While my obligations to Shabbat and the synagogue prevented me from being personally present, I understand that some 500 people attended the Horace Mann School’s Jewish Family Alliance Shabbat dinner last night. I know, because the event happened on the roof of our synagogue, that the Dalton School’s “Jews and allied” affinity group also had an oversubscribed pre-Shabbat gathering last night. I can tell you, because I will be presenting at the session, that on Monday morning, Jewish parents of the Collegiate School will be meeting, as did nearly fifty Jewish parents from the Brearley School the other night, as did the recently jump-started Jewish affinity group at Spence, as at Allan Stevenson and other local schools. Gathering after gathering after gathering. Not just our children’s schools, but institutions in every walk of life. The other day I addressed a Zoom meeting for JP Morgan’s “Allies Against Antisemitism” affinity group, with hundreds of global employees online. I know – because I am married to an alumna – that the otherwise sleepy WhatsApp alumni group of the UPenn’s historically Jewish Sigma Delta Tau has roared to life of late; every bedside buzz of her phone is a reminder of the changed and charged world in which we live.
In our schools, on our campuses, in our businesses, social clubs, and cultural associations, the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7 have set in motion a tidal wave of response in our immediate Jewish community and in the American Jewish community at large. Our focus – and I will return to this point – is and must remain what took place and is taking place in Israel: the barbaric nature of the October 7th attacks, the human slaughter, the rape of Jewish women, the crimes against humanity that have been celebrated and glorified and uploaded to social media by the perpetrators. The fact that Israel was attacked, the fact that Israel has the right and obligation to defend its citizens and ensure that such attacks never happen again, the fact that over 220 men, women, babies and seniors are presently being held hostage by their vicious captors – all that is and must remain our focus, all the more so as Israel begins its ground response. Here in this synagogue, we have moral clarity. Here in this synagogue, we stand with Israel. Here in this synagogue, we have risen and continue to rise up to meet the urgent relief needs of the hour – in our engagement, in our advocacy, and in our tzedakah, our charitable giving. We may live here, but our hearts and our support are directed toward our brothers and sisters in the east.
But something is also happening here, and it is about that something that I want to speak this morning. Why is it that we are gathering with the frequency and intensity and in the numbers that we are? As a synagogue member remarked to me in response to a packed sanctuary the other week, where did all these Jews come from? Some of the answers are obvious. First and foremost, we are all traumatized. There is something deeply human about the outpouring of response we are witnessing. When faced with loss, people want to be with people who can either sympathize or empathize with their grief. The Jewish people has transformed into a global shiva house of mutual support and presence. But it goes beyond that. Traumatized as we are, I think we are coming together to show each other and show the world that we are not paralyzed. Our donations and our acts of hesed show that we all want to do our part and we want to do it together. Then, of course, there is the advocacy dimension. In our numbers we show strength. We want to make sure the institutions entrusted to educate our children and grandchildren reflect our values, and if they don’t, we want to make our objections known, together. We want to make sure that both the curriculum taught and the educators teaching it reflect the right of Jews to self-determination and self-defense. We want the administrations of our institutions to hold the same standards when it comes to Jewish lives as they do for the lives of any other subset of humanity. We want to create safe spaces for Jews, to use the vernacular of the day – intellectually of course, and increasingly and alarmingly, physically as well. As Jews we are seeking both physical and spiritual sanctuary. Why are we coming together as Jews? To hold each other close and to hold our institutions accountable in this time of crisis.
And were that all, were it only for these reasons that we are coming together, it would be enough. But I think there is more going on, something beyond a room to cry in, a forum to hear our values affirmed, or a writing workshop to analyze the insensitively worded letter drafted by some DEI administrator. There is something behind the heightened engagement of the already engaged, and the engagement of Jews who till now have been only peripherally connected to Jewish identity and community and are now leaning into both. The horrific events of October 7 and the world’s subsequent reaction have prompted both an inward reflection and a great awakening in American Jewish identity.
