Tree of Life Synagogue, as seen on April 21, 2023, in Pittsburgh, PA, is the site of the 2018 mass killing that was the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. The synagogue is mostly surrounded by a fence that holds artwork of school children from other cities that have experienced mass shootings. Credit - Jahi Chikwendiu—The Washington Post/ Getty Images
I’ve served as a congregational rabbi for a decade or so. My leadership has coincided with an ominous rise in antisemitic incidents from vile online threats to the killing of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. During that time, I've listened to hundreds of conversations detailing real life encounters of antisemitism. I’ve heard diverse opinions and a wide range of experiences about its nature in the present day—from a swastika drawn in the bathroom of a school to microaggressions in the workplace and everything in between. But nearly every conversation I hear about antisemitism has one, surprising thing in common: in every instance where an antisemitic act has been committed, our culture—and conversations surrounding these hateful acts—tend to diminish or even deny antisemitism.
Think about the national conversation around antisemitism. When Kanye West went on his repugnant rant against Jews in October 2022, one of the internet’s first reactions was that he was not antisemitic, he was mentally ill. But both can be true. Or think about social media where anti-Jewish rhetoric has spiked, particularly on X (formerly Twitter). Yet some continue to insist it's not antisemitism, it's free speech. Or when, during a concert in Berlin in May 2023, Roger Waters, the outspoken critic of Israel and former frontman of Pink Floyd, donned a full length black coat with a red arm band and invoked the name of the murdered Jewish teenager Anne Frank, he explained that his actions were not antisemitic, they were “a statement in opposition to injustice.” The Berlin police opened an investigation into Waters for suspicion of incitement.
This tendency to diminish or even deny antisemitism in public discourse has damaging implications for everyday life. It can make people—both Jewish and not—feel hesitant to call out antisemitism when we see it.
I’ve heard this tendency to diminish antisemitism in my own life many times. We tell ourselves that today’s antisemitism is nowhere near as bad as the violence our grandparents and great grandparents encountered. So is it really worth mentioning? Or we tell ourselves that other forms of repugnant hatred—racism, misogyny, homophobia—are exponentially worse problems than antisemitism, so maybe we shouldn’t even raise antisemitism as a concern at all. We tell ourselves that antisemitism is not so bad (or not as bad as), and so we say nothing, or we doubt ourselves.
I, myself, am not immune to this propensity to disbelieve that antisemitism is real and pervasive. In the summer of 2020, amidst the Black Lives Matter Protests, someone with a baseball bat attacked the glass door of my synagogue; hitting the reinforced glass repeatedly until it cracked. It's not antisemitism, I told myself, it's part of a larger social justice movement. No one would attack my synagogue with any particular intention, I thought. Right?
We have a cultural problem accepting that antisemitism exists, persists, and thrives in America. But it does. Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. are at an all time high, according to a March 2023 report by the Anti Defamation League (ADL). Schools and synagogues are growing targets of this horrific hate. Jews are less safe in the U.S. than we have ever been before. So it’s worth asking: why do we shy away from calling out this hate? Why do we allow this practice of antisemitism denial to continue?
There are lots of reasons, actually.
Sometimes, we don’t call out antisemitism because we simply can’t. We don’t know the first thing about Jews, Jewish history, or the history of Jew hate. And even if you are Jewish, you may not feel like you know enough about antisemitism to talk about it. You may feel ambivalent about Judaism and a little bit embarrassed about how little you know. You may have never studied Judaism as an adult. Or perhaps, talk of antisemitism makes you feel like an imposter. How can you claim to be a victim of antisemitism when, overall, America has been so good to you?
Other times, we deny antisemitism for a completely different reason. We hide from it because the resurfacing of Jew hate in this country is simply too terrifying to consider. But the Neo Nazi marches and tiki torches are real. The pro-white, anti-Jewish fliers pinned on community bulletin boards and pasted to telephone poles are real. The letters I’ve received in the mail, the comments I read online, the dollar signs spray-painted on my friends’ synagogues are real. Sometimes we diminish antisemitism because acknowledging it is just too scary. But where will ignoring it lead us?
There are times where we don’t name the fullness of antisemitism for an entirely different reason: because we don’t want to rock the boat. Some people within our own communities seem sort of comfortable with antisemitism, or at least pretty comfortable minimizing it—so it can be deeply uncomfortable to go against the grain and call it out.
And sometimes we diminish antisemitism because antisemitism is working. Maybe a small part of you believes its lies. If somewhere in your mind you imagine Jews as powerful, rich, white, running Hollywood, influencing the media, or controlling the political landscape, then a part of you likely believes that Jews exist at the top of our cultural pyramid. So in that case, why would you call out antisemitism at all?
But it’s time to stop our ignorance and ambivalence, and start talking about antisemitism.
Because it’s the worst it’s been in my lifetime—and probably yours. Instead of denying, diminishing and avoiding antisemitism, we need to name it and face it head on.
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