The Best Advice Against Antisemitism — From an Antisemite
It could just be that great Jews never bother about antisemitism.
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“Jews put baby parts in their mouths.”
“The IDF are all pedophiles.”
“The Money Kings”
These are all comments on articles from one New York newspaper’s website. They were sent to me this week by one of our readers.
“My question, Joshua, is how do you fight antisemitism when so many antisemites walk among us?” the reader asked me.
A valid question for sure, but one that I believe misses the mark if we are to effectively combat antisemitism. I have found that the best advice against antisemitism comes from, of all people, a notorious antisemite: Henry Ford.
Ford was also a terrific businessman and innovative pioneer who used to say something that we as individual Jews and the collective Jewish People ought to learn from:
“The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.”
Certainly, Ford was offering this insight from an entrepreneurial lens, but it could also be incredibly beneficial to apply it within the framework of our “fight against antisemitism.”
Our version might be morphed into something along the lines of: Great Jews never bother about antisemitism, but go on making Judaism and their Jewishness stronger all the time.
Here are five ways we can do so:
1) Sharpening Your Jewish Pencil
The Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel’s broad and charitable definition of a Jew is “to be personally preoccupied with the question of Jewishness.” The implication here is one of action, of doing, of perpetually deepening one’s intellect about and relationship with Judaism (and, by extension, Israel). This is what I mean by sharpening your Jewish pencil.
The more I engage with Judaism, the more I understand that Jewish complexity runs so historically, geographically, and materially deep. Whereas many people try to simplify Judaism by putting it in some sort of box (e.g. religion), I continuously encounter just how oceanic the Jewish treasure trove is.
Whether you’re interested in religion and spirituality, history, wisdom and philosophy, culture and lifestyle, people and society, travel and tourism, or a combination thereof, Judaism has plenty of rabbit holes to venture down.
2) Being a Good Jewish Ancestor
In the Talmud, there’s a story about Honi the Circle Maker who saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him how long it takes to bear fruit. “Seventy years,” the man replied, to which Honi wondered aloud, “Are you certain that you will live another 70 years?”
The man pondered Honi’s question, and then said: “I found carob trees in this world planted for me by my ancestors, so I am planting these for my descendants.”
Thus, I believe one of our main missions as Jews is to, proverbially speaking, continue planting carob trees. In fact, there’s a Maori word for this, fakaapaapa, the idea that we are all in a great chain that stretches far into the past and long into the future.
The late, great Rabbi Noah Weinberg recommended the following approach to being a good Jewish ancestor:
“If you want to feel what your Jewish ancestors felt, learn one chapter of Mishnah by heart. That is the Jewish culture at its roots. The beauty of it will get to you. You will appreciate Torah from Sinai. You will understand what the Jewish People are truly about.”
In my estimation, part of being a good Jewish ancestor means being aware that we are truly privileged to be Jews in today’s world — which is not to say that the world is or will ever be perfect for Jews. But everything is relative.
The Jews of just a few generations ago, not to mention for centuries upon previous centuries, were not so lucky. They either needed to be under-the-radar Jews as a form of survival, or they aimed to assimilate, leaving their Judaism behind in some cases. Today, Jews can be openly Jewish and enjoy assimilated lives simultaneously.
Therefore, it is our duty, our responsibility, to nurture this privilege, so future generations of Jews can enjoy it as well, both in Israel and across the world. Jewish history defiantly demonstrates that nothing is guaranteed, no matter how good things may seem at any particular time. As Jews, we have it relatively good today because so many Jews of the past didn’t (generally speaking, of course).
I don’t write this to make you feel bad. I write it as a reminder that we ought to cherish our opportunities to, as a Jew, speak freely, visit Jewish sites across the world, and experience our indigenous homeland in modern-day Israel, among countless others.
3) Learning Modern-Day Hebrew
When you think about Hebrew’s revival as the State of Israel’s official language, it really is miraculous. The language blends divinity and antiquity with the here and now, a dual reminder of the surviving Jewish People and the resurrection of our indigenous homeland in Israel.
As someone who grew up thinking Hebrew was solely for synagogue halls, I absolutely love hearing Hebrew across life’s crosshairs: on the streets of Israel, in Israeli music and at Israeli theatre, on Israeli TV and in Israeli movies.