Sadly, I believe the impetus for much of what we are experiencing is antisemitism: either the recrudescence of the world’s most ancient hatred, or just a realization that antisemitism has always been present but can no longer be ignored. Antisemitism is uniformly bad, but it is not expressed uniformly; it takes on different forms. It was in 1903 that Solomon Schechter coined the distinction between what he termed the lower antisemitism and the higher antisemitism. The lower antisemitism was found in the bullies of his childhood Romania who bloodied his nose as he walked home from school or, in its more acute form, in the trauma of the Kishinev Pogroms. The higher antisemitism was different. It was an intellectual attack – think the socialism of fools. In Schechter’s day, it was a venomous form of anti-Jewish scholarship that denied Jews the sanctity of their religious texts and, by extension, the integrity of their faith. And while there are different kinds of antisemitism – higher, lower, and otherwise – they all connected, and they lead one to the next. Today we look back knowing that the Nazi pseudoscience of race theory was a predecessor to the dehumanization and exclusion of Jews, which in turn was a prelude to the extermination of a third of our people. Intellectual hatreds lead to violent ones; as Heinrich Heine noted, “those who burn books will in the end burn people.”
And while the analogy is not perfect, in our own day there seem to be three easily identifiable antisemitisms. The first, what I will call the lower antisemitism, are the horrors that were perpetrated on October 7 – murderous assaults against Jews living on the Gaza Envelope – or if you will, today on its fifth anniversary, the shootings and the murder of eleven Jewish souls at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. Not a land dispute, not a textured debate, but a he said/she said about one state vs. two states and which side is to blame for the elusive peace. The lower antisemitism is about murdering Jews – religious Jews and non-religious Jews, Zionists and non-Zionists, Jews for judicial reform and those against it. Jews murdered because they are Jews.
The middle antisemitism is a physical and verbal thuggery – scrawled graffiti, vocal slurs, social media posts, fear mongering, punch throwing, Cooper Union rioting – a sort of hatred that makes no distinction between Jews and Zionists. When I think of the middle antisemitism, I think of the IHRA definition of antisemitism which reads: “A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Tracked by institutions like the ADL, kept to a low burn in law-abiding societies, of late we feel the uptick of this middle kind of antisemitism in the anti-Israel rhetoric intended to intimidate all Jews, the verbal and physical confrontations taking place around our city, and the slurs directed at your rabbi when he goes to the library, yarmulke on his head, to write this sermon.
The third antisemitism, in keeping with Schechter, is what I would call the higher antisemitism. Unlike Schechter’s time, the target here is not the Jew’s claim to a text, but the Jew’s claim to a land and the Jewish right to self-determination and self-defense. Here are the responses of intellectual, cultural, and political leaders, like the UN chief this past week, who situate the atrocities of October 7 in the context of a conflict rather than just calling it out for the evil it was. Here is the impulse of our institutions either to remain silent in the face of October 7 or to issue mealy-mouthed statements on the complexities of the region or kumbaya calls for a ceasefire without even an acknowledgement that Jewish lives have been lost or remain in captivity. Here is the progressive chant, “From river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” without a whiff of self-awareness that such a vision would necessitate the death of Jews, not to mention violating every value that progressives would claim to hold dear. Here are the signs and the social media posts that declare, “We are all Hamas,” ignoring not just the atrocities of October 7, not just the fact that the charter of Hamas calls for the murder of Jews, but also the reality that Hamas itself is a primary impediment to the Palestinian aspiration for self-determination.
And while the threat and increased presence of the lower and middle antisemitisms should be problematic enough to raise alarm bells for Jews, it is the stinging acknowledgement of this third higher antisemitism that I believe has shaken American Jewry to its core and woken it up from its slumber. In the wake of all the woke justifications, moral equivalencies, “yeah buts,” and whataboutisms of these past weeks, an unnerving realization has set in for American Jewry – a sense that perhaps we are not quite as secure in America as we thought we were. Not an attack in some settlement in the West Bank, not a horrific shooting by a lunatic fringe white nationalist, the bullying of a hasid in Brooklyn or the disturbed rantings of a now traded point guard or washed-out rapper. This is the recognition of something less violent but more nefarious: that in the eyes of many, Jewish lives are worth less than other lives. This is happening right here on our own front yard, in the institutions of which we are part, in our friends’ posts on Facebook, the boards on which we sit and in the organizations that some of us fund. We connect the dots from an antisemitic conference on a campus to the upended tables at a Hillel house, from the silence of a school administration in the face of the loss of Jewish life to the bullying of a Jewish student. We experience the moral whiplash of living in a world in which Israeli Jews are murdered and kept in continued captivity and then hearing that violence not only justified but blamed on the Jews. In this great awakening, the reality to which we have awakened is not a pleasant one. A curtain veiling our reality has been ripped away leaving all of us to wonder where we, as Jews, fit in.
