Yom Kippur Sermon 5775
October 3, 2014
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen
It’s Not Easy Being the Most Hated Group
It’s not easy being the most hated people in the world and in history. It’s scary sometimes, so much so that we might not want to wear our Jewish star on the outside of our clothes, or speak out when someone schedules an important meeting or class on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. We don’t want to say too loudly that we’re Jewish for fear that someone might say something or do something to us. Let’s face it, the threat is very real. We see it today, in our world. And what’s most scary, some of the things we are seeing today are events that we would expect in the 1930s or 40s. But, Jews being bullied, persecuted, exiled, today? That seems to be unbelievable. But it’s not. It’s real. And while after this sermon you might want to tuck your star in to your clothing when you walk out these doors, I’m going ask, hope, that you wear it proudly and stand up as being a Jew! Because if we don’t no one else will speak up for us.
Rabbi Paul Kerbel teaches:
No hatred has been more universal, deep and permanent than anti-Semitism. The universality of anti-Semitism is attested to by numerous facts. The Jews have been objects of hatred in pagan, religious and secular societies. Fascists have accused them of being Communists; the Communists accuse the Jews of being capitalists; Jews in secular societies have been accused of ‘dual loyalties’, and the Jews of Israel, in one of history’s most ironic and inverted accusations have been accused as “racists.” Poor Jews are bullied and rich Jews are resented. Jews are hated when they stick together and held with suspicion when they assimilate. Millions of people believe that the Jews drink the blood of non-Jews, that we have caused plagues and poison wells and that we plan to conquer the world.
We, the Jewish people, win the award for being expelled from nearly every country in which we resided. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and 1394; Hungary between 1349 and 1360, Austria in 1421, Lithuania in 1445 and 1495, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497. Between the fifteenth century and 1772, Jews were not allowed in Russia. Between 1948 and 1967, nearly all of the Jews of Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, although not officially expelled, fled these countries, fearing for their lives.
The depth of anti-Semitism is evidenced by the frequency with which hostility against Jews moved from discrimination to sustained violence. The Crusades, The Chelmnitzki pograms in 1648, the Final Solution of the Nazi Regime. The permanence of anti-Semitism is attested by the obsessive attention given “to the Jewish problem” by thinkers and philosophers throughout the late middle and early modern historical periods. And at one time or another, nearly every one of the world’s greatest powers that had a significant Jewish population (even though it was still a minority) considered the Jews to be an enemy. (Rabbi Paul David Kerbel)
This summer brought out of the depths the deep hatred of so many against the Jews. The war in Israel sparked a larger fire that has been smoldering. And now the flames are growing, especially in Europe and yes, even here at home.
Before the war, in March, a teacher and three students were murdered in a terrorist attack at the Ozar HaTorah Jewish Day School in Toulouse. There were numerous demonstrations throughout Europe including Paris and Berlin with many chanting, “Death to the Jews,” “Hitler was right,” “Jews to the gas chambers,” and “Reopen Auschwitz.” A synagogue in Paris was targeted by a raging mob while worshippers were inside. The security guards were able to hold the mob off until the police finally arrived.
Jews in France, Germany and Italy are leaving in great numbers and making Aliyah to Israel. Even in the midst of the war this summer, great numbers of Jews from Europe were making their home in Israel.
In New York, the Metropolitan Opera is still planning to continue with the production of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer” later this month (October), although, they have agreed to try and appease some by canceling the simulcast.
“This opera presents the takeover of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists, and their murder of 69 year old, wheel-chair bound Leon Klinghoffer, as justified, not only by Palestinian grievances against Israel, but also by the alleged evil and exploitative actions of Jews against others around the world. The terrorists are humanized and presented as freedom fighters, who have been forced by Jewish and Zionist oppression to take extreme actions.
In the opera’s libretto, there are passages that defame the Jews as a people. For example, the principal terrorist says, ‘Wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.’”
There have been protests and letter writing campaigns attempting to get the Met to cancel this production, but to no avail.
Vladimir Sloutzker, head of the Israeli-Jewish Congress, declared, “Never before since the Holocaust have we seen such a situation as today. We are potentially looking at the beginning of another Holocaust.” AND he warned, “These events will only grow in scale across Europe.” Words such as these send chills through our bodies and deep in our souls because we don’t want to believe that this can ever happen again. No one wants to think that our world is capable of allowing such a tragedy as the Holocaust happen to the Jews or any people for that matter. However, genocide is still happening and we wonder if enough is being done or are we just watching events unfold while we stand on the side waiting to see what will happen. Unfortunately, in order to deal with anti-Semitism we have to start by understanding that it operates by no logic and no rationality.
Sara Yoheved Rigler suggests that there have been two different attempts to combat anti-Semitism in the past few centuries. First, the creation of Reform Judaism in the mid-18th century in Germany. The early Reformers understood that Jews were the targets of anti-Semitism because they dress differently, eat differently and act differently. Therefore, it was necessary that in order to blend in more, Jews should be more like everyone else. Eliminate all the differences, create worship services that were more reflective of the rest of the country, organ and prayers in the vernacular.
This act of assimilation did not quench the anti-Semitic fire, rather, it fanned the flames by assimilation becoming the excuse for Jew-hating in Nazi Germany. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 prohibited Aryans from living with Jews, no matter how assimilated they were, banished Jews from their professions and claimed they were taking over the world. The gas chambers and crematoria did not distinguish between the assimilated, non-practicing Jew and the religious Jew with payos and tzitzit.
