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Fighting back with Life

09/19/2021 10:52:40 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Kol Nidre - 5782

Hidden among the gems of news, the usual mix of good, bad, and flat out depressing of these past few months was one headline that I am sure most people overlooked.  Just a few months ago, in Krakow Poland an official in the city made a grand public statement, groundbreaking in its simplicity and horrifying in its obviousness.  But before I can get to what he said, I need to explain what he was responding to.

In markets all throughout Poland, the street vendors and gift shops have all kinds of wares.  There are the traditional postcards, arts and crafts and t-shirts, often, as you would expect, with the unique flavour of the city or region. But especially in those towns and cities which once had large Jewish populations such as Warsaw or Krakow, you can also usually find some Jewish memorabilia. There might be a few paintings of the old Jewish neighborhood, or maybe a rare kiddush cup or mezuzah, but almost always there are also what I called, the “Money Jew”.  Usually these are small carved wooden statues of a stereotypical Hasidic Jew with black hat black jacket, tallit and payes, often smiling and holding in his hand a coin or two. 

You have to admit, they are sort of cute, but during the year that I lived in Poland working as the rabbi in Warsaw, I began to be bothered by what these little tchotchkes symbolized. Once out of curiosity I asked one of the vendors in Warsaw who I often walk past on my trips downtown what these little statues were all about. I was wearing my kippah, as I always did, so I wasn’t sure how he would respond.   “Oh these things? These are just a nice little reminder of the Jewish community that was once here.” “And what about the coin?”  I asked him.  “Well,” he said, “it's a good luck charm. The Jews are good with money so if you have one of these maybe you will be too!”

While I didn't look happy with his response, he wouldn't let me leave until he offered me a deal.  If I bought one of his Money Jews, he would throw in a free postcard of my choice.  Being Jewish, and of course naturally good with money and frugal, I passed up the offer and moved on.

And back to that news story.  After these little figurines had now been on sale for decades, probably taking their place in thousands of homes across the world, bringing good Jewish wealth and prosperity to so many, one official in Krakow, what many call the “Jewish Disneyland” of Poland, came to a shocking realization:

“This figurine is antisemitic and it’s time for us to realize it,” said the city’s representative for cultural affairs, “In a city like Krakow, with such a difficult heritage and a painful past, it should not be sold.”

And there you have it.  Decades in the making, here in the land of Auschwitz, little statues rooted in the anti-Semitic trope of money-grabbing Jews, but sold as good luck symbols, are finally on their way out.  Maybe.

It is obvious to anyone, especially in the Jewish community, that these little statues are just one form, possible one of the more innocuous forms, of anti-Semitism that exist in our society.  Looked at as part of the world of conspiracy theories, violence and hatred that has sadly also become part of our news cycle of late, they might in fact seem somewhat harmless.  Yet all of this is part of one difficult reality that we must contend with as Jews, one which is both about the eternal hatred of Jews, but also the strange and problematic respect for Jewish power, creativity and ability to survive--that leads to at worst violence, and at best, quietly perpetuates the eternal idea that Jews, no matter how ingrained in society, are separate and different.  In this broken world, both these sides of this ceaseless problem will continue to fester and cause suffering unless we act.  Yet how to respond is more complicated than you might think.

In the context of our gathering as a community tonight, confronting the modern scourge of anti-Semitism, is about fighting this evil but at the same time, strengthening our own connection with our Jewish identity and history.  We need both to continue the struggle.

Ultimately, to fight against those who hate us, we need to know also what we are fighting for.  On this day of communal responsibility and reflection, we need to be reminded that fighting anti-Semitism and working to fix the brokenness of the world can be most successful when it doesn’t just make us hate those who hate us, but can also make us more proud of our own Jewish selves.

To be honest, I have resisted writing a sermon about anti-Semitism for a while now. As a rabbi, I've always believed that it's more important to focus on the positive aspects of our community life that we find around us. I always saw it as my mission to bring Joy to Judaism, to find strength in our traditions and community to make our way through the challenges of life.

