Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 16, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim. The special reading today is about Amalek and his attack on the Israelites as they were escaping Egypt. The haftarah describes Saul and his army’s defeat of the Amalekites under their leader Agag and Saul’s disgrace at not wiping out this vicious tribe in order to keep the spoils. Haman the genocidal enemy in the book of Esther is a descendent of Agag. So this is good week for paranoid Jews to remember “everybody hates the Jews”.
This year our paranoia is equally fed by the media frenzy about Representative Ilhan Omar’s inability to stop making anti Semitic comments, despite efforts to apologize in between. Surprisingly the most publicly offended by her remarks were the Republican party and the President. I say surprisingly because the President famously defended neo Nazi protesters in Charleston insisting there were very fine people among them and Republicans frightened voters in 2016 by suggesting that America was in danger of being bought and sold by three Jews involved in finance – Lloyd Blankfein, George Soros and Janet Yellen. It worked so well that Kevin McCarthy leader of the Republican Congressional Caucus went back for seconds in 2018 with a tweet “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to BUY this election. Get out and vote Republican.” Michael Bloomberg and George Soros are recognizably Jewish, and Tom Steyer had a Jewish father. So Republicans do not have clean hands on anti Semitism.
What is most frightening is that it is possible that Ilhan Omar nor Kevin McCarthy nor Trump are anti Semitic in their hearts, they may harbor biases but know that unrestricted Jew hatred is wrong and immoral, and yet are quite aware that anti Semitic tropes in just the right dosage and to just the right crowd is quite politically beneficial. Omar’s attack on Jewish dual loyalty for their allegiance to Israel was applauded before the leftist crowd she spoke to and on twitter; the Republicans sent clear messages to their base suggesting themes of Jewish financial control and now are working oh so hard to convince Jewish Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democratic and anti Trump, that the Democrats are the ‘anti Jewish party’.
The great danger in all of this is, in the words of David Schraub, professor of law at UC Berkeley “For all the talk about the Israel Lobby this and Jewish Power that, the clearest takeaway from this whole ordeal is the striking disempowerment of the Jewish community.”
And this has forever been at the root of Jewish hatred and the ground of its success. It does not matter if the hate comes from the left or right. The distinguishing features of Left and Right anti Semitism are slightly different but share commonalities and ultimately disempower the Jew to define who he or she truly is.
If we look at three examples of Jew Hatred in the Bible we see similarities to the emerging trends today.
The first example of political anti Semitism is of course the opening of the book of Exodus. The Pharaoh’s claim, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and alight, or leave, from the land.”
We find here the inflated perception that the Jews are more numerous and more powerful than we truly are. We have here Ilhan Omar’s critique from the left and the Pat Buchanan’s attack from the right that Jews are not loyal and potential fifth columnists. And we also have the embedded self contradiction of most anti Semitic claims – I mean if the concern is that the Jews are so powerful they might join with foreign enemies, why is Pharaoh concerned they might leave? And still today, we are attacked, on the one hand, for primary allegiance to Israel, and on the other, Israel is an illegitimate country, so where are we supposed to go?
The reading this morning about Amalek’s attack is condemned because “undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers”. The hatred denounced in this section, the reason Amalek is the paradigm of the Jew hater, is because of its irrationality and cruelty. Amalek unlike other enemies the Israelites met along the journey were not attacking to protect territory, nor were they attacking to conquer. They were simply out to kill and harm the weakest, the famished. The Israelites they attacked presented no threat nor reward. Deborah Lipstadt expresses the irrationality of Jew Hatred when she says, “I know it when I see it because these are the elements that are there—something to do with money, something to do with finance, that Jews will do anything and everything, irrespective of whom it harms or displaces or burdens. Both the right and the left share those kinds of stereotypes”. How is it possible that Jews are both embodiments of Communism and also greedy capitalism?, how is it that to Hitler and Farrakhan we are sub human vermin, but to White Supremacist theology we are also cunning, super villains who control and manipulate black and brown people to serve our needs?
