By Rabbi Benji Levy
A few weeks ago, I woke up to a flurry of messages from my students in Australia asking how swastikas could taint the iconic Bondi beach where we grew up. One week later, another slew of messages lamented the same ugly symbol, this time accompanied by horrific comments in the defiling of the outside of the Jewish Museum, which primarily commemorates the tragedies perpetrated by Nazi Germany. These are but a few examples of the blatant acts of anti-Semitism that have gained media exposure in recent weeks.
A Belgian parade float caused outrage for displaying giant caricatures of Jews sitting on bags of money. A wave of violent attacks against Jews in the Brooklyn, New York, raised a state-wide debate on punishment for hate crimes. Jews around the world gasped in disbelief when a mass grave of Holocaust victims in Ukraine was desecrated twice by grave diggers looking for gold amid the remains of the 2,500 Jews killed there. And the list goes on.
Anti-Semitism is a constant industrious specter with which Jews have grappled for generations. Though we’ve thrown our fair share of defensive punches, we have copped many more and never been able to neutralize this consistent threat to the Jewish way of life, as our predators recoup and sport a new veneer.
Throughout its dark past, anti-Semitism has worn numerous masks, ranging from religion to science, from business to politics. We have been victimized for being rich and poor, communist and capitalist, isolationists and assimilated. We were persecuted as a religion and as a race, for being a minority in the lands of others and now for being a majority in our homeland. These masquerades have usually concealed malicious intent, leading the world to believe that any violent incidents against the Jews were the work of an intolerant minority and that the Jewish nation as a whole were the recipients of justifiable condemnation.
Today, the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ an insidious incarnation of this age-old hatred, parades itself across college campuses in the form of anti-Zionism. I write this from the United States, where ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ gatherings dispute the right to Israel’s very existence. As a child of those who left South Africa because of their disgust at real apartheid, I appreciate why those who were genuinely persecuted for the color of their skin feel such deep offense. Under the guise of benevolence and concern, the resurgence of this disease demonizes Jews of all colors and cultures.
In response, the more connected passionately defend this blatant injustice, with crisis breeding creativity. In contract, the majority that finds themselves on the fence about Jewish engagement are overcome by fear, confusion and disillusionment. For many of them, this phenomenon represents another major threat to Jewish continuity, as it has pushed a significant segment of the next generation from apathy to disconnection.
One approach is to contest the efforts to delegitimize Israel’s existence and the efforts to defame any Jew who identifies with the right to self-determination. Another is to strengthen, deepen and broaden the base, providing the under-engaged with a reason to see themselves as an important part in standing for the truth and celebrating their heritage. Both are essential.
Sharing the reality with people of influence is important but never enough. Strengthening Jewish identity and connections to Israel, though a long and complicated road, is absolutely critical in forging our future.
History, especially Jewish history, is known to repeat itself, so it comes as no surprise that the theme of the Purim story, which we read this week, is the demonizing and delegitimization of the Jews of Ancient Persia. However, what makes this specific episode of Jewish history exceptional is its resolution: a total reversal of fortune orchestrated entirely by Esther and Mordechai, with seemingly little interference from Divine intervention.
Some commentators explain that God’s name is purposely absent from Megillat Esther to highlight the importance of human participation in our own salvation. By harnessing the power of faith and the Jewish collective, Esther and Mordechai were able to lift the mask of an unseen enemy and bring about the most improbable of victories. This defeat against ostensibly insurmountable odds has occurred and will occur in every generation.
Empowered with the confidence and strength that comes from true Jewish rootedness, Jewish young women and men on the college campuses dotting the globe, can stem the tides. When facing the ‘new anti-Semitism’ head on, victory lies in our ability to assuage doubt, fear, and disenchantment, and connect Jews of every age to the Jewish story.
And as Mordechai tells Esther, “if you remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will arise for the Jews from elsewhere.” Anti-Semitism does not distinguish between the active and the assimilated, and the fanatical hatred we are witnessing today from the far right and far left is inescapable. But salvation always arises, and the question is who will be part of this process. When Esther realizes this, she sheds her passive attitude and transforms into one of the greatest heroines in Jewish history. She adopts a two-pronged approach of both arguing the case for truth and heeding the call to gather the Jews towards a unity of purpose and positive engagement.
This is our cue to double down on a mosaic of impactful Jewish initiatives and provide meaningful opportunities for the next generation to connect. We must unmask the potential threats and engage young people so that they remain rooted, resolute, and proud. In this way, they will not only value our illustrious past but excitedly help us build a brighter future.