Antisemitism: Rising with Reason?
By: Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“If we think there is a reason for antisemitism, then we will keep seeking the ever-elusive solution.”
Today, antisemitism is on the rise. Thank G-d, we in South Africa enjoy perhaps the lowest antisemitism in the world of any organised, active Jewish community. No thanks to the ANC or its government, but the people of South Africa are not at all antisemitic. Of course, there are haters everywhere, and we have our own BDS zealots. But, as a rule, we have certainly been spared the violent outbreaks of hate that have manifested, and are still rising, in the USA, Europe, and Australia. A big positive in the land of loadshedding!
But why is antisemitism rising? Is there any logical explanation for a world that is becoming dangerously similar in pattern to Germany of the 1930s? Back in the early 1950s, a young and still new Lubavitcher Rebbe was visited and interviewed by a respected Jewish novelist named Harvey Swados. It wasn’t that many years after the Holocaust, and the author asked the Rebbe, “Rabbi, do you think it could happen again?” The Rebbe’s answer was shocking and chilling. “Morgen in di fri!” he answered in Yiddish. “Tomorrow morning!” The Rebbe added: “G-d forbid! Hashem will not allow it to happen again.” But as far as the nations of the world are concerned, it could very well happen again tomorrow morning. When I first read that interview, I was shocked. It sounded far-fetched. Today, sadly, I am no longer shocked. What is going on in the world today, what has become “acceptable” even in the hallowed halls of the United States Congress, in American universities, and what public representatives are getting away with in Europe, is simply unbelievable. And scary!
So, is there any reason for antisemitism? Throughout history, there were many so-called ‘reasons.’ “They killed our god., poisoned our wells, slaughtered our children for their Pesach wine or matzah.” Or, simply, “They are different.” And today, “They stole our land!” But are any of those ‘reasons’ genuine reasons? Of course not. We know they are all false excuses.
Is there, in fact, any logical reason? Not long before he passed away, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said something that was quite prescient. “Antisemitism is like a virus,” he wrote. “It keeps mutating.” Just before Covid, how perceptive that was, almost prophetic. Today, antisemitism has mutated to Anti-Zionism. If we think there is a reason for antisemitism, then we will keep seeking the ever-elusive solution. Remove the cause and you’ve solved the problem, right? Wrong. Because there are no good reasons, only excuses.
Let me share with you the view from one of the holy martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rav Menachem Zemba. He was one of the leading Rabbis of pre-war Warsaw, a city of 350 000 Jews. He said antisemitism has no rational basis whatsoever. His argument? In Poland they hated the Jews because they were poor. “Scum of the earth,” they called us. In Germany they hated the Jews because they were rich and supposedly took away their money. In Russia they hated Jews because they were bourgeois capitalists. And in the United States, they hunted us down because we were communists!
Rich, poor, capitalist, communist, you can’t win. There is simply no logic. It is a fact of life. We don’t understand it, it makes no sense, but it is what it is.
Back in Europe they said, “Go back to Palestine.” Now, in Palestine they say, “Go back to Europe.” The antisemites say there was no Holocaust. And the very same people say Hitler didn’t finish the job! Is this normal? Logical? Of course not. So, antisemitism is an immutable fact of life, with no rhyme or reason. And, therefore, because there is no logical reason, there is no logical solution either. Well, what then should be our response?
You may be surprised to learn that one of my great religious heroes is not a rabbi. In fact, he wasn’t very religious at all. He was Israel’s first Prime Minister: David Ben Gurion. And he came up with a great line which is what I consider the correct response to antisemitism: “It doesn’t matter what the Goyim say. It matters what the Jews do!” Meaning? Don’t panic. Don’t be shocked, or even surprised. It’s a fact of life. They don’t like us? Get over it. Should we roll over and die? Leave Israel? Assimilate? No! Keep being Jewish and keep defending Israel. Yes, we need a Board of Deputies to defend us legally and politically. But at the end of the day, they cannot solve the problem of antisemitism. At best, they can deal with it, and manage it. The bottom line is that we have to do what we have to do, and that is to keep defending ourselves and keep being proudly and actively Jewish.
We weren’t created just to defend ourselves against racists. That’s a negative reason to exist. We are here on a positive mission. To change the world for the good. To be Jews who are confident and knowledgeable, live as Jews and raise our children as Jews.
Jews have a history. And a destiny. And part of that is that G-d chose us – not for privilege, but for responsibility. To be a “light unto the nations” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings and tell you that despite our best efforts, antisemitism is not going away. But don’t become disillusioned or depressed. Learn from Ben Gurion who said, “It doesn’t matter what the Goyim say,
it matters what the Jews DO!” Learn from the people of Israel who live in the worst neighbourhood in the world, surrounded by mortal enemies trying to kill them, and they carry on doing what they have to do. Learn from the late, lamented Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who kept reminding us that “non-Jews respect Jews who respect themselves.” And, learn from the Rebbe, my own saintly teacher and Rabbi Sacks’ teacher and a powerful influence on his life.
On the 20th Yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, a Los Angeles journalist coined a phrase which I liked. He asked, what was the Rebbe’s response to antisemitism? And his answer? Pro-Semitism! He launched Mitzvah Campaigns. He encouraged and inspired us to study Torah, wear Tefillin, put up Mezuzahs, light Shabbos Candles, give Tzedakah regularly, fill our homes with Jewish Books, embrace the Mikvah system of family sanctity, keep Kosher, educate our children Jewishly, and love each other unconditionally, and more. And if you already do it all, then improve the quality and quantity of your Jewish observance. The Rebbe always focused on the positive, rather than the negative. They want to stop us from being Jewish? We will be even more Jewish!
I learned that we must deny the antisemites their wish. We must be faithful to our mission. We must be even more Jewish and proudly so.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the reason for antisemitism. To spur us on to be better Jews.