And in our unease, anxiety, and panic, we turn to each other. Inchoate as the connection to our Judaism may have been up to now, in crisis we turn to our faith, to each other, and to our community for succor and strength. The late Eugene Borowitz, in his book The Mask Jews Wear, called American Jews “Marranos in reverse.” Marranos, as some of you may know, were the Jews of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Spain who converted to Catholicism due to persecution, but secretly continued Jewish practices, maintaining a Christian exterior but steadfast Jews in private. American Jews, on the other hand, have lived as “Marranos in reverse,” comfortable in our Jewish exterior but removed from the wellsprings of our inner identity.
It was good while it lasted, but the world changed on October 7 upending every prior assumption of Jewish identity. Liberal Zionists who have worked so hard of late to clarify that their Jewish values are not represented by the Israeli government are now struggling with the defensive tribal posture foisted on them by our enemies. Those Zionists who have fought so long and so hard for a two-state solution are struggling with how to express outrage at October 7, support Israel’s right to self-defense, and give voice to the principled and practical belief that Israel must pursue a viable path to Palestinian self-determination with the same ferocity as it prosecutes this war on Hamas. And those who have existed these years with masks on – Jewish identities worn lightly but not intensely – they are trying to square the circle of what it means to be viewed and treated differently than they previously perceived and believed. For so long we have led ourselves to believe that the differentiating marker of Jewish identity was not such a differentiator. We have been told by the world that Jews are the privileged and the powerful. But October 7 changed all that. The higher antisemites of the world have made it clear that contrary to what we thought, Jewish lives don’t matter. Our faith and our community that we may have taken for granted is now more important than ever. It is not easy. I wish it were not so. I wish the turn to Jewish identity and community had come by way of the ever-present riches of our tradition – the carrot and not the stick. We should always live our Jewish lives unmasked, proud, joyful, and connected.
New and disorienting as all this is for us, it is not new for the Jewish people – a feeling of déjà vu that goes back to any number of chapters of Jewish history. This is not the first time Jews have been made to feel “other” and then blamed for that very condition. In truth, it goes back to our very beginning – in this week’s Torah reading, Lekh L’kha. Abraham, plucked from obscurity to found a people, is called to go forth, but also to go inward – to have faith in God, to be a blessing to humanity, and to connect to a land. There were not yet Jews back then. Abraham was called ha-ivri, a word which comes from the Hebrew root eiver, meaning “other.” Abraham, the rabbis teach, was willing to stand tall on one side while the rest of the world stood on the other. Long before us, he was the first to understand that the spiritual calling of our people demands that we be ready to take unpopular stands. In fact, the rabbis compare Abraham to a man on a journey who sees a palace ablaze in flames, and when the owner calls out, the man understands his duty to help extinguish the flames. Why was Abraham called on by God? Because he was the one who saw God’s palace – our world – in flames and felt himself called to action.
As with our founding father, so too us today. If the world is judging us as “other,” then let us journey inward and embrace that for which we stand and that which we are called on to defend. If we are to stand tall in a world unhinged from morality, then let us stand strong together with our brothers and sisters, here and in Israel. For those who have, till now, existed at the outskirts of the Jewish people, let the gates of this community and every community swing open, giving entry and access to all who seek entry; know that you will be welcomed warmly. And if this is the moment that we seek to add our voice and helping hand to supporting our people, know that in this urgent hour, every voice and every hand is needed. God’s palace, our world, is on fire. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. None of us dare not sit this round out.
Borowitz, Eugene B. The Masks Jews Wear: The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1973.