Hebrew is to Judaism what hands and fingers are to sign language, our story of a people scattered all over the world, while remaining a single family, a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction. Some of us returned to our homeland, others remained in the Diaspora. Some of us stayed or became religious, deeply embedded into quintessentially divine Jewish life, while others assimilated into their new countries, becoming equally “them” as they are “us.”
Is merely being Jewish enough to keep this family together, today and moving forward? I would argue against the affirmative, since so many of us and our families have disparate, sometimes completed unconnected Jewish journeys, traditions, customs, and modes of expressing our Judaism.
Hebrew, however, can bind us together, much like it did the Jews who immigrated to Israel from Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, during the years leading up to and after the Jewish state’s 1948 declaration of statehood.
The ancient Jewish language enabled complete strangers, who didn’t look and smell and behave like one another, and who arrived speaking different languages — from Polish to Persian, Arabic to English — to form an Israeli society now characterized by a marvelous combination of bravery, resilience, family, community, service, education, innovation, and creativity.
In today’s age of hyper-individualism, and of more and more Jews describing themselves as “just Jewish,” of alarming assimilation rates across the West, and of increasing Jewish disunification, I believe we must take a page out of the Israeli book and call upon Hebrew to vitalize and revitalize the Jewish People.
4) Aiming for Jewish Win-Wins
To establish effective interdependent relationships, a thriving Jewish world, and constructive relations with our non-Jewish family and friends, we ought to commit to creating “Jewish win-wins,” and to developing an Abundance Mentality, or the belief that there’s plenty of room for everyone.
In reality, many Jews operate with the Scarcity Mentality — meaning they act as though everything is zero-sum. My way or the highway. People with the latter mentality have a hard time recognizing and making room for others, and find it difficult to legitimately accommodate diversity.
To achieve Jewish win-wins, we ought to focus on results, not methods; on problems, not people. We should strive to collaborate, not compete.
What’s more, we should seek first to understand, then to be understood. Before judging other Jews, we should aim to deeply understand them and their perspectives through empathic, active listening.
To listen empathically and actively requires a deep-seated paradigm shift, since we typically seek first to be understood, not to understand. And many people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. At any given moment, they’re either speaking or preparing to speak.
The benefits of empathic, active listening are evident in the Talmud, by way of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, two schools of thought that frequently disagreed about Jewish law. Beit Hillel generally posited more lenient positions, while Beit Shammai usually held stricter ones. Beit Shammai’s legal rulings were just as valid as those of Beit Hillel, yet with a few rare exceptions, we follow the latter.
But why? Because Beit Hillel’s students were kind and humble, and always quoted the other side’s opinions before their own.
5) Sharing Judaism With the World
Judaism certainly can survive (and has survived) by being rather insular. But to thrive, both as individual Jews and as a collective Jewish world, we ought to create better, more impactful relations with our non-Jewish family, friends, and communities.
This might be a controversial position in the Jewish world, but hear me out: For centuries, Judaism has, by and large, been a “members-only club.” Perhaps there were legitimate reasons for this exclusivity, I don’t know.
But I do know that, in an exponentially open, globalized, and interconnected world, exclusivity doesn’t seem to be serving the Jewish People anymore. I am not insinuating that synagogues, 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, aim to convert more people to Judaism, or change the “legal definition” of a Jew.
Instead, I believe the combination of technology, media, e-commerce, and other digital and soon-to-be virtual means can give people across the world — both Jews and non-Jews alike — unprecedented, on-demand access to Judaism, Jewish life and culture, Jewish Peoplehood, and Israel.
As a Jew, I believe making Judaism more accessible to the greater world is precisely one of our purposes, a sentiment Menachem Mendel Schneerson (better known as “The Rebbe”) once conveyed to a Russian Israeli pioneer in magnetohydrodynamics.
“What is the unique quality of the sun, which makes everyone consider it a blessing?” Schneerson asked him. “It is, of course, its capacity to give light to the earth. What would happen if the sun had the same temperature, the same energy, but did not radiate or give heat? Indeed, there are such stars, called black holes, the force of attraction of which is so strong that not even one light ray can depart from them.”
“If the sun were such a star, whom would it benefit then?” Schneerson continued. “Of what use would the sun be if it were a black hole? So it is with the Jew whose primary function is to put forth light, to radiate, to better a fellow … Without this, such a person would turn into a black hole, when he or she was created to be a sun.”