As the old joke goes, all Jewish holidays are the same: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
That was funny until this past year.
Until recently, I thought that anti-Semitism was something of the past – part of my grandmother’s stories of being the Jewish kid in an Irish neighborhood or my grandfather’s stories of escaping from Nazi Germany as a teenager. I had never really experienced anti-Semitism myself, except perhaps for some oddly slanted conversations about Israel and some truly unfunny jokes I heard about the Holocaust. I discounted them and downplayed the symptoms. But by now it is clear: anti-Semitism is back, if it really ever left at all.
We started to hear rumblings of it more publicly last year, with thinly veiled references to ‘globalists’ and the promotion of unbridled anti-Semites to senior advisory roles within the 2016 presidential campaign. Then came the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, with a spike of 34 percent in 2016 and 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017. Jew-hating vandals desecrated graveyards in Philadelphia and Upstate New York, and even our own great City saw swastikas on subway cars and in Adam Yauch Park. Nationally, we seem headed for 2,000 incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism motivated by the senseless hatred of our people.
The new faces of hate we saw this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia felt even more horrifying. Hundreds of young white men – and a few white women – marching at night with torches in hand, chanting “White lives matter,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Unlike the Klansmen before them, who hid their faces behind white hoods, these haters felt emboldened enough to proudly show their identities.
Two generations after the Holocaust, Jews were once again staring down Nazis. And as the same groups that marched in Charlottesville tried to redouble their successes in cities around the country, our leaders have refused to come to our defense with more than a tepid condemnation of violence on “both sides.”
And lest we think it was just a summer of hate, this past weekend neo-Nazis took to twitter using the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue to goad police into entering Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, after the synagogue took in and sheltered a group of demonstrators. The police ultimately held back, but the phrase #GasTheSynagogue was used so many times in so many anti-Semitic comments that it trended globally on the social media platform.
It is a truly terrifying resurgence – and one that re-frames many of the other, less obvious forms of anti-Semitism. As a people blessed with a long memory, we as Jews summon sacred texts and ancient histories to help guide us through moments of uncertainty. Yes, the situation today is frightful, but it is not unprecedented. In America today, we have white supremacy. In the Torah, we had Amalek.
Amalek is seen as the eternal enemy of our people, whose members found strength by making us suffer. They first set upon us when we were most vulnerable. When the Israelites were at their weakest, having just escaped Egypt and without a clear source of water, Amalek attacked. They sought out those who could not defend themselves and were showing signs of dehydration and fatigue. The sick. The elderly. The children.
Amalek preyed on the vulnerable. Amalek pounced when our spirits were already falling, dashing our hopes for an easy journey to the Promised Land. Still worse, Amalek opened the floodgates to attacks by other groups.
After Amalek attacked, other nations realized that the Israelites were not invincible and that their miraculous escape from Egypt was a unique event. We could not create alliances once they made us seem like easy prey. Like the worst bully in the schoolyard, Amalek’s attack left us open to attack by lesser enemies.
Amalek hated the Israelites just for being Israelites. They did not care about justice or mercy or humanity; they had no regard for our lives or our hope for the future. They wanted to attack us just because they could.
The Torah calls us to enduring action against Amalek – but in an unusual way. We read in Deuteronomy 25:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
The verse is so filled with emotion that it seems to contradict itself. How can we simultaneously “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget” who they are?
Our rabbinic sages parse these sentences and derive two distinct meanings. Blotting out the memory of Amalek is a military command – literally to destroy the entire tribe after the Israelites enter the Promised Land. This is seen as so important that it is upheld alongside establishing a king and building the Temple in Jerusalem as one of the central commands that the Israelites must heed.
Now, facing today’s Amalek, we are reminded that the Torah calls us not just to escape Amalek, but to extirpate it. We are commanded to do real, literal battle against the Amalek we face in every generation. That means coming off the bench in the fight against white supremacy, putting our reputations and our money and our physical bodies on the line.
The second piece – not to forget Amalek – is more complicated, because it forces us to grapple with the question of memory and how we understand the past. The Talmud suggests that once Amalek is no longer a physical threat, it must be remembered so that we inoculate ourselves against its ideological return. In Tractate Megillah 18a, we read:
One might have thought that it suffices to remember this silently, in one’s heart. But this cannot be, since when it says subsequently, “You shall not forget,” it is referring to forgetting from the heart… Therefore [the command not to forget] means that the remembrance must be expressed out loud...
