By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman
The Irish statesman Conor Cruise O’Brien once remarked, “Antisemitism is a light sleeper.” Unfortunately, in recent years, antisemitism woke up in America.
It’s not, as O’Brien suggests, that antisemitism disappeared; rather, “the oldest hatred” has come roaring back from Charlottesville to Tree of Life to the pronouncements of Ye, who has changed his name from Kanye West. One important question is how to respond to the spiking of anti-Jewish animus in America.
A close reading of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, helps explain one historical response. At the end of the portion, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. When Abraham “reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son,” the text does not state that Isaac resisted.
Although in the Torah an angel intervenes, stops the slaughter and points out that a ram is available as a substitute for Isaac, some medieval Jewish commentaries maintain that Isaac was actually slain. This viewpoint was explored by Professor Shalom Spiegel of the Jewish Theological Seminary in his 1967 book on “the binding of Isaac,” “The Last Trial.”
The paradigm of Isaac passively walking to his death has reverberated throughout Jewish history. It helps explain the images of tens of thousands of Jews walking to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. As unarmed citizens herded into cattle cars, there was little possibility of physical resistance.
Instead, they went to their deaths with dignity, itself a powerful statement of spiritual resistance. Others, including the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto and partisans, took up arms against the Nazis. Whatever their form of resistance, we hold all of them dear in our hearts.
Today, we must ask, “What should be our form of resistance to antisemitism?” We need to find our own path to protest the growing hate in our midst. What can we do? I have six suggestions:
First, it is essential that the Jewish community support its traditional defense organizations beginning with groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, as well as general anti-hate initiatives like the Southern Poverty Law Center. Jewish Federations sponsor agencies that respond to antisemitic incidents, as do major Jewish religious denominations. However, none of these groups can be effective without strong financial support from the Jewish community.
Second, leaders of all stripes need to be firm in their condemnation of antisemitism. Silence is complicity. Condemning antisemitism needs to be directed to both ends of the political spectrum and not cherry-picked for political expedience. United States Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt can help set a national standard for our leaders to follow.
Third, as was recently demonstrated in the case of Ye, economic action can be taken both by businesses and by consumers to fight antisemitism. Although delayed, even Adidas broke its ties with Ye, as did several other major business entities.
Fourth, Holocaust education is urgent and needs to be mandated by state governments. Holocaust denial, trivialization and ignorance play a major role in empowering antisemites to spread their nefarious message.
Fifth, Jewish holidays such as Chanukah and Purim can be refocused to include major efforts to advance anti-hate messages. Yom HaShoah, once broadly supported in the Jewish community, needs to be reinvigorated. Perhaps the shofar can be adopted as an instrument and symbol of warning.
Finally, Jewish education and outreach needs to strengthen Jewish identity and engagement. Too many in our community are distancing themselves from our tradition. Grassroots Jewish pride not only guarantees Jewish continuity, but it also conveys a strong message to the larger society about the beauty of Jewish life in America.
There is much we can learn from our heritage about how to respond to contemporary antisemitism. We can be the angel in the story of the binding of Isaac and the shofar sounded to warn everyone that hate has no place in America. It’s not enough to just talk about antisemitism. It’s time to act.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman is rabbi emeritus of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and the past chair of the board of governors of Gratz College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.
Thank you, Rabbi Sussman, for clearly outlining positive steps that we as individuals and collectively can take to stand up against antisemitism.