By Rabbi Michael Berk
The sages of the Jewish people teach that words from the heart go straight to the heart. From the deepest part of mine, I write to tell you how alone Jews feel right now. Abandoned.
The level of hatred Jews are experiencing is something that hasn’t been seen since the holocaust. The source of this current strand of hatred is a result of a confluence of two forces that is never good for Jews. As Roger Cohen has written in the New York Times, the rise in anti-Semitism is world wide, and “…driven by a resurgence of those unhappy twins: fear and nationalism.” It is the sad fate of the Jews that when others feel insecure and threatened they have turned to the easy target in their midst to unleash their hatred and their wrath: Jews.
Jews right now are astonished at how isolated we are. Why? Because of what we think it means to be a Jew.
Amos Oz, in his book “Dear Zealots” talks about a tiny potsherd found few years ago at the Tel Kaifa archaeological site, near Beit Shemesh. Professor Gershon Galil of Haifa University translated the ancient script. This little piece of clay is dated some time between the Jews’ getting out of Egypt and shortly before David was King—more than 3,000 years ago! Here’s what it says: “You shall not do it; but worship God. Fend for justice for the slave and the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Plead for the infant, plead for the poor and the widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king. Protect the poor and the slave. Support the stranger.”
This is stunning. As Amos Oz commented: “This is older than King David, older than the prophets, older than ancient Greece or Rome.”
And this is where we Jews come from. At our core, this is what we are about.”
This tiny summary of Judaism explains a lot, like why Jews have historically been in the forefront of the movements in America to make this country live up to it’s ideas and ideals. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the Women’s Movement, the LBGTQ movement, the peace movement; all of these have seen the involvement, in some cases leadership, of a lot of Jews. Why? Because we’ve always thought that that’s what God wanted from us. We have thought this is what it meant to be a Jew. I know it’s what my mother taught me. She said, “To be a Jew means you look out at the world, and when you see a problem or injustice, you do something about it.” A lot of us grew up thinking this is what Judaism is about.
I am retiring in less than two months, and I’m distressed about something that I feel compelled to tell you: The Jews in your midst are astonished at the level of hatred against Jews and Israel. We are the only minority group I know of that’s demonized by the left and the right. The right thinks that we are Commies who own the world and are replacing white people. The left thinks we are greedy capitalists who own the world and oppress Palestinians. Both think we have mysterious powers to make people do our bidding.
Yes, we’ve seen attacks on churches, mosques, and synagogues. But Jews are hated by the extreme right and left. Moreover, and this is what really hurts, we are feeling pushed out by the less-extreme left — even the Democratic Party. We are being excluded from other social justice movements because we are Jewish — social justice movements that have been prominently led by Jews in the past, if not enthusiastically endorsed by Jews. How can this be? How can liberals turn against one of the most liberal group in America — Jews!
I need to bring up in this regard the problem of Israel. The problem of Israel is that Israel, for many Americans, has become a problem. The left hates Israel. And the vitriol of that hatred bumps up against, and usually spills over into anti-Semitism. I want you to know: I am totally opposed to Benjamin Netanyahu and the right wing government of Israel. I despise many of his policies. But no one who knows me thinks I don’t believe Israel has a right to exist. I want to say to you reading this, especially if you are religious, whatever your politics, if your disagreement with Israel is felt as hatred, if you don’t think Israel has a right to exist, I ask you to look into your heart and ask if your views are sullied by anti-Semitism.
The Jews you know are scared right now. You may feel that Jews are white and rich. The current word is “privileged.” But, right now, just a week after a terror attack on praying Jews right here in San Diego County, I assure you Jews are not feeling white and privileged.
I believe our faiths call us to the same thing. We learn it in our own ways. According to my tradition, God basically has only one request of human beings. It is stated something like this: “Our rabbis have taught: ‘This is what the Holy One said to humanity: My children, what do I want from you? I want no more than that you love one another and honor one another.’”
Love and honor. That’s what we owe everyone. Even Jews.
Rabbi Michael Berk will retire in two months as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Southern California.
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