Our remembrance of Amalek cannot be solitary, and it cannot be in our hearts alone. Acknowledging the embodiment of hatred is a communal action, which we take on in order to ensure that it cannot take root once again.
When we see the legacy of Amalek playing out in our own time, we are obligated to speak out. We cannot hide behind platitudes or pass the burden to someone else. We have to look it in the face and name it, loudly enough for everyone to hear. We must demand that our elected officials do, too. The Torah does not allow us to equivocate, and we cannot allow others to equivocate either. Doing so tacitly condones hatred and normalizes unacceptable, threatening behaviors.
There is another, later thread from our tradition about Amalek that is essential to our contemporary understanding. We read the initial verses from Deuteronomy about blotting out Amalek and remembering Amalek not once but twice per year – for the second time on the Shabbat preceding Purim. Our sages indicate that Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was among the descendants of Amalek and that the victory over Haman and the bands who sought to kill the Jews in Shushan were likewise victories over Amalek.
We are reminded that the Israelites did not defeat Amalek entirely when they entered the Promised Land. Amalek is never defeated once and for all – but must be defeated anew in every generation.
The scourge of hatred never fully goes away. The vicious desire to attack Jews – and especially the most vulnerable Jews – has not changed. It is the same baseness that Amalek exhibited in the Torah that we see right here, right now, in the streets and public discourse of today.
And most importantly for us to remember, Esther did not defeat Amalek in her generation by acting alone as a Jew, but rather in partnership with leaders and other communities, who together comprised the majority.
We must learn Esther’s strategy, because it is precisely what we need to defeat white supremacists in our own time. White supremacy is not unprecedented. But the strength, vibrancy, and diversity of a possible coalition against it truly are.
Because the people who hate Jews are the people who hate Muslims.
And the people who hate Muslims are the people who hate African Americans.
And the people who hate African Americans are the people who hate immigrants.
And the people who hate immigrants are the people who hate women.
And the people who hate women are the people who hate gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people.
White supremacists only know one kind of friend and have many kinds of enemies.
We are now part of the majority, united by a common enemy with others who are also hated by white supremacists. It is time for us to exercise our power in coalition, just as Esther did. This is a time for reaching out, building bridges, and establishing enduring bonds with other communities.
In the women’s suffrage movement; in the labor movement; in the civil rights movement; in the feminist movement; in the gay rights movement, Jewish leaders have stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders from other communities – united by a desire for the common good and a shared fear of a common enemy. While external pressures pushed us together, the good we accomplished as coalition leaders has left an enduring impact on American history and society. A living monument that not even white supremacists can deface.
In fact, these renewed coalitions are already beginning to coalesce. On August 28th, just a couple of weeks after Charlottesville, I joined 300 rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders in Washington, D.C. for an unlikely cause: the 1,000 Minister March, organized by The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
Though I never anticipated rallying alongside Rev. Sharpton, the Reform Movement’s leaders reached out to him – and he reached back, inviting us in as full partners for the march. In this time when Jews and African Americans could feel alone, our leaders brought us together.
54 years after The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought our communities together to hear his dream, we were dreaming together again. The Black community cannot fight racism without us – and we cannot fight anti-Semitism without the Black community, all the more so because of the growing number of Jews of color. We need each other in a diverse majority coalition against hate.
What we bring to that coalition in America is knowledge of what it means to face down hate – and win. Though we have suffered unthinkable losses, we have outlasted the Babylonians, Romans, Seleucids, Almohads, crusaders, grand inquisitors, and fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. Though we lament the need to fight on, we are part of a chain of tradition that has succeeded in doing so across the centuries. Our long history is our greatest gift to America and the coalition of which we are a part – especially right now.
Because white supremacists can only succeed if they attack the notion of history itself and convince enough people to adopt their twisted and ahistorical views. White supremacists rally around confederate statues in Charlottesville, because they are trying to cling to a terrible misunderstanding of the past in order to make a power grab at the future. They lie about history in order to seize as much influence and control as they can.
They curse us as Jews, but misunderstand what gives us power. As a 5,000 year-old people, our power lies in our perspective on human life and human history. We have a wealth of historical reference points for any new event that we encounter – which help us approach new situations with wisdom and determination and moral clarity and optimism.
