful lives.  I am hearing Elul’s shofar blasts stirring me personally and calling on all of us together.  This is a time to get ready to step into a New Year with clear insight, strong connections, and brave vision.