Never did I think I would take a whole High Holy Day sermon to discuss the status of hatred against the Jewish people. We should be looking forward instead of looking back. I personally have had very few incidences of anti-Semitism in my life or in the communities which I have been a part of, yet there is no denying that anti-Semitism of today, is very real and is taking on new forms which are challenging us in new ways that we have not encountered before.  There is no way to be quiet.

We now have an anti-Semitism that is wrapped up in anti-Zionism, and of course the difficult conversation around what this means has in a very real way torn apart the sense of unity of the Jewish community. We have Jewish university students who are unable to proudly walk around campus with a kippah or a Star of David because they will be accused of, God forbid, being pro-Israel supporters. It's also the anti-Semitism of the right wing and the white supremacists, accentuated by the growing community of conspiracy theorists, fundamentalists, and domestic terrorists. 

We have white supremacists and nationalist groups growing throughout the world, who are proudly mixing old anti-Semitic tropes into their rants, and creating a new and dangerous mix of racism and ignorance for a new generation of believers.  From the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville just a few years ago, to the Jan 6th riots in the US, and the growing movement connecting all forms of lies to the pandemic, Jewish power and and a plethora of other stories of misinformation, this hatred is everywhere. 

And of course, in just the past few weeks, all over our city and even a few blocks from my house in Cote Saint Luc, posters of Jewish candidates Anthony Housefather and Rachel Bendayan have been covered with graffiti, including swastikas. 

And while we might have become so used to them that we don’t even think about why they are there, in front of this very synagogue space, along with all synagogues across our city, the cement barriers are up for the holidays, along with the apples and honey, letting us know that it is time for the New Year.  A quiet reminder that something is still not right for us Jews.

In such a mess of lies these days where you can have people who will go so far as protesting against doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to save Covid patients, it almost makes sense that one of the most ancient forms of hatred, anti-Semitism would make its way into our lives once again.

We know that while anti-Semitism has ebbed and flowed and taken many forms throughout history, it has been an ever present part of being Jewish as much as the traditions and rituals which have held our community together as we have encountered the challenges around us.

But found among these most obviously difficult forms of anti-Semitism that we are encountering in our community there also is a more hidden form of antisemitism, one which also deserves some reflection.  This is the anti-Semitism of the money jew statues, a delicately insidious view that on the surface honors Jews, but actually causes pain by refusing to acknowledge the current reality of living Jews, of contemporary Jewish life.

Dara Horn puts it well in the title of her new book: People Love Dead Jews.  In the book, she describes many shocking and in some ways uncomfortably funny stories of how this strange form of anti-Semitism has evolved into something possibly less dangerous, but still terribly problematic and challenging to our Jewish identity.  She speaks about the many people, both non-Jews and Jews themselves, who accept the horrors of the Holocaust and the suffering of our past, but where this loss is popularized to the point  that so many are actually more interested in the dead  and in the memories of what once once, then in the continuation of Jewish life and community. 

She shares the story of a Jewish tour guide at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam who is not allowed to wear a kippah and needed months of deliberating by the museum officials to decide whether the guide must in fact essentially go into hiding and not wear the proud marker of Jewish identity on his head. She shares the story of how the city of Harbin in China, which once had a surprisingly large and thriving Jewish community until they were wiped out.  Remembering this history, the Chinese government built, as Horn calls it, a Disneyland of sorts with realistic statues of Jews in the market  with synagogues, stores, cafes and music with plenty of photo snapping tourists smiling in front of the place where Jews once lived. 

I can tell you that this sort of attitude was something that I experienced nearly every day in my work as the rabbi of the Progressive community in Poland before I came to Montreal. It was made very clear to me from the first moment I stepped in the synagogue in Warsaw that the community was tired of all of the visitors  who came to Poland in search of only memories and pain. They visited the concentration camps  and they stopped by the memorials, they went to academic conferences about genocide, and did all they could to search out what was lost in Poland.  They took plenty of photos, and bought the postcards, and of course, the money Jew statues.  Their focus was very clear.  While there were always lines at  Auschwitz, only a few people ever stopped by for kiddush and conversation at the synagogues filled with actual living Jews. 

