Sermon on Antisemitism / February 4, 2022

Shabbat Shalom. It is good to be back after my month-long Sabbatical.  I spent a lot of time reading, practicing my guitar, reaching out to friends, colleagues, and old teachers. And of course, I kept abreast of the news regarding Israel and Judaism. Like many of you I have been alarmed and concerned by the continued increase of antisemitism not only in our own soil but the rest of the world since the beginning of 2022.           .        

As you might recall, On January 15 a gunman held 4 congregants hostages on Shabbat service    at   Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX. The hostage taker was demanding the release of a terrorist, sentenced to life in prison, held in a nearby penitentiary. This extremist, along with his partners in the United Kingdom, believed the antisemitic trope that Jews run the world and if he took some of them hostage, he could fulfill his mission. Fortunately, the situation was resolved, and the hostages freed.  

There are many other stories that you may not have heard, and which are also cause for alarm. On Martin Luther King Day, a mere six days after the hostage crisis was resolved, J Herbert Nelson ll, the chief officer of the Presbyterian Church (USA), published an article entitled “In a World of Trouble and Despair, We Need Unity.” In reflecting on the legacy and life of Dr. King, he singled out Israel, among all the countries of the world, as a violator of the tenets of justice. He accused Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians as being “21rst century slavery”. He suggested that Jews had forgotten our own history “as a humble and persecuted people”. He appears to call for the abolition of Israel as a nation. And he seemed to blame not only Israel but all Jews for the situation, never acknowledging the role that Palestinians and the Arab world themselves play and have played in the impasse. 

Fortunately, other Presbyterian organizations spoke up and took issue with Dr. Nelson’s words. Wrote one group, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace”, “The Rev. Dr. Nelson‘s actions in lashing out at the U.S. and global Jewish community is beyond the pale. Gratefully, his actions and words do not match the work of local PCUSA and Jewish congregations in communities across the nation.” Another group, Presbyterian members of the Jewish Presbyterian Dialogue of Chicago, wrote that they were “deeply troubled” by Dr. Nelson’s letter. Dr. Nelson “accused Jews of forgetting their own experiences of oppression and questioned Jewish ethics and morality. Dr. Nelson seemed to hold American Jews accountable for the actions of the Israeli government,” they wrote. And Pastor Jess Scholten of the River Glen Presbyterian Church on Raymond Drive in Naperville, just a short drive from here, wrote to me as well. “While we are connectionally part of the PCUSA, Dr. Nelson’s letter does not reflect our views, nor the view of the Presbytery of Chicago, which has sent a response on behalf of churches in this region asking Dr. Nelson to renounce the letter. I can’t apologize on behalf of someone else, nor lessen your experience of pain because of his words, but please know many of us in the PCUSA were deeply saddened by the Stated Clerk’s comments and the harm we know they cause, especially between faith organizations that generally have a had an amicable and supportive interfaith relationship.”

Last week, the human rights agency Amnesty International issued a 278-page report on Israel entitled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity”.  The report accuses Israel of using apartheid tactics to racially discriminate against Palestinians and of intentionally committing crimes against humanity against Arabs in Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian refugees abroad. The report does not directly call for the abolition of the State of Israel but does call for a full return of refugees and their descendants and for reparations, which as we know is the same thing as calling for the dismantling of the Jewish State, only in a more genteel fashion. 

True, Israel has its problems.  It is not a perfect nation.  No nation is. It does not always get it “right”. No nation does.  Indeed, members of the American Jewish community are often deeply troubled by Israel’s actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians. But an “Apartheid State?” Really? Consider the fact that minorities, which comprise 20% of Israel’s population and are predominantly Arab, hold full political rights in Israel, have a higher representation in the Knesset than do minorities in the United States Congress, and sit on the Israeli Supreme Court. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank are not comparable to that within Israel. There are security barriers and checkpoints on the West Bank which impinge upon the freedom of Palestinians. True, this has caused hardship and humiliation. But this ignores the reasons for these measures. Between September 2000 and continuing through 2004, the Palestinians launched an terror campaign that killed 1,100 Israeli civilians to and maimed 5,000 more. That is the rough equivalent of 40,000 Americans killed and 175,000 Americans maimed on American streets. Israel was obliged, morally required, to take measures to stop the carnage.

 In 2003 Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip, hoping that the absence of security barriers and checkpoints would encourage moderation and responsible self-government from the Palestinians. Instead, we got Hamas, which has launched rockets at Israeli towns close to the border in years of “peace” and sent thousands of missiles deep into Israel with the express desire of killing Israeli civilians in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021. 

All of this is ignored in the Amnesty International report.

But don’t take my word for it.

NGO monitor, an independent research institute that publishes fact-based research and independent analysis on non-governmental organizations had this to say about the Amnesty International report: 

“Amnesty’s report manipulates and distorts international law, Israeli policy, and events on the ground, as well as denies the Jewish people their right to sovereign equality and self-determination”. 

Are Dr. Nelson’s or Amnesty International responsible for what happened in Texas? Are they connected to the seven incidents of vandalism in Rogers Park last week, including the spray painting of swastikas on a synagogue and a Jewish school? I believe they bear responsibility because their words contribute to a general atmosphere where Israel, and by extension, Jews everywhere, are vilified.

Although Antisemitism is increasing in the United States and around the world, we ought not become overly pessimistic about the future. Significant progress is being made to combat antisemitism as well. Here are just a few examples from abroad:

  • The erection of a Holocaust memorial exhibition titled “We Remember”—the first of its kind in the Arab world—at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai in May 2021.
  • A joint religious complex including a mosque, church and synagogue is being built in Abu Dhabi;
  • The House of Ten Commandments synagogue in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, was reopened in March 2021 following a comprehensive restoration. A few months later, in August, the first celebration of Shabbat services since the late 1940s was held in the country.
  • Efforts have continued by young people from Poland to Ukraine to restore Jewish cemeteries and reconnect to their country’s Jewish history.
  • Two major European soccer clubs—the German Borussia Dortmund and the Dutch Feyenoord Rotterdam—partnered with the Anne Frank House to develop guidelines for tackling anti-Semitism among players and fans.
  • More countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, 
  • In the European Union, the “Strategy on Combating Anti-Semitism and Fostering Jewish Life” program was initiated, urging member states to prosecute anti-Semitic hate speech and crimes.

Our parasha for this week is Terumah. In it, Moses asks, on behalf of G-d, for the people of Israel to bring forth gifts from which the Mikdash, the Tabernacle, will be built. We are told that everyone contributed – so much so that there was an overabundance of gifts, and Moses had to ask the people to stop their contributions.  Now maybe more than ever our world needs the contributions of everyone to face down Antisemitism. Fortunately, as we can see, there are good people in our own community and around the world contributing to stemming the tide of Antisemitism, the world’s oldest hatred. 

Shabbat Shalom