Guest Column: By Rabbi Brian Zimmerman
The following is an edited version of a sermon given by Rabbi Brian Zimmerman on March 8.
The recent events of the past few months are deeply troubling for many, many reasons. Once again, it is clear that anti-Semitism is real on the left and on the right. On one side of the spectrum, we see the usual neo-Nazis, racists and Jew-haters and on the other, people who challenge our very allegiance to our country, who use our commitment to free speech and free religion as way to challenge our right to love both Israel, our Jewish homeland and America, our physical homeland.
In case you have somehow missed the events of these past weeks, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has challenged Jews by questioning the power of AIPAC, implying that Jews use their money to unfairly influence American congressional leaders and inquiring about the dual loyalty to Israel and America of a Jewish representative who critiques her. In each instance, Omar has apologized and then gone a bit farther and deeper down the path of invoking old and overused but effective anti-Semitic stereotypes. While I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt (after all, she could be a confused freshman House member from a heavily Muslim district caught between different constituencies and narratives), each new outburst of Omar’s has moved farther from legitimate critique of Israel to anti-Semitic stereotypes. I can no longer entertain the idea that she does not know what she is saying and the pain that it causes.
Representative Omar has been hailed as a hero by no less than David Duke for pointing out the secret Zionist government that runs America and the world. There is a saying that at a certain point the farthest left and right meet each other in the extremes and have far more in common than what separates them. These past weeks of escalating rhetoric and hate speech across the spectrum challenge us to the core. While I believe in the power of free speech, words like “dual allegiance” and loyalty to dollars smack of anti-Jewish hatred that is thousands of years older than Representative Omar.
How ironic is this turn of events? In America, a country presumably committed to freedom of religion, a Muslim woman often accused of being a spy, a foreign agent and an outsider with a hidden agenda, hurls the ancient, insidious anti-Semitic motif of Jew as plotting outsider! Whether she is truly naïve, she sees herself as the only victim or she is merely repeating what she has learned as a child is almost completely beside the point.
I could conclude my remarks here. It would be easy, a bit lazy and far less controversial. But, it would let us off the hook.
There is something equally and maybe even more disturbing going on that has been occurring for months. Just below the surface, Jews are challenging the loyalty of other Jews to their own religion! I receive regular emails and phone calls asking why liberal rabbis and leaders don’t call out the now completely 100 percent “anti- Semitic Democratic party” when, in fact, liberal Jewish leaders have been writing about this growing anti-Semitic rhetoric from the left for weeks. Unfortunately, these days too many of us rely on much of our information from forwarded angry emails, anonymous bloggers, social media or op-ed pages that carry their own agenda.
There is without doubt a disturbing increase in openly anti-Semitic words and actions in America. There are some dangerous anti-Semites on the right and the left, but I would never accuse a temple member or for that matter even a political representative of being personally racist or anti-Semitic because of some of the extreme voices in their party. Statements like “How can any Jew remain a Republican or a Democrat?” are easily tossed around at Friday night oneg Shabbat moments and in emails to each other. These statements poison thoughtful Jewish discourse. Neither political party is monolithic in its thinking and, once again, this is beside the point. What concerns me most are the charges made by one Jew against another, the charges that defy dialogue and polarize the Jewish community.
Division is a powerful weapon, and divisions seem to be ever-present these days. When people are scared, it’s easy to run for cover and point fingers. The darkness of fear clouds judgment and scapegoats easily emerge. In a democracy, healthy debate is essential, but we are experiencing the demonization of Jews by other Jews.
So, as you discuss important issues, paramount to the life and health of the Jewish community, ask yourself — am I open to dialogue or am I looking for a fight? I am worried about the weakness of a divided Jewish American community and about how that will be exploited by others who gain power from division and divisiveness.
I am particularly concerned about our young people caught between their values of free speech and compassion and the angry challenges to Israel’s very existence. Some will call their love for Israel “dual loyalty” while others will ask if they are “good enough” Jews for not responding in the “right” way. There is a nuanced and thoughtful discussion waiting to be had that is lost among the screeching noise of accusations and recriminations. The vast majority of our youth, caught in this contentious environment will choose not to engage at all in thoughtful debate about Israel. Rather, they will check out from any meaningful relationship with Israel and from Judaism, and then the Jewish people will really lose.
I am not calling for a uniform, mindless Jewish body politic! A family can disagree on the details. Our millennia-old Jewish debates can be found in books, midrash and rabbinic commentary. Our ability to question each other makes us a truly unique religion. But, when we begin to dispute whether certain members of our “tribe” are legitimate or worthy of being considered loyal, based on different approaches to outside threats, we move into dangerous territory. When Jews split — not disagree, but split — it rarely ends well. This new political tribalism is not asking us to choose our brand of Judaism but which Jewish neighbors we will accept as valid.
There is so much more at stake than just the issues we are discussing. Powerful outside forces gain power when they force us to choose which Jewish side we take. Will we have the strength to remain calm on social media and in worship spaces, in community gatherings and Jewish festivals, in America and in Israel? Will we remember that despite our differences we remain one Jewish people?
I look forward to a variety of responses from our very diverse Jewish community made up of Americans, Israelis, Republicans, Democrats, born-Jews and converts, classical Reform Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews, but I presume the right to maintain my own political views without having my loyalty to Judaism challenged.
In addition to my Jewish values, I have other core beliefs that are also a part of a Jewish identity that causes me to struggle and shift. My friends of different political persuasions would and should expect me to show the same respect for their own struggles to balance their most deeply felt Jewish convictions. It is painful enough when hateful outsiders question our Jewish loyalty, but it is unconscionable for Jews to do so.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.