You may have heard the stories before. About how Warsaw has a thriving Yiddish theatre, and a great klezmer music scene, with artists and musicians only a few of which are actually Jewish. Or the massive, and quite wonderful Jewish bookstore found in Krakow, it's filled with an amazing selection of books in multiple languages about Jewish culture and identity that is wholly run and owned by non-Jews. Coffee shops and restaurants with Jewish names proudly serve matzo ball soup and pork on the same menu.  There is more than enough Yiddishkeit and Jewish culture to go around, but very few Jews left to enjoy it.

So there is this.  Whether you call it displaced philosemitism, basic ignorance or flat out anti-Semitism, it is very clearly only the surface of what we have seen around us.  To paraphrase Dara Horn’s book  title, a celebration of dead Jews, is a strange celebration indeed. 

From remembering people who are no more, to wanting to rid the world of those people who are left. 

The author and scholar Deborah Lipstadt who has written extensively on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, put it very clearly when she described Anti-Semitism as the “autoimmune disease” of society.  This disease is like a festering sickness, living beneath the surface coming out during times of stress in society, and showing up in many forms.  

While there are now laws that prevent the worst outbursts of anti-Semitism, and most leaders now condemn it, it is still growing stronger.  The same ideas, the same lies and the same fear that was present in 1930s Germany is now being used to fan political division between left and right, and to place blame from all sides.  Mix in the power of social networking and the ease of spreading conspiracy theories, and you have a dangerous fire in the waiting.

The most newsworthy acts have been found in the stories about the defaced political posters, and the treatment of Jewish students on campuses, but there is a growing movement of something bigger and even more threatening.  It is gaining followers because of the ease of lies and conspiracy theories flowing through the internet and social networks..  The “Great Replacement” theory warns of a “white genocide” caused by non-white immigrants who are taking over the culture, jobs and values of the countries in which the live.  The contemporary “Great Replacement” theory was popularized by French author Renaud Camus who published an essay titled, “Le Grand Replacement” or “The Great Replacement” in 2011 which warns of “reverse colonization” which will ultimately lead to “ethnic and civilizational substitution” of the white race in Europe and the West.

While not directly anti-Semitic, Camus warns that multiculturalism and the liberal values of the left, a group that includes many Jews, is causing a physical and mental takeover of Western white society, and that all non-white people are to be feared.  The movement is also deeply misogynistic and unabashedly violent.

Just a few years ago, in 2018, Camus published an abridged version of his original essay in English, calling it “You Will Not Replace Us” echoing the familiar phrase “Jews will not replace us” chanted during the march in Charlottesville the year before.

I recently read through sections of this essay, and it seemed hard to believe that such vile garbage could exist in this day and age, but it doesn't take long to see how easily these ideas can sink in.  We now live in a world where any lie or conspiracy theory can be put on the internet and become a truth as long as it has a good story, a good catchy tweet and enough people who need a scapegoat to take it and run wild.  A quick look at Fox News, or the reports of the anti-vaccine protests of the past few weeks, make it clear that the time is ripe for the lies of anti-Semitism to take hold as easily and as quickly as any other convenient myth of the past few years.

While The Great Replacement theory sees the invaders of whiteness as below them, these new anti-Semites, as is often the case, see the invaders as the elite. They, the Jews are the business owners, the liberal politicians and leaders who are bringing in the immigrants, who are supporting Black Lives Matter, and who are funding and leading all of the liberal causes which they believe are antithetical to their white nationalist values. This may sound familiar.  In many ways, this modern anti-Semitism is just a revision of the core ideas of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and of Nazism.  We Jews have always been taking over the world, and I hate to say it, but there are still those who are out to get us.

So this is one kind of anti-Semitism,and this is the kind of Jew hatred that makes the news, and may make us run in fear.  This is the anti-Semitism which rears its face in obvious hatred and ignorance, and which is evil as clearly as night and day.

And then there are the more hidden feelings of loss of remembering that Dara Horn speaks about.  This is the quiet anti-Semitism of the Money Jews of Poland, or the museum of Jews in China.  It is a recognition that while most would not want to go out and kill Jews, or do anything to hurt them, the Jewish people, Jewish culture is best when dead, quiet and only a memory.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, once wrote that anti-Semitism is rooted in the idea that the very existence of Jews creates the idea of difference, and that the hatred of Jews, is at its core a hatred of difference.  He believes that anti-Semitism is much bigger than an evil that affects the Jewish community.  He writes:

“That is our argument to humanity calling anti-Semitism – the hatred of difference– is an assault not only on Jews but on the human condition as such. Life is sacred because each person – even genetically identical twins - is different, therefore Irreplaceable and a non substitution of all. Every language, culture and civilization (within the terms of the universal moral code) has its own integrity because each is different, each adds something unique to the cultural heritage of humankind.”

He concludes: “Antisemitism begins with Jews, but it never ends with them.  A world without room for Jews is a world that has no room for difference, and a world that lacks space for difference for humanity itself.”

I don’t think it is necessary to go over the many ways that we can work together to fight anti-Semitism.  We need to recognize it, and speak up, whether it is a swastika on a campaign poster or a little statue of a Jew holding a coin, it is our responsibility to call it out, and to fight against intolerance in all forms. We need to understand the power of education, of conversation and listening, and know that people can change.  All of this is important.

But I would add to this.  We as Jews, as people who do honor difference, and who have spent too much time as separate, need to leave space in our own Jewish values and identity to ensure that we hold on to the life of Judaism not just the way things once were.  As I mentioned in My Rosh Hashanah sermon, we can’t just live in the past, or live a kind of Jewish nostalgia, we need a living, dynamic and relevant Judaism which can help us fight back against oppression as much as any good protest or social justice movement.

Today of all days, we also need to recommit ourselves to our own Jewish identities and communities.  We need to fight back against the belief, which is stronger than we might want to accept, that Judaism is no longer as useful, or as relevant as it once was, that it is primarily about the past and memories, because if we let this be true, then, then we have lost.  We need to try our best to understand why Judaism matters, and do what we can to learn from our traditions to be more involved and more active in making Judaism and Jewish community strong and alive, both within our communities and also as agents of change in this broken world.  We need to commit ourselves to nurturing a connection with Judaism, and challenge ourselves to find meaning in our brave, wise, inspiring, broken, hopeful, difficult and ancient faith.  Be part of this thousands year old culture, by learning more and making it your own.  We need to show up and we need to be part of community.  There will always be people who hate us as Jews, so let us start by working to remember why what we have is worth fighting for in the first place.

I want every member of the Jewish community to be able to protest and fight anti-Semitism and injustice of all kinds, but I would hope that everyone could say with just as much strength and confidence the reason why they are proud to be Jewish and why Judaism must survive.  We cannot have one without the other.

It is important to not give up.

When we reflect on anti-Semitism, and more broadly, all the division and hatred found in our changed pandemic world, where tragedy and loss has taken on a whole new meaning, and now we encounter daily news that leaves us speechless and sometimes with tears,  this is what we are fighting for.  We are making sure that by not being quiet, by responding with action against those who want to destroy us, we give ourselves a future where we can continue to  have powerful moments of hope and peace, and of the calm that we need to make sense of all that we encounter.   We need a joy to well up from our Jewish lives, purpose from our traditions and our community.  This rebuilding of Jewish life is as much as part of the fight for survival as the fight against those who would try to destroy it.  It takes time, and it takes a commitment to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but we are left with no other choice.  This is how we can honor our past, and this is how we can create a more hopeful future.

Gmar Hatima Tova

Mon, May 16 2022 15 Iyyar 5782