5 Ways to Supercharge the Fight Against Antisemitism
“It’s time to admit: The struggle is failing.”
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter by and for people passionate about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
At the end of 2021, I embarked on a research project to learn more about the Jewish world, and spoke with literally hundreds of Jewish thought leaders, rabbis, social activists, academics, and organization executives. The topic of antisemitism naturally came up with many of them, and some interesting perspectives were offered.
Ben Freeman, author of the book “Jewish Pride,” called antisemitism “a weed,” saying:
“There have been those who have tried to solve the problem by cutting the weed off at ground level. This has left the roots intact, enabling them to grow back. This is why antisemitism is still a problem today. It is why historical attempts to defeat it have failed.”
An Eastern European retiree, and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, told me that the Holocaust is an overstated and ineffective vehicle for dealing with antisemitism.
“The first of the usual bromides for antisemitism is Holocaust education,” wrote Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate. “Surely it’s important that people know about the Holocaust. But how is teaching about the Wannsee Conference and Kristallnacht going to change people whose antisemitism is connected to seeing Jews with guns lording over their Muslim brethren in the West Bank?”1
One Toronto-based Jewish donor went as far as to say: “You can’t fight antisemitism. You can’t cure it. You can’t fix it. You need to have a very strong Jewish identity and a very strong Zionist identity. If you don’t have that, all of the fighting against antisemitism doesn’t matter.”
In 2021, a Tel Aviv University report found a record-high number of reports of antisemitic activity throughout the world, much of it tied to the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip that year, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
The annual report called for major introspection as decades of efforts to curb antisemitism following the Holocaust appear to be coming up short.
“Something just isn’t working,” wrote Uriya Shavit, one of the report’s authors. “In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has enjoyed extensive resources worldwide, and yet, despite many important programs and initiatives, the number of antisemitic incidents, including violent assaults, is rapidly escalating.”
The report’s authors didn’t hold back, writing in a statement, “It’s time to admit: The struggle is failing.”
So, where do we go from here?
1. Down With Denominations
In the U.S. Black community, you often hear about “black-on-black crime” — how homicide is one of the leading causes of death among young Black men, and contributes significantly to the shortened lifespan of the Black male.
Some studies from the 1980s, for instance, found that the Black victim was killed by another Black person in about 80-to-90-percent of the cases, and about 52-percent of the murder victims were acquainted with their assailant.2
In the Jewish world, I would call the equivalent “Jew-on-Jew hate.” We might not be killing each other, but today’s Jews are standing on increasingly uncommon ground, so much so that many of us are beginning to vehemently disagree about what the heck Judaism is, why it matters, what it stands for, to which areas we should allocate more resources, who is and isn’t a Jew, and how vastly we should expand our so-called tent.
Micah Goodman, author of “The Wondering Jew,” uttered the inconvenient truth:
“All Jews are welcome, but their preferred form of Judaism might not be.”
If you, like me, wonder why basic Jewish unity doesn’t seem to exist these days — both among Jews, and between Jews and the greater non-Jewish world — I believe it’s because so many of us have become God’s partners in prosecution, arm-chair judges who are so quick to condemn others’ Judaism, as if our version is somehow superior.
We criticize based on face value and vanity, at the expense of channeling genuine curiosity to seek nuance, context, background, and depth. We have become so seduced by our own mildly informed opinions and intoxicating echo chambers that we become blinded to and uninterested in truth, or at least the pursuit of it.
From my vantage point, a significant part of Jewish disunification can be attributed to Jewish denominations (i.e. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox) — which were never part of the original Jewish plan or purpose. These denominations were essentially born in the last couple hundred of years, as a response to Western civilization and cultures.
“Where was Reform, even Orthodox Judaism, 700 years ago? They did not exist because we did not define ourselves as a religion,” said Avraham Infeld, the great Jewish educator. “I know of no Jewish philosopher before the emancipation who understood being Jewish as anything other than this covenant of Peoplehood.”3
If we want to paralyze antisemitism, we must first paralyze Jewish infighting by doing away with divisive labels and the consequences they create.
2. Making It Interpersonal
On a panel at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Virtual Global Forum in 2021, the moderator presented this situation:
Suppose you were to get a phone call from the White House and President Biden were to call you into the Oval Office and say, “I know that antisemitism is a problem in the United States. I’m aware of this issue. What should I do about it?”
