Archive for May, 2014


Funny how seemingly unrelated incidents can be very connected. I was watching Bill Maher and the discussion was about the terrorist group Boko Harem, kidnappers of 200 girls in Nigeria. Maher went on one of his rants condemning religion, which included an indictment of Islam as particularly violent, saying that Muslim violence was not limited to “a few bad apples.” Maher is witty and is often on point, but he has a blind spot when it comes to religion in general and Islam in particular. His words echo what I know to be a general attitude the public holds about Islam: there are too many incidents of terror and violence done by Muslims to believe that Islam is a religion of peace.

Within a couple of days of watching this episode of Bill Maher, I received emails from congregants with a link to an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency regarding a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League measuring anti-Semitism around the world. The headlines screamed, “More than a quarter of the world is anti-Semitic.” Of course that sets off panic in the Jewish world. I think it is important to understand what the results of the ADL survey really mean. I also think there are connections (not direct parallels but connections) between attitudes towards Jews and towards Muslims.

It should come as no surprise that the highest levels of anti-Semitism are in Middle Eastern countries, many of whom are still at some level of conflict with Israel, with the highest level in the West Bank and Gaza at 93%. The LOWEST level of anti-Semitism for any Arab country is Morocco at 80%, still a ridiculously high level. Of course global figures are skewed by the extremely high levels of anti-Semitism concentrated in these areas. More disturbing, however, is the level of anti-Semitism among certain European countries, with Greece leading the way at 69% and France second at 37%. Spain is also considered one of the most anti-Semitic western European countries as witnessed by the aftermath of the recent European basketball championships, which was won by an Israeli team. Thousands of anti-Semitic tweets were sent in Spain including references to sending Jews to the ovens and the showers. Clearly there are areas that still truly hate Jews.


Well, consider the remark by Ruben Noboa, a leader of the Jewish community in Catalonia, Spain, who is leading a lawsuit over the anti-Semitic tweets in a Spanish courts, “Hardly anyone here knows any Jews, but the clichés and stereotypes persist…” Noboa was trying to express irony- how can people hate Jews when they don’t even know us? But what he really expressed was truth. People hate what they do not know. Familiarity breeds tolerance. When you can eliminate conflict you have acceptance. A look at the areas with the smallest level of anti-Semitism bears this out.

Start with the United States. The ADL survey measured anti-Semitism here at 9%, one of the smallest numbers globally. I even think that might be overstated, as I doubt close to 1 in 10 Americans hate Jews. Our national numbers are most likely skewed by areas having little exposure to Jews or where fringe hate groups are present. There will always be a measure of prejudice but the story of the acceptance of Jews in America is one of great success. Just 80 years ago there were Jewish quotas in the great universities. Jews were seen as part of the seedy immigrant newcomers whose strange, non-Christian religion added to the natural human mistrust of outsiders. Figures like Father Coughlan could fill the radio airwaves with blatant anti-Jewish venom with few consequences. None of that happens now or could happen now. Why? As Americans became exposed to Jews, to Jewish culture, to Jewish thought, familiarity gave way to comfort. I remember growing up in West Virginian and having my parents’ Christian friends at our holiday tables, celebrating with us. It is easy to hate a stranger. It is hard to hate a friend, a neighbor, or even just someone you see all the time in the course of doing daily activities. None of this happens in the countries with the highest rates of anti-Semitism.

A country’s history and general culture also provide a clue as to whether anti-Semitism will flourish or not. Spain has a terrible history regarding Jews, whereas Holland, a country with little anti-Semitism, was the only western European country NOT to expel its Jews, indeed providing a haven for Jewish refugees. Great Britain is the source of great anti-Semitic canards such as the blood libel, yet as England underwent a transformation into a democratic society, Jews were invited back in and have flourished there for over 300 years.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Bill Maher’s attitude towards Muslims? I see the Muslim community in America as filling the same role that Jews did 80 years or so ago. They are largely immigrants therefore outsiders, strangers. Their religion is not Christian ergo a mystery to most Americans. They are not familiar so they are feared and mistrusted. The past 30 years or so have seen many terrorist acts carried out by those who claim to represent Islam. So we draw a conclusion that Islam is a violent religion bent on conquest. I would just ask my Christian friends to consider this: do you think during the age of the Crusades the Muslim inhabitants of the Holy Land could have been convinced that Christianity is a religion of peace?

There are indeed problems in the Islamic world. As often happens the radical elements are using religion to justify horrible acts. Many Muslim countries are way behind in all the measurements of what constitutes a modern, democratic society. We need to recognize that these national struggles are reflections of poverty, outdated feudal systems, and the natural evolutionary pains that many developing nations experience. Studying these nations is not a great way to understand people who practice Islam.

For that I recommend getting to know people in your community who actually do practice Islam. You will find they have the same hopes and fears as we do. They love the opportunity that America represents and push their children to succeed. They struggle, just like Jews have struggled, with how much to assimilate and how much to preserve of their traditional life. The acceptance that Jews have gotten in American life is what the Islamic community desires.

Yes, the ADL survey reminds us once again that prejudice against Jews still exists, but it is good to understand where and why. People are just people. We all fear that which we do not know. The best counter to any prejudice is simply to breed familiarity. You will be surprised by the results.