Scholars of Jewish law keep records of the minority opinions in arcane cases from thousands of years ago. We hold fast to every minute record that we find of who we are, where we came from, and what we believe. We do so not only to live well – but also so that we are ready to answer people with radically destructive and incoherent visions of history. So that we can counter white supremacists. So that we can counter Amalek – and blot them out by retaining on our lips and in our records their history.
By being bearers of history, we can help guide the future.
When looking back at our own history, we recognize that we do not need to face down white supremacy alone – but instead can build powerful coalitions with unlikely allies.
In fact, our community at East End Temple is uniquely poised to build partnerships – as you saw in full effect with our Interfaith Unity Shabbat service the Friday night after Charlottesville. Packing the sanctuary in the middle of what otherwise would have been our summer lull, there were representatives of many communities from around New York City. Our speakers that evening included a representative from a community that cohabitates with our own.
As many of you know, East End Temple rents its space to a progressive Muslim community known as the Cordoba House. I have known its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, for nearly a decade and cannot think of a more thoughtful partner to have in turning our cohabitation into active collaboration and common cause. Not only is it the right thing to do, but also a singular opportunity for us as Jews to show that we are so confident in our values that we can express them in our work with another religious community that resides alongside us.
Blotting out Amalek need not merely be about military conquest – equally important is ideological victory. And nothing could more readily counter white supremacy than a Jewish community publicly and proudly helping our Muslim neighbors. There is nothing that undermines the white supremacist worldview more than diverse communities getting along and building towards the future.
It’s time to double down on social justice. Our already strong Sh’ma Project can reach still farther beyond the walls of our building through community organizing. Its leaders have already done so much good for immigrants and people seeking affordable housing and stronger public education. The Food for Families program continues to blossom and grow and help us feed the hungry in our City, and our Annual Book Drive supports patients in local hospitals. If you have not yet been involved these sacred efforts, please pick up an information sheet on your way out or contact me. It’s also time to be out in the wider community loudly and proudly explaining that Jewish values call us to heal the world. Let us all gather for social justice and lead with ardor in the year ahead.
But there is another major take-away from the story of Amalek that ties directly into this time of year – these Days of Awe. For if we are honest with ourselves, Amalek does not only reside in the wider world. If we look deep within, there is something that plagues us, something that attacks us when we are weakest, something that brings out the worst in us, something that we face down within ourselves year after year after year.
Amalek follows us through the generations, not only because there have always been those who hate Jews, but because a piece of Amalek lives within every human being.
The Amalek of racism.
The Amalek of sexism.
The Amalek of xenophobia.
The Amalek of homophobia.
The Amalek of transphobia.
The Amalek of self-hatred and internalized anti-Semitism.
The Amalek of conscious and unconscious bias.
Jews are not immune from holding bigoted views. Being hated does not make us saints, and even when being oppressed, we can also be oppressors. We are obligated to decline the invitation to become nice, safe white people in America, when the price of our integration is our complicity in excluding others.
Instead, we must use what privilege we have – earned and un-earned – to stand up not only for ourselves, but for others threatened and oppressed by white supremacy.
Now as in every generation, we are commanded to continue fighting the Amalek within, to separate ourselves from the children of Amalek by doing good for the world and bravely facing down the parts of ourselves that are tempted to do otherwise.
As I told you last night, this Amalek within – this inclination to evil – does not make us bad people. In the end, we are judged not by our unconscious biases or our reflexive ideas, but by our actions. Do we give in to the temptation to stand aside and let history happen around us, or do we stand tall and do battle with Amalek – both internal and external?
We fight Amalek through the process of t’shuvah, of growth, change, repentance, and return to our truest selves. We begin with acknowledgement in our hearts – and then in our mouths – of what must forever change. We read aloud the commandment in Deuteronomy never to forget Amalek, and we speak aloud our firmest intentions never to act as the agents of Amalek. And then, as we have been commanded to do in every generation, we put that commitment into action.
These Days of Awe are replete with holiness, not because they are easy, but because they are so hard. We take stock not merely of the external scourge of white supremacy – the Amalek of our time – but also of the Amalek within.
In this New Year of 5778, may we have the strength to speak out against injustice, and the courage to root out our own inclinations towards bigotry. May we heal ourselves so that with fuller heart we can rededicate ourselves to repairing the world. May the lessons of our history remain an enduring source of strength to both the processes of renewal and our ultimate victory over Amalek.