Finally this Thursday is Purim, and we read that Haman’s hatred of all Jews comes from personal animosity to one, Mordecai. This is the very definition of prejudice – one dislikes or is threatened by an individual of a certain religious, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation and gender and extends the animus to all of that group. What distinguishes this Biblical example of Jew hatred was Haman’s desire for genocide. In our long history, some have used Jew-hatred to control their populations, but for others the goal was communal destruction.
And yet the great lesson we take from the Purim story is that when Jews are in danger and they band together, working on both the elite level to advocate to the Gentile leaders and the grassroots level of organizing Jews themselves, we can overcome dangers.
And that is what is most concerning during this time of recriminations from the left and right over anti Semitism. It is not only the disempowerment described by David Schraub but the lack of unity by the Jewish community in fight it.
Anshel Pfeffer of HaAretz writes that both left leaning and right leaning Jews hurt the fight against anti Semitism by defending their side and criticizing the other. Instead of condemning Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pandering to Trump and anti Semitic nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland, his defenders on the right excuse the anti Semitism, “How can you say (Trump or Orban) have anything against Jews when he has Jewish relatives and advisors, or when he gives money to Jewish heritage projects, when he is so pro-Israel?” It’s only those self hating Jews who criticize Netanyahu, and Trump and Orban of Hungary.
When Ilhan Omar or Tamika Mallory use classic anti Semitic tropes in attacking Israel and her supporters, Jews on the left demand, “How can you say that a progressive woman of color is an anti-Semite? She is the one facing and fighting racism. You're just trying to shut down debate on Israel.” Towards other Jews who clearly heard Omar’s dog-whistling, they have a ready made explanation: “It’s Zionists like you who have screwed-up priorities and are piling on this brave voice.”
The irony of the dual loyalty charge is that we have been sucked in by the divisive and dystopian political debates of our time and chosen sides. Our political agendas are more powerful today than our loyalty to each other and to our values. Leftist Jews were the first to defend Omar and her wrong statements about AIPAC and Jewish money by stating that she is right that AIPAC controls America’s foreign policy on the Middle East and Jewish money buys political favors. But that is not true. Michael Walzer writes “Congress has very little impact on what America does in the Middle East or anywhere else…American foreign policy is made in the White House… When the people elect a president who agrees with AIPAC, the organization looks very powerful. And when the people elect a president who disagrees with AIPAC, the organization is powerless…Money counts in American politics, but not in the way she says it does. American support for Israel has moral, political, religious, and strategic reasons; it isn’t bought… Evangelical Christians have far more influence than we do—in part because of their greater numbers, in part because they don’t disagree so much among themselves.
And Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and in the US are playing with fire when they join dictators in Eastern Europe who vilify George Soros, when they support detaining Jews at the Israeli border who criticize Israel, and prefer the support of Evangelical Christians over liberal Jews in the US. Lee Zeldin, a Jewish Republican congressman, does harm to Jewish Americans when he supports Trump’s Muslim ban but insists that Ilhan Omar condemn every bit of random anti Semitic conduct with which she has no association.
Anti Semitism is wrong just as islamophobia is wrong just as misogyny, homophobia, vilification of immigrants and all other prejudices are wrong. It should not matter where one stands on the political spectrum. President Trump defending Nazis is no lesser a sin than Ilhan Omar accusing Jews of allegiance to a foreign country.
The verse in Deuteronomy that I quoted before can be translated with a very different interpretation:
: My`IhølTa aäérÎy añøl◊w Ao¡EgÎy◊w P∞EyDo h™D;tAa◊w ÔKy$®rAj`Aa My∞IlDvTj‰…nAh_lD;k ÔKV;b b§E…nÅz◊yÅw JK®r#®;dA;b %ÔK√rá∂q r°RvSa
Amalek met you on the way, and attacked the stragglers in the back; you were tired and weak, and did not fear God. The way the Hebrew is written it is not clear who is the antecedent of ‘did not fear God’. Was it the Amalekites? Or perhaps instead it the Jews, who allowed their weak brothers and sisters to be vulnerable to attack because of lack of concern?
We Jews today, by allowing Non Jews to speak for us, by not supporting each other when attacked, by vilifying our Jewish political adversaries and defending those who libel us because they are on our political end of the spectrum, are guilty of the disregard that our biblical ancestors showed towards their own. And when that happens it does not end well for us.