Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 26,2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Ishmael Reed, the black activist and awarded poet and playwright, recently had an article in the online Jewish magazine Tablet. In the article, called Do American Jews Still Believe They’re White, he called out Jews as naïve who are shocked at the level of anti Semitism in this country. He wrote, “Appearing on CNN, presidential historian Tim Naftali said that the massacre at the Tree of Life was the canary in the coal mine. That it was a warning of dire events to come. What Naftali doesn’t realize is that the canary was killed by the carbon dioxide of hatred decades ago, even though some Jews, those who have successfully assimilated into the American mainstream, hadn’t noticed.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, the issue of the whiteness of Jews has come up repeatedly. Technically Jews were considered white in a legal sense - Under the Naturalization Act of 1790, Jews were considered among the “free white persons” who could become citizens. However culturally European Jews entering the US in early 1900s were described as swarthy and certain jobs, joining certain clubs, or moving into certain neighborhoods was prohibited, they were not seen as ‘white’.
The discussions amuse me because growing up in public schools in Chicago, I never remotely considered myself white. “White” were the Jets in West Side Story, I identified myself with the Sharks, even though they were a Puerto Rican gang. “White” was George Wallace. “White” were the Christian kids who I went to school with. “White” were the kids at Lane Technical High School who carved swastikas into every desk I ever sat in, they were the kids, the thousand or so kids in the auditorium who during International Brotherhood days shouted Sieg Heil during the Jewish club’s dance performance.
I am not surprised when right wing anti Semites accuse Jews for using their white skin as a Trojan horse to infect and dirty the pure white Christian race. I admit that I am lost when left wing anti Semites like Tamika Mallory of the Women’s March accuse Jews of being the epitome of whiteness due to their privilege and elite status. Though I kind of understand what motivates those views. For within a hundred years, Jews have gone from being lynched and excluded from equal access in American society to being among the wealthiest, most educated, most elite sub groups in American society. Maybe the white nationalists are correct – maybe there is something insidious about those Jews.
We American Jews in the 21st century are certainly an enigma. Last week at the People’s inaugural, David Sklar who works for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council and for Indiana Forward, the lobbying group attempting to get Indiana to pass hate crimes legislation, noted that that hate crimes against Jews had increased significantly in the last two years and over half the hate crimes registered by the FBI last year were against Jews, more than any other group.
On the other hand, in Pew poll surveys on how Americans view religious groups other than their own, Jews are the most warmly received religious group – 2/3s have positive feelings toward Jews. Jews occupy the leading roles in all areas of cultural and political and academic life in America. Culturally significant TV shows as diverse as The Amazing Mrs. Maisel and Transparent, present Jews in realistic, honest and mostly positive images. The Jew today takes his or her place as the most beloved or most hated stereotype in 21st century America and in every place along the spectrum.
What does all of this have to do with this morning’s Torah portion? Well, Hugh Metzger asked me a week ago, why did the Sages put the 10 Commandments in a Torah portion called Yitro after Moses’ non Israelite father in law? The answer according to Abraham Ibn Ezra, 11th century Torah commentator is that it has to do with the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion. Last week’s Torah portion concluded with the attack of the Amalekites against the Israelites and assessment that in every generation an actual or a spiritual descendent of Amalek, the anti Semite par excellence, would arise. “ Since scripture just mentioned the eternal hatred of Amalek, writes Ibn Ezra, it begins this portion with Jethro’s love of the Jewish people as a contrast”. A 20th Bible scholar, Umberto Cassuto, delved further into Ibn Ezra’s suggestion by noticing key literary identifiers. In Exodus chapter 17 describing Amalek’s war, the Hebrew root lamed- khet-mem for battle and warfare repeats many times, including the opening and closing verses. In Chapter 18 the Jethro sections begin in verse 7 and conclude with the root shin-Lamed-mem, shalom, peace. The Torah describes Amalek “Vayavo Amalek vayilachem im Yisrael” but in Jethro’s case “Vayavo Yitro..u’vanav v’ishto el Moshe”. Amalek comes to destroy, Jethro comes to make whole.
Rabbi Shai Held in his commentary on this parasha notes that a people that has been brutally oppressed by one nation and then mercilessly attacked by another might well conclude that it has no friends , allies , or well wishers. Descendants who read about these events might be tempted to conclude similarly . But the Torah wants to preempt this line of reasoning by reminding us that not all non Jews are Amalek. Not everyone hates Jews.”
And Rabbi Held answers Hugh’s question by noting that the Torah’s chronology is somewhat out of place. Chapter 18 and the Jethro story note that Jethro meets Moshe and the Israelites “in the wilderness, where (Moses) was encamped at the mountain of God.” But only in chapter 19 does the Torah tells us that “Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain”. Why introduce the story of Jethro before the details of the moment of Revelation? According to Rabbi Held, the Torah wants to show that Jews can learn from Gentiles as well. For in Chapter 18 it is Jethro who instructs Moshe in how to develop an organizational structure and a juridical system. It is impossible for Jews to say that all we need to know comes from Divine Revelation – we learn from our neighbors as well. The rabbis of Pirke Avot made that clear as well – Aizehu HaCham? HaLomed mikol Adam. Who is wise? One who learns from all people.
Just as we see this odd and sometimes hard to understand bifurcation between philo and anti Semitism in America today, so our ancestors were presented with examples of warfare and love by their neighbors. It is so important for us to remember that in an open and free nation like the United States, we will meet all kinds of people. But the more we engage and the more we show an openness to others, to learn from them as well as to share our wisdom with them, the supporters and allies will be greater.
And one other positive to living in an open and evolving culture like America. The possibility to self correct. Ilhan Omar the newly elected Somali born congresswoman from Minneapolis, one of the first Muslim women in Congress, was called out by Bari Weiss from the New York times for an old tweet from 2012 during Israel’s Gaza Border war with Hamas in which she wrote “Israel has hypnotized the world” while doing “evil,”. Weiss properly criticized her for using traditional anti Semitic tropes about Jews using deception to control the world. Omar’s response to Weiss was not to be defensive but rather to apologize “In all sincerity, it was after my CNN interview that I heard from Jewish orgs. that my use of the word “Hypnotize” and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive.” She insisted she was not aware of the anti Semitic associations these sentiments carried and was simply responding emotionally to the images of Gazan suffering. However she added “With that said, it is important to distinguish between criticizing a military action by a government and attacking a particular people of faith. I will not shy away of criticism of any government when I see injustice — whether it be Saudi Arabia, Somalia, even our own government!” And that is proper.
The point is that in America, our greatness is that among citizens willing to engage and learn from each other, we can cleanse ourselves of our prejudices and our fears. The Torah wants us to know that while bigotry and vicious hatred exists, so do open hearts, and unfettered love. Such is also true in America. May we willing to challenge our biases and to appreciating our neighbors who do the same.