Monday, January 31, 2011

Our Friends, Our Enemies, and Ourselves

My synagogue has recently been in the news. On a cold January Saturday night, vandals broke the windows of six different Montreal synagogues, including my own, an attack that was reported in the media the world over. In 2011, even a small wave of anti-Semitism is big news.

The fact that Jews still have real enemies will come to some as a bit of a shock. This attack provided an ugly reminder that even in open and democratic countries anti-Semitism is still very much alive. Living in a liberal society, we sometimes imagine that anti-Semitism is the result of some sad misunderstanding, and if only we can have anti-Semites meet with Jews, this age old hatred would melt away, Hollywood style. But that would be a mistake. In the online comments section of the Globe and Mail newspaper, multiple comments were removed by the moderator; a quick glance at some of the remaining comments gives you the flavor of what was removed. One commenter wrote that “Maybe the reason there is so much hatred toward Jews is because people feel in their heart something isn't right. This makes the news ?!? But truth about 9/11 and "dancing Israelis" Mossad boys doesn't make the news.” Another commenter wrote “I suspect that this was done by local kids... jewish kids stirring things up. Or maybe somebody not so young, cranking up the goyim guilt factor.” Like anti-Semites of every era, these writers believe that Jews should be hated because they are conspiratorial and evil. Paranoid hatreds like anti-Semitism are impervious to diplomacy and conciliation. Our synagogue’s broken window is a reminder that Jews still have real enemies.

At the same time, the aftermath of this attack demonstrated how many friends our community has. I got a call from the leader of the Liberal opposition in parliament, Michael Ignatieff, and an e-mail from the Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney. My inbox was a veritable interfaith gathering, with multiple responses from Ministers, Priests and Imams. Most touching was a note from the grandson of a Dutch man who had defended Jews from the Nazis, and had died in Sachsenhausen because of his activism; he wrote me to say that he would continue his grandfather’s legacy, and do anything he could to protect the Jews. 2011 is not 1938. The Jews are integrated into the mainstream, and most Canadians see an attack on Canadian Jews as an attack on Canadians, just as most Americans would see an attack on American Jews as an attack on Americans.

Contemporary acceptance of the Jews is remarkable by any standard. In a recent book, political scientists Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame found that Jews are the now most warmly regarded religious group in the United States. Sadly, the people who seem to show the least enthusiasm for Judaism are the people who matter the most: young Jews.

It’s sad that it takes a broken window to get Jews to think about their Judaism; in the aftermath of this attack, I heard from people I rarely see in synagogue. Like many North American synagogues, the majority of our members visit infrequently; and unless someone throws a rock through our window, the synagogue is forgotten 362 days a year.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks jokes that the one way to fill up synagogues would be by putting up large signs outside declaring “no Jews allowed”, because contemporary Jews would be certain to join any institution that would refuse them membership. Sacks is absolutely correct. Jews have had enormous success battling hatred and discrimination; we have made our way into country clubs that once restricted membership, and moved into neighborhoods that had restrictive covenants. But we are finding it much more difficult to handle success, and as Jews enter the mainstream, they leave their Jewish identities behind.

The Jewish world has changed in the last 100 years. Yes, we still have enemies, some as vicious as our enemies of 100 years ago. However, we have many more friends today, and Jews are a North American success story. What has changed the most is who we are ourselves. Jewish identity is increasingly defined by what we oppose: anti-Semitism, terrorism, and Holocaust denial. Otherwise, we have only the vaguest idea of what it means to live as a Jew.

But anti-Semitism may eventually fade away. And if anti-Semitism disappears, what will become of Jewish identity?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Anti-Semitism is My Problem. And it’s Your Problem Too.

(The news story can be found here.)

The first time I can remember encountering anti-Semitism was as a child of seven. An older child had spotted my kippah and started to make exaggerated faux "sneezing" sounds, saying "ah-Jew", with a sharp emphasis on the J. She repeated it several times, to make it amply clear what her true intent was.

As a young child, you aren't sure how to react. Do you start a fight? Do you shout? It'll make you look sillier. So you walk away, more comfortable avoiding anti-Semitism than confronting it.

Most of my life I have worked among Jews and lived in Jewish neighborhoods, and I’ve only had a few small experiences with anti-Semitism. And so, when I heard a vandal had broken a window in my synagogue, I went about my business, much like I had as a seven year old boy, some forty years ago.

My initial reaction is a common one in the Jewish community. After all, we think, this attack is not the end of the world. A broken window is a minor headache, several hundreds of dollars in damage and a five minute cleanup. So Jews shrug off petty attacks like this, realizing that they don’t even merit a footnote in the history of anti-Semitism.

Jews understand that we have it a lot better than our counterparts in Montreal 50 years ago, let alone our ancestors in the middle ages. So we ignore minor attacks, a defense mechanism that allows us to cope with world’s longest hatred. And when anti-Semitism does reach toxic levels, Jews have always found the courage to carry on in the face of persecution.

But when I got home and told my children about the attack, it felt uncomfortable. My children are less cynical than I am, and expect more from Canada. Yet I was telling them that their synagogue had been attacked. It was then that I realized I had reacted the wrong way.

Even when Jews try to forget about petty anti-Semitism, it really hurts inside. When someone has a break-in in their home, they feel their personal space has been violated and their sense of security been undermined. The broken window at our synagogues brings a similar sense of violation, and more. The perpetrators broke this window because they hate Jews; they hate me, they hate my wife, they hate my children, and they hate my community. They hate us just because we’re Jewish. I shudder to think of what these perpetrators would do if they found one of my children alone in a dark alley.

So a broken window is also a lot more than a broken window; it’s a direct attack on the Jewish community. And the Jewish community deserves better in Canada in 21st century.

The question that keeps popping up is "what can we do?". Well, we can start with the basics - condemn anti-Semitism. This may seem like motherhood and apple pie, but it's not. Some groups hide their anti-Semitism behind inflammatory slogans, using political conflicts to pursue an agenda of hatred. Others find it difficult to condemn anti-Semitism, thinking that because Jews have achieved remarkable success, the threat of anti-Semitism is unimportant. They feel that if you can well afford to fix the window, the broken window doesn’t hurt. These critics belittle anti-Semitism, seeing it a minor headache unimportant to most Canadians.

What we need to understand that Anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem; it’s everyone’s problem. History has shown that any tolerance for hatred opens the door for greater hatred. Anti-Semitism is an ideological illness, something that can spread if left unchecked. For the last century, the Jews have been the proverbial canary in the coal mine; the people who first target Jews continue on to murder millions of others. For the fomenters of hatred, Anti-Semitism is merely a phase in a grand plan of upheaval and destruction.

We cannot underestimate the violence of one broken window, and as Canadians, we cannot tolerate this type of hatred in our country. It’s time for public figures and the leaders of faith communities to condemn these attacks. Because anti-Semitism is not only my problem, it’s your problem too.

- Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz