Religious Life

Antisemitism Here and Now – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – February 15, 2019

Shalom Chaverim,

Even before Representative Omar’s latest tweet, I’ve been thinking about anti-Semitism. Not because of Pittsburgh- though that remains in the back of my mind. Nor because of the recent, under-reported vandalism of an Ohio synagogue. But rather because we are a month away from Purim and I’ve been studying the Book of Esther.

Pharaoh didn’t like foreigners, but the Bible never attributes anti-Semitic thinking to him. Nebuchadnezzar sought to control the Land of Israel not because of antisemitism but to expand his territory. Haman is the first true anti-Semite in the Tenakh (Hebrew Bible) and not coincidentally, Mordechai is the first Jew.

Mordechai, we are told, was a Jew (Yehudi) from the tribe of Benjamin (no relation to Omar’s “Benjamin” reference). In the Book of Esther, the term “Jew” reflects a religious affiliation and not a political one (Judean). Thus, Haman’s plan to destroy Jews is not a reference to the province of Judea but to the entire people. (Rabbi Martin Lockshin, Haman’s Antisemitism: What did he not like about the Jews?).

But what exactly is antisemitism? In truth, there are different antisemitisms. Antisemitism on the right like white supremacists is not identical to antisemitism of the left like anti-Zionists. So, we must respond to each vigorously, thoughtfully and appropriately. In her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, Deborah Lipstadt describes one kind of antisemitism and a measured response to it:

The clueless antisemite is an otherwise nice and well-meaning person who is completely unaware that she has internalized antisemitic stereotypes and is perpetuating them. The only proper response, however hard it may be for you, is to politely tell this person that what she said comes under the category of an insidious and insulting ethnic stereotype.

Representative Omar’s language was offensive. Her failure to understand our community is disappointing. Her deafness to concerns of her constituents is troubling. Her pattern of behavior is deeply worrying to say nothing of her actual position on Israel. But she is not Haman, actively out to get all Jews. Having called her out for this most recent tweet, we must carefully consider our next steps.

I would like to think that it is possible to salvage the relationship with our local representative who is new to Congress and only at the beginning of her term. I would like to think that people who traffic in antisemitic trope could learn to be more sensitive. I would like to think that people can grow and change. I would like to think these are possible- though I am not convinced they are likely. But I also know it is not only up to them.

We have a choice. We can say, “there is no point to dialogue. There is nothing to be gained.” Or we can lean into difficult conversations. Because I believe in the possibility of tshuva, I am in favor of the latter. And I am grateful for those community leaders who are quietly doing just that.

Now more than ever, engagement is needed- not through social media posts- but through honest, face-to-face conversations. By turning from today’s all-too-common discourse that retreats to echo chambers, I hope that this broken relationship can be repaired and that a relationship of trust can one day be built between Representative Omar and Minnesota’s Jewish community. 


Rabbi Alexander Davis