'Never again,' again — a battle cry against anti-Semitism

'Never again,' again — a battle cry against anti-Semitism
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We have been saying "never again" for 74 years. Since the Holocaust, this has been the refrain, over and over again. As we commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), we need to consider how difficult it is to say this, over and over again. 

Whenever an anti-Semitic attack occurs around the world, Jewish communal institutions scramble to put out statements. Unfortunately, with no shortage of attacks, statements have become a ritual.

The organization starts out by declaring that it is “devastated,” “horrified” and “shocked” by the attack. Next, past events are recalled, future action is called for, and a list of suggestions is issued for politicians and media. Make no mistake, the work of these organizations is virtuous; but, it is a struggle to rewrite the same statement a dozen times while maintaining authenticity. It is impossible for a mere statement to convey the horror of such brutal attacks.

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It is into this vacuum that the temptation to editorialize arises. What can you say when words fail you? So short homilies and analyses are added to the condemnation. In reality, these added words diminish, and distract, from the end goal of clearly denouncing anti-Semitism. 

Worse yet, these editorial remarks politicize anti-Semitism. Too often pundits link such an event to their own political viewpoint, and use the tragedy in the service of their own agenda. I am embarrassed by those who spend their time debating whether anti-Semitism is worse with the left or the right. This debate is absurd for two reasons. 

First, someone who is sick with two diseases doesn't debate which life-threatening illness is worse. Instead, he responds with all his might against both diseases; similarly, a community confronted by two types of dangerous hatred doesn’t have the luxury to downplay either one.

Second, it makes the mistake of thinking that there is more than one type of anti-Semitism. In fact, anti-Semitism is a singular myth, which has passed from the pagan world on to religious and secular societies, and has moved from continent to continent spanning from right to left. There is no better or worse form of anti-Semitism, because at its core, anti-Semitism is one thing and one thing only: the irrational hatred of Jews.

Some organizations feel compelled to universalize the message, and while condemning attacks like that on the Chabad of Poway, mention other xenophobic attacks in the process. This too is a noble impulse that misses the mark.

Every act of hatred and racism must be roundly condemned, but now is the time to focus on Poway. When a family is mourning their own loss, we don't tell them about another family’s sorrows. The Jewish community must not reduce the battle against the world’s oldest hatred into a struggle with ordinary bigotry. I find it particularly disconcerting that Jewish organizations feel compelled to universalize anti-Semitism before condemning it, as if they must first seek permission from others before speaking about their own pain.

What needs to be said is that anti-Semitism — in all its ugly forms — is unacceptable, and that we will shout in rage when the media, spin doctors and politicians minimize anti-Semitism. Clear messages must be used to counter an era filled with evasive language and non-apology apologies.

Just this past week, The New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon. Instead of apologizing directly, the outlet initially said the cartoon contained “anti-Semitic tropes,” turning public anti-Semitism into a mere mis-trope. This outrageous non-apology was even more damaging than the cartoon, because it treated anti-Semitic propaganda as if it were an abstract discussion of literary theory. But Jews know better, and they know Der Stuermer-type cartoons can be a matter of life and death.

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We need to say to the world that anti-Semitism is more than another news story; for Jews, it is a communal tragedy. It resulted in a congregation being attacked while praying — an attack that is part of a 2,000-year history of anti-Semitism that has claimed the lives of millions of Jews, and threatens Jews everywhere, even in the United States. 

Above all, we must not bury the human side of this tragedy under a mountain of platitudes. A beloved wife and mother, Lori Gilbert Kaye, was murdered in cold blood. The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, had his fingers shot off in front of his four-year-old granddaughter. An eight-year-old girl, Noya Dahan, had a piece of shrapnel pierce her leg, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, who shielded children,‏ has multiple shrapnel wounds. It is for them that we cry, and for them that we shout out in grief and outrage the attacks must stop. Even if it seems quixotic to do so, we will demand nothing less than an end to anti-Semitism. 

Yes, we will continue to declare never again, even if we have to say it again and again. On Holocaust Memorial Day, that is the least we can do.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and editor-at-large of the J'accuse Coalition for Justice. Follow him @rabbichaim