Theodore Herzl suggested another solution to anti-Semitism. The Jewish people needed a homeland of their own. The Jews needed to have a place they could live when the world would no longer accept them. He claimed the Jewish people could be spared anti-Semitism if all the Jews moved to Palestine and had their own homeland. Unfortunately, this transformed anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism, making us not only a people hated for being Jewish but for also having our own homeland. And honestly, having all Jews in one country would be too dangerous.
Unfortunately, I can’t come up with any cure to anti-Semitism except one in which we all stop being Jewish – no one can hate the Jews if there are no Jews to hate.
But really, how many of us are willing to let go of our Jewish identity? All Jews may not necessarily be ‘religious’ but we are connected as a people through traditions, culture, food, and yes, even guilt.
While anti-Semitism is one of the darkest parts of being Jewish, it does NOT define who we are as a people. The Jewish people have contributed to some of the greatest moments in our world history, both in the past and today. There have been more Jews who have received Noble Prizes than any other group. Jews and Israel have contributed to some of the greatest discoveries throughout modern history. But we did not make these discoveries or build society for only the Jewish people, we, as any person who seeks to do great things, we do this because we want to make the world a better place for all people. It is not only to benefit the Jews, but society.
While it is difficult to be the most hated group, we have a responsibility, not just to ourselves as Jews, but to the world. We know what it is like to be hated, what it is like to be persecuted, what it is like to try to be annihilated. Because we understand this, it is imperative on us to not hide and hope that someone else will fix the world. No, it is our responsibility to be leaders in tikkun olam, repairing the world.
We should be the loudest voices speaking out against ISIS and governments who are in fact participating in genocide. We need to be the voices of support for groups like the Christians and Yazidis in Northern Iraq, groups in Syria who have been slaughtered by the thousands, Christians in Africa, and so many others. We need to be the ones who cry out for those whose voices have been silenced.
And finally, we need to continue to be good Jews. Don’t hide your star of David under your clothing. Don’t not put up a mezuzah on the outside of your house because you’re afraid someone might see it and know that this is a Jewish house. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I can’t be at that meeting because it’s a Jewish holiday,’ after all, would someone be expected to be at that meeting on Christmas or Easter?
I write many of my sermons in local coffee houses and restaurants in order to avoid the distractions of laundry or phone calls. And as I sit writing almost all day, I watch as different people come in, sit down, and before they eat, hold hands or cross themselves, praying before they eat. When was the last time we said motzi at a restaurant?
How we behave Jewishly will be seen by those who are most impressionable, our children. And how they see us react to those who either make Jewish jokes or use racial slurs will be how they in turn react when they are in that situation.
Dahvi was out to lunch with some friends recently, one of who is Jewish by religious identity but not by practice. The guys were joking around with Dahvi’s friend and said, ‘hey, do you want our extra change?’ referencing the stereotype that Jews are cheap and will pick up all loose change. Yet, these friends don’t do any of this to Dahvi. To her credit, Dahvi asked these friends, ‘why do you tease her and not me?’ Their answer was, ‘because we know you take your religion more seriously than she does and we didn’t want to offend you.’ To which Dahvi replied, ‘why would that offend me and not her?’ as if to mean, just because Dahvi’s friend might not be as religious as her, they still shouldn’t make these jokes. Not to her, not to anyone.
How many of us hear Jewish jokes and just let them go because we don’t want to stir up anything or cause a debate or even an argument? I hope we’re giving our children the courage to stand up and not tolerate any words of hate toward ANY group. Yet, we must remember, many of our own children and many of us only have education through B’nei Mitzvah, although we want to work in partnership with all of our parents to ensure that our youth continue through 12th grade. Together, we need to give our youth the tools to be prepared to answer to anti-Semitism when it comes up both in high school and college, and it will! We have to support our youth programs at TBS in which we are teaching about how to address these very questions and we must encourage our youth to participate in campus Jewish life through Hillel. We all need to be teaching our children about how to act Jewishly, with compassion and kindness to all people. And then, we ourselves must take a hard look in the mirror and ask, are we living and acting the way we expect our children to? Do we treat others fairly and with compassion and gratitude? Remember, just as the young man who learned from his parents or grandparents that Jews are cheap, our children are watching us carefully and will treat others the way they see us treat one another.
It is not easy being the most hated group, but at the same time, we are Jews and we better be proud of who we are because there are many who seek to destroy us. It’s up to us if we let them succeed. Yes, anti-Semitism is on the rise, but as Yair Lapid, the Israeli Minister of Finance said while standing on a train platform in Berlin, “we will not get on the trains again!”
We cannot nor will we allow anyone to destroy us. But the only way we can succeed in diminishing anti-Semitism today is to be vocal, not be afraid, and be proud. All of us, Jew and our family who may not be Jewish by religion but are lovers and supporters of the Jewish people because you have blessed the Jewish people and our community by committing to supporting and raising your families as Jews, we all have the responsibility to say, Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live and will live for generations to come. Because if we are not willing to do that, then why are we even bothering to rebuild our synagogue only half a mile away from here? Why do we even bother spending our day together praying, thinking, learning and teaching if we are not willing to stand up and be counted? We do this, we are who we are, we belong to the Jewish people and our community because we all do believe, Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel live.
Adonai oz l’amo yi’tein, Adonai yi’varech et amo v’shalom, May God give strength to us and may God bless us with the strength to be proud to be Jewish, proud to be good people, and proud to truly make our world a better place for us, for all people for many generations to come.
Kein y’hi ratzon!