This is how Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, Managing Director of AJC Europe, responded: “So first of all, actually I would invite him for Shabbat.”4
Precisely what I mean by “making it interpersonal.”
We have so many Jewish organizations trying to combat antisemitism, when we should in fact rely on individual Jews to do this work on a day-to-day basis, in their day-to-day lives.
For each Jew, this means something different, which makes perfect sense in today’s hyper-intricate, hyper-dynamic, and hyper-complex world. Jewish organizations are not set up to engage in individualized conversations across a seemingly unlimited variety of settings, nor should they be.
Instead, Jewish organizations should focus on what Barry Finestone, President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation, calls “Jewish literacy” — so we can make individual Jews feel like they know enough to do their own thing.5
3. Learning From Other Cultures
Every culture has some type of calling card. With Buddhism, for example, there’s mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Black culture is synonymous with sports and certain types of music and fashion. In Italian culture, food and culinary arts reign supreme.
Ultimately, these calling cards allow “outsiders” to experience these cultures, to enjoy them, to appreciate them, to want more of them. But what about Jewish culture? Israeli culture? What are our calling cards, and how can “outsiders” experience, enjoy, come to appreciate, and want more of them?
Imagine if millions of people across the world — both Jewish and non-Jewish — observed Shabbat (a day of rest, in effect) like they practice mindfulness, meditation, and yoga? What if these people also decided to regularly give 10-percent of their income to charities, as Judaism encourages? Could Israeli cuisine become the next great fare alongside Italian, Japanese, Indian, and Mexican?
4. An Insistence on Inclusion
For centuries, Judaism has, by and large, been a “members-only club.” Perhaps there were legitimate reasons for this exclusivity in the past, I don’t know.
But I do know that, in an open, globalized, and interconnected world, exclusivity doesn’t seem to be serving the Jewish People anymore. In fact, one could argue that Jewish exclusivity hurts more than it helps, since:
Many people hang inclusivity on their wall of values nowadays, which means Judaism alienates these people; and
Antisemitism is often borne out of, at least in part, a lack of knowledge and access.
If tikkun olam (Hebrew for “fixing the world”) is truly a universal Jewish value, then part of this work ought to be geared toward fixing or improving relations with our non-Jewish family, friends, and communities. In other words, it is time to make Judaism more inclusive.
I am not insinuating that synagogues and Jewish community centers and Jewish summer camps should suddenly become a “free for all.” Nor am I suggesting that we modify Judaism’s conversion process or aim to proselytize or change the “legal definition” of a Jew.
But would it hurt to invite our non-Jewish family and friends to celebrate more Jewish holidays with us? Would it hurt to fund the production of more Jewish and Israeli movies and TV shows? Would it hurt to plan more Jewish and Israeli events that are open and inviting to the greater community?
By making Judaism, Jewishness, and Israel more accessible, more people will be more knowledgeable about and intrigued by the Jewish world. What they do with this newfound knowledge and intrigue is up to the individual, but I have a hunch that, once more people get a better, more fulfilling taste of Judaism, they’ll keep coming back for more. And they will tell their family and friends to do the same.
5. The best defense is a good offense.
In sports, you’ll hear coaches say that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If Team A, for instance, can control time of possession, Team B won’t have as much time with the ball, which means Team A won’t need to play as much defense. Or, if Team A can score more points, more often, they’ll have more time to set up their defense as Team B gains possession of the ball.
I would argue that the same can be said about the Jewish world: Instead of putting so much emphasis on fighting antisemitism, we should go on the “offensive” — by way of celebrating all-things Jewish.
“Jewish authenticity, or positivity, encourages us to be proud of our culture, and firm in our respect and admiration for our historical legacy,” according to Bari Weiss, a writer and editor. “Strengthen our Jewish identity, and we will strengthen our image in the world.”6
“How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” My Jewish Learning.
“Black-on-Black Homicide - A Psychological-Political Perspective.” Victimology Volume: 8 Issue: 3-4. 1983. pp. 161-169.
“Who is a Jew? Peoplehood Versus Religion.” eJewish Philanthropy.
“The Mainstreaming of Antisemitism: How Should We Respond?” AJC Virtual Global Forum 2021.
Bodner, Zack. “Why Do Jewish?” Gefen Books.
“How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” Jewish Book Council.