The world is growing dark with antisemitism, we must bring the light

The best response to rising Jew-hate is to educate our young people and instill them with the pride they will need to defeat it.

Chanukah menorah. Credit: tomertu/Shutterstock
Chanukah menorah. Credit: tomertu/Shutterstock
Steven Burg
Rabbi Steven Burg

Rabbi Steven Burg is CEO of Aish. He serves on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency as an executive board member of the Rabbinical Council of America. Prior to Aish, he was eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he oversaw the Museum of Tolerance in New York City and contributed to the center’s fight against antisemitism.

During Hanukkah, we sing about the Maccabee warriors who overcame an evil force that sought to destroy the Jewish people. They were the few against the many, bringing light into darkness: banu choshech l’garesh—“we came to banish the darkness.” As we enter the holiday next week, we are faced with another period of darkness and rapidly spreading Jew-hatred. We can all see it, feel it and hear it. Why now? What has changed? And why have anti-Jewish feelings suddenly become acceptable?

Resume Builder recently surveyed recruiters and hiring managers to gauge any actual or perceived antisemitism in the workplace. The results were disturbing: One in four managers said they were less likely to move forward with a Jewish candidate, citing the belief that Jews “have too much power and control.” Nearly as many (23%) said they want fewer Jews in their industry, 33% said antisemitism is common in their workplace and 29% acknowledged its acceptance at their company. A smaller percentage (17%) acknowledged that management instructed them “not to hire Jews.” What the survey ultimately revealed is just how commonplace and socially acceptable antisemitism has become.

The Resume Builder survey reminds us that the classic hateful tropes of antisemitism have returned, not only in the darkest corners, but in the mainstream of society, where it has become socially acceptable to say such things out loud in sports, music and the media. Kyrie Irving and Kanye West are only two of the more visible examples of this.

But we don’t need a poll to tell us what we already know. In North America, antisemitism is at an all-time high. Last week, the NYPD reported an increase of 125% in antisemitic incidents in November, with 45 antisemitic hate crimes across New York City’s five boroughs. That’s more than double the number from the previous year. Across the U.S. this year, a wildly disproportionate number of reported hate crimes—more than 50%—were perpetrated against Jews, who comprise less than 2% of the U.S. population.

Acts of vandalism and violence against Jewish targets have also become more frequent. We have seen the words “Kanye was right” on banners over an LA freeway and a stadium jumbotron. And while we appreciate that many have condemned this hate, we understand the long-term effect when the problem is not addressed head on.

Indeed, students of history know that, left unaddressed, antisemitism will lead to murder, and not just of Jews.

In her book Jews and Power, Harvard Prof. Ruth Wisse outlined the pattern we have seen throughout human history: Jews enjoy a period of relative calm, followed by a roughly 20 to 30-year period of intense and popular antisemitism. It is not a coincidence that the initial interregnum facilitates Jewish assimilation, absorption into society and a subsequent rise in economic status, education and, yes, influence.

In other words, our history has been on a rinse-lather-repeat cycle in which Jews are “mainstreamed,” and then marginalized, expelled, murdered and forced to start all over again. Then, if left in peace, we focus on education and happily assimilate into our host culture while retaining our identity to some degree and, ultimately, dare to succeed.

But world doesn’t like it when we succeed too much. It’s resented. And this resentment, when publicly accepted, is combined with the ever-present fear of “the other,” leading eventually to horrendous violence.

Thankfully, the Biden administration is taking some important steps to address this disturbing trend. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff assembled a roundtable discussion last week on the state of antisemitism today, followed by a White House announcement that it will form a joint task force with Jewish leaders. These are important gestures of concern and support, no doubt. However, I am not certain the problem starts with the Jews or ends with the Jews, nor am I certain it is ours to fix.

What I am certain of is that the American Jewish leadership has to do more than issue statements in response to antisemitic incidents that are only symptoms of the problem. They must formulate a plan and stand up with concrete calls to action.

The best response, I believe, is to educate our own community, especially young American Jews, who will have to face the fire in a way previous generations have not.

Now is the time. It is only by teaching our own about who we are, where we come from and why it matters that we can understand antisemitism and how it evolved, and forge the sense of pride necessary to overcome it.

Hiding our Jewishness has never worked at any point in history. “Blending in” is not the answer. Unfortunately, we are easy prey to assimilationist fantasies when we fail to unite.

The only way for us to unite is for the American Jewish leadership to sound a loud, unanimous, resounding cry: “Learn who you are!” Our focus must be on teaching our young people what it means to be a Jew, sharing the beauty and wisdom of Judaism and instilling them with the faith that it is a good thing that they are Jewish. This and this alone will give them the strength to stand up to hate before it reaches critical mass.

The problem is especially pressing because American democracy is at a critical point. The American people must grapple with the fact that open displays of hatred and resentment, hate crimes and random attacks on any ethnic group hurt all ethnic groups. History has taught us that if you let them come for the Jews, they will eventually come for everybody else. And it is the Jews who must teach America this lesson.

We have an opportunity to banish the darkness once again.

Rabbi Steven Burg is CEO of Aish, the former Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Managing Director of the Orthodox Union (OU), and International Director of NCSY. He also serves as a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors as a representative of the World Zionist Organization.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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