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Earlier this week we commemorated Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. In our community, there was the requisite lighting of the memorial candles in memory of the 6 million lost, a bit of poetry from Holocaust victims, the chanting of Ani Ma’amim and Eil Malei Rachamim. A speaker talked about anti-Semitism, how it still exists (see recent events in Overland Park, KS and the Ukraine). It is, appropriately, a day of sadness.

I feel the sadness as well. Yes, I am the child of a survivor (not of the camps but of Nazi oppression) and yes we lost a lot of family in the Shoah. But the real, deep sadness I feel at these events is not so much about the Jews that have been lost, but about the Jews who are living today, and the kind of Judaism they seem to be embracing. I find it sad that too many Jews base their entire Jewish identity on the Holocaust. American Jews are obsessed with the Holocaust. They are obsessed with anti-Semitism. Most American Jews will exclaim “Never again” with more religious fervor than Sh’ma Yisra’el. The Holocaust has become a central element of being an American Jew – even for those who have no connection to family lost in that time.

This is born out by the results in the Pew survey on American Jewish life released last October. When asked the question “What is essential to being Jewish?” the number one response, by 73% of all Jews was, “Remembering the Holocaust.” This came before “Leading an ethical and moral life” (69%) and well above “Working for justice and equality” (56%). Way, way down on the list were “Being part of a Jewish community” (28%) and “Observing Jewish law” (19%). Forgive me this piece of blasphemy, but from my perspective that list is pretty much upside down – although if I could use my own wording I would place “embracing life by repairing the world” as the most essential piece of being Jewish closely followed by morality, learning and observing some Jewish tradition and law, and being part of a community. Of all these values, “Remembering the Holocaust” would be last.

Of course you will ask me, “Isn’t remembering the Holocaust important?” To which I would reply – absolutely – just not as important as engaging in those Jewish activities that build a vibrant Jewish life. While we engage in our mourning over the victims, we too often forget that the Shoah is not just an individual tragedy. It is not just the end of 6 million lives because they were Jewish. It is also, equally, the loss of so many vibrant Jewish communities and institutions throughout Europe. It is the destruction of Jewish spiritual and intellectual life. Despite the return of some Jews to Europe, the richness of Jewish life will never be anything close to what was lost. So the sad words we speak on Yom HaShoah are nice, and appropriate. But they are almost meaningless if not followed by something much more – and different.

The best response to the losses incurred by our people during the Shoah, whether it is the loss of people or communities, is to build vibrant, joyful, meaningful Jewish communities here – in America, in Florida, in Tallahassee. It is NOT enough to mourn and remember. We must live as Jews, spiritually, intellectually, morally. That means being engaged in living Jewish life as well as translating Jewish values into how we conduct our everyday lives. It means building vibrant Jewish institutions that serve as centers of kedushah (holiness), Torah (learning), and ma’asim tovim (good works).   It means infusing Judaism into our lives every day, every week. It means not letting morbid fascination oppression define our Jewishness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us a basic outline on how to do that through the description of the sacred times we are to mark throughout the year. Shabbat, of course, is every week. The festivals dot 3 key moments in the agricultural cycle of the year and we are told in the Talmud to celebrate them with joy. Yes, Yom Kippur is a time of serious work on atonement and forgiveness, but it is not morose, just a recognition that the work to repair human relations is important and must include both individual and communal elements. We are to note the new moons each month and from Pesach to Shavuot we countdown the journey from freedom to a covenant of responsibility by the counting of the Omer. To these Torah mandated times we add Purim, Chanukah, and Tu b’Shevat, just to name a few.

The point is, it is just as important to enjoy the silliness of a Purim schpiel as it is to mourn the losses of the Shoah. It is just as important to celebrate with friends and family at a Passover seder as it is to attend a Yom Hashaoah service. It is just as important to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah as it is to watch any Holocaust inspired movie. Indeed, all of these things are more important than any Holocaust related activity. All are joyful expressions of our Judaism. Yet, sadly, they are ignored by too many Jews. Which means that the Judaism being passed to the next generation is about victimhood, death, and remembering the suffering. Is that really the only Judaism we want our children to receive? Can anyone believe that is a Judaism that can survive?

Yet, I am not without hope. On Wednesday night I had my usual session with this year’s Confirmation students – all 15 and 16 years old. It was our wrap up discussion for the year, as now we will organize their service that occurs in a few weeks. I asked them to share the most significant Jewish lesson they had learned over the course of their years in Hebrew school. I loved their answers. One said it was how Judaism encourages questioning everything – even God. One said it was about working for justice. But my favorite, the one which gave me real hope about the young Jews in our community was this: the value of forgiveness and repentance. This came from a young woman I have known since she was two. She said that in 5th grade they learned how important it is to go to people you might have hurt to admit you were wrong and apologize. She said that she and her friend, ever since they learned that Yom Kippur lesson, sit down with each other every year right before Yom Kippur, and talk about any problems they had with each other the previous year. She said this process has made them closer friends.

When I heard how this young woman and her friend (also in our congregation) had integrated a piece of Jewish observance into their lives, I left class that night smiling and filled with hope. For theirs will be a Judaism of life, not of death.

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