ISSUES OF FAITH: Antisemitism rears its ugly head, again

DURING A YOM Kippur service this year, the rabbi of a large synagogue asked his congregation how many have thought about leaving the country. Sadly, most of them raised their hands. What is it that caused so many to express a concern with living in the United States, a country where their ancestors fled for religious and political freedom?

One word. Fear.

Fear that the rise of antisemitism and the silence of so many in condemning it is reminiscent of what has happened to Jews again and again. Fear because hatred and demonization of Jews is the oldest and most durable of prejudices against any group, despite Jews being only .2 percent of the world’s population. Fear because stereotypes, lies and antisemitic tropes continue to convince people that the Jews are the enemy. Fear, because every Jew knows throughout history when people stayed silent they were targeted. Fear because as Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In recent years, there has been an explosion of anti-Jewish hatred in America and Europe. Insults and violence against Jews has increased exponentially.

Shouts of “I hope you burn in an oven soon,” “Hitler was right. Reopen Auschwitz! Gas them!” are heard with alarming regularity.

More recently, the vile antisemitic words of Kanye West were reinforced with an overpass banner stating “Kanye was right about the Jews” accompanied by people giving the Nazi salute.

A prominent political leader issued a clear threat by warning Jews that they’d “better get their act together before it’s too late.”

Basketball star Kyrie Irving tweeted a blatantly antisemitic documentary.

Antisemitism has become normalized, even celebrated.

Antisemitism has increased by 61 percent since 2020 with threats, vandalism, harassment and violence against Jewish citizens, synagogues and Jewish institutions. Despite this, there has been little condemnation, especially from our leaders. No wonder Jews feel unsafe in their own country.

For decades, American synagogues have posted security guards during all their worship services and events, but the fear is growing as overt antisemitism rises to the surface again. We Jews live this fear.

People say something like the Holocaust could never happen again, especially in our democracy. But Germany was a democracy. The German culture was responsible for some of the most remarkable music, art, scientific advances and was the highest church-going nation in Europe.

All it took for a civilized country to descend into hell was a populace who felt left behind and betrayed, and a leader who tapped into their frustration, providing them with a group to hate. Many citizens did nothing, either out of fear or because they weren’t the ones targeted.

German schoolchildren are now consciously taught about the nightmare that was Nazi Germany. There are no monuments to Hitler or his generals. It is against the law to fly a Nazi flag or spout Nazi slogans, and streets memorialize the victims, not the perpetrators.

Germans know that without vigilance, this could happen again. And yet in America, the traitors of the Confederacy are extolled as heroes, and insurrectionists roamed the capitol wearing Nazi garb. Teaching the facts of our history is being challenged with book bans, revisionist curricula and teachers threatened for teaching the truth.

It can absolutely happen here.

When people feel left out, marginalized or insignificant, they can be manipulated by fear and encouraged by words from those they admire. Facts no longer matter, and feelings of impotence lead to lashing out at a perceived enemy.

When I began to study Judaism, I was struck by the joy and beauty in its beliefs, rituals and practices.

To be Jewish was to be passionate about justice, to be concerned about the poor, the refugee, the orphan, the widow, anyone in need. To be Jewish was to know your faith does not have the only truth about God. To be Jewish was to see all human beings, no matter their gender identification, race, religion or who they loved, as being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.

To be Jewish was to know that what we do in this life is what counts, not what belief we profess. To be Jewish was to accept the principles in the Torah of love and kindness, and to always seek peace. To be Jewish was to love others as yourself.

It is bewildering that people holding to these principles are considered the “enemy.”

I pray that people begin to speak up and reject the lies of the “oldest hatred,” thus illuminating the darkness which has seeped into so many souls with the light of truth, love and respect for all.

Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.

_________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is debeyfam@olympus.net.

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