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Defining Anti-Semitism

The first step of addressing any challenge is defining it.  But anti-Semitism is more than a challenge. It’s a direct threat rather than an abstract one – as our people were sadly reminded last week.

The Threat of Anti-Semitism is Not New

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), in downtown DC, calls it “the longest hatred.”  The museum continues by defining it as a “prejudice against or hatred of Jews” and that the plague of anti-Semitism has sickened “the world for more than 2,000 years.”

The USHMM definition is fairly aligned to the Webster’s Dictionary definition of anti-Semitism:  hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

The threat of anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem.  It’s a human problem. Hate is hate. When one people are marginalized or threatened, all people are marginalized and threatened.  This isn’t quite intersectionality – it’s logic.

As the prominent Lutheran German Pastor Martin Niemöller said, as a vocal critic to Adolf Hitler and Nazism, in his post-World War II remarks:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller was not a perfect person.  No man (or woman or non-binary individual) is perfect.  Niemöller was critical of his own culpability as a Christian for his earlier support for Hitler, but his example as a leader is an important one for today’s day and age.  Let us not forget that if we don’t learn from the past, we are bound to repeat it.

Lessons from the Tree of Life Synagogue

We have a lot to learn from the tragedy that sunk all of our hearts on Saturday, October 27 in the steel city.  The lessons must be for all people – not just the Jewish people.  To me, the most important lesson that we must take as Americans and as Jewish-Americans is to equally agree on a definition of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is a “prejudice against or hatred of Jews” and it is “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”  But it is also more than that…

I personally accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition”.  As an American, the United States is a party to this non-legally binding working definition and as an American, I accept my country’s definition of anti-Semitism as,

“A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

IHRA and the U.S. describe a number of manifestations of anti-Semitism online, which may include but is not limited to “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’ It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.”

The residents of Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life Synagogue may have never thought that such an evil could ever befall them.  They are not to blame for anything that they did or did not do for the evil of the shooter – whose name is not worth repeating. The residents of the DMV should also never think that such evil will not befall our torn community.  

Anti-Semitism Persists 

In the few days alone since the tragedy of Pittsburgh, two incidents of anti-Semitism in our community bring pain to my heart.

On Monday, October 29 – just two days after the shooting – a DC public high school found a swastika sticker affixed to a bathroom wall.  This same school found swastika graffiti on a bathroom wall just one year ago.  As noted, if we do not learn from history, we’re bound to repeat it. Unfortunately, these acts at the DC school are not alone.  Although the most recent swastika was found two days after the Pittsburgh attack, another swastika was found drawn on a classroom desk at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, MD just two days prior to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.  An analysis from The Washington Post found three dozen bias incidents in Montgomery County schools alone in the 2016-2017 school year.

Despite it All, We Pursue Peace 

As Jews, I suspect those reading this article and those who attend GatherDC programming believe – like me – in the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam.   These acts of hatred are new cracks in the fractured and broken world in which we live. As Jews, we spend every day looking to repair the world.  I for one will do what I can to double down in my efforts to give my time, my creativity, and my tzedakah to do my small part to repair the world.  I hope you will join me. You can say thank you to a stranger, hold the elevator or front door open for a neighbor, smile at someone that looks different than you, or donate to a charity that is meaningful to you.

Showing up for Shabbat 

I spent my Shabbat before the shooting with friends and family at Washington Hebrew Congregation’s 2239 community shabbat with Rabbi Miller.  I spent my Shabbat after the shooting with friends and family at Sixth & I’s Solidarity Shabbat with Rabbis Shira and Jesse.

I decided to #ShowUpForShabbat. I am committing myself to peace, justice, love, and a desire to pray for those who currently have darkness in their hearts towards Jews – or any other people – to question their own hate and replace it with understanding and light.  The Jewish people make up only 2% of the American population and approximately 0.2% of global citizenry. But, I do hope that we can be – in these dark days – a light unto the nations to guide all people to a better understanding of who we are as a people and what we are as a religion. Let us all take our first step into that light by agreeing to the same definition of anti-Semitism, so we as a generation can eliminate it so our children do not need to experience the pain that we all feel this week.

 

 

About the Author: Jason Langsner is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Jason has been an active lay leader of the Washington Jewish community since moving to the city in 2004, and volunteers for several Jewish organizations including B’nai Brith International. He is a small business owner and formerly served as the head of digital strategy for the oldest Jewish human rights and humanitarian organization in the world. When not blogging, he can often be found walking around his Eastern Market neighborhood, or riding around DC area bike trails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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