Anti-Semitism is a bit like the elephant in the synagogue social hall.
You can ignore it for a while; it’s embarrassing and messy; and what can you say about it that thousands of people in a similar situation — stuck with an elephant in the social hall — haven’t said already?
But then it starts waving its trunk around, knocking all the pickled herring off the tables, and then turning around and getting the creamed herring too. It’s time to take action.
That’s more or less what Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine thinks about the subject of anti-Semitism. He understands choosing not to talk about it — that was the choice that he’d made every year for many years — but that’s no longer a luxury we still have.
It’s time to talk about it. In fact, it’s time to teach about it.
Rabbi Fine, who leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, can do so not only as a JTS-ordained rabbi but also as a historian; his doctorate, from the City University of New York, is in modern European history.
“Until now, I’ve tried to stay away from the story of anti-Semitism,” he said. “My interest in Jewish history, and the story I’ve wanted to tell and teach, both as a rabbi and as a historian, is the story of Jewish life. People should want to be Jewish for positive reasons, because of the joy and celebration of Jewish culture and civilization, not for negative reasons, not because people don’t like us. Not because of the sense of threat, because we have to maintain Jewish continuity as a response to Hitler. I would rather that they respond to Rabbi Akiba and Maimonides. That should be what should inspire Jews.”
He’s also been loath to teach about anti-Semitism because as a student of modern European history, and specifically of the Nazi era, “I have always said that the Nazis are not Jewish history. That is European history. It shouldn’t be something that rabbis or Jewish historians have to be experts on. The experts should be European historians.” Basically, it happened to us, but they did it.
But we can no longer allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring anti-Semitism, he said; he’s been prompted specifically by the most recent Pew report.
That report, the Pew Research Center’s “Jewish Americans in 2020,” “was much more valuable than the original one,” the massive, groundbreaking study that was released in 2013, “because now, in the new one, they had a baseline,” Rabbi Fine said. The report looked not only at demographics and beliefs, but also at changes to them. “One of the significant changes they found was the rise in concern about anti-Semitism. It was way down on the list of concerns for American Jews in 2013, and in 2020 it was way up.”
The Pew survey studies attitudes, not events; it tracks respondents’ fears about attacks, not attacks themselves. But the most recent studies by the Anti-Defamation League, which logs incidents, shows that anti-Semitic incidents are rising, although they’re still low. “I believe that the increase in anxiety is due to a combination of the actual increase in real events, added to the climate of nationalist populism,” Rabbi Fine said.
There are many reasons for the increase in anxiety, Rabbi Fine said. “There were the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, as well as the experience of living through an unusual administration that saw an unleashing of nationalist and ultra-nationalist voices, along with populist voices becoming more mainstream. That was happening in Europe as well as here.
“That context, I think, is an even more concerning development than the specific attacks on synagogues — and Pittsburgh was the bloodiest attack on Jews in American history.
“This is a new normal that we have to worry about,” he continued. “How is the world changing?
“Have we ridden through the wave of good feeling following the Holocaust, and is what’s going on now back more to normalcy? Is it that Jews are always going to be hated and discriminated against? What the Pew survey shows is that the increase in anxiety about anti-Semitism is a concern that the precarious situation of Jews throughout our history has taught us.”
He cautions against pessimism. “I don’t believe that American Jews are facing an existential threat in the way that European Jews did in the 1930s and ’40s, or the way that Israeli Jews did at the country’s creation,” he said. “Nonetheless, the threats are real.”
So he’s going to examine them.
“We need to talk about it, not just because it happens and we have to learn how to protect ourselves and on a logistical level, but also because we have to look at how it forms our identity as Jews.
“We can’t just pretend that it isn’t there, because it is there.”
Rabbi Fine realized that to teach this class, he’d had to reconsider his own assumptions. “In the past, I’ve always taught that anti-Semitism is a modern response to industrialization, but it is much more than that.”
It traces back at least to the beginnings of Christianity, and then of Islam, “those two cultural orbits in which Judaism lives. How did that translate to the surges of anti-Jewish violence and discrimination, especially in Christian Europe in the high Middle Ages, with the ritual murder libel, and with the anti-Jewish iconography that developed then.
“The Jew has always been there, and the idea of the Jew as the other. What does it mean to be the other? In the past I have felt that it wasn’t fair to say that we were singled out because all minorities are singled out, but we are a special minority because of the role that Judaism has played in Christian identity from the beginning, and that’s true in Islam as well.
“We have been the named other.
“So these prejudices are endemic. They’re there from the beginning. By understanding how they are there, how they developed, and how Jews managed to live through those periods, with those adverse forces, by understanding that they’ve been there all along — it’s a disturbing story, but it’s a story that we have to talk about. We ignore it at our peril.”
The course will start on December 6 with an overview; after that, the next 13 sessions, on Mondays at 8 p.m. through May 23, will go through history, starting with the anti-Semitism of Pharaoh, Haman, “and other biblical adversaries.” It will concentrate mainly but not entirely on Europe. One session, set for March 14, will look at the image of Jews in medieval Christian art — spoiler alert, it’s not a good look — and will include slides of the art that Rabbi Fine describes.
The courses are free and open to the public (although donations to Temple Israel always are welcome). They will not require any preparation or reading, although Rabbi Fine will provide a reading list for anyone who’s interested in it. And they’ll be taught as college courses, assuming no particular background in the subject but an active brain and intellectual curiosity.
They’ll be both in person — with social distancing and masks required — and on Zoom, and everyone is welcome.
Learn more at synagogue.org (as you marvel at the foresight that got Temple Israel that url) or by calling the synagogue at (201) 444-9320.