What do we tell kids about anti-Semitism?
By Jeffrey Salkin
“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Buffalo Springfield sang those words exactly fifty years ago. They have never seemed more relevant than now.
For something is happening here. I am talking about the current virus of anti-Semitism that is spreading throughout our country.
In total, more than 100 Jewish institutions, mostly JCCs, have received bomb threats since the beginning of the year.
Over the last few weeks, there has been vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Rochester, New York.
A gunshot was fired through a Hebrew school classroom window at an Evansville, Indiana synagogue.
Jewish reporters have been targeted – their faces photoshopped onto the bodies of Holocaust victims.
How do we talk to our young people about what is going on in this country?
First, let’s stop using the term “anti-semitism.” It’s too complicated. (A sixth grader asked me: “What is Semitism?”)
Call it what it is: Jew hatred
Or, even better: the crazy belief that there’s something about the Jews.
Then, try this — a transcript of a session I did with sixth graders and their parents.
We know all about Jew hatred. We have holidays about it.
- Starting with the holiday that we will celebrate later this week — Purim.
- Passover is about the liberation from a Pharaoh who hated Jews.
- Tisha b’Av, a mid summer fast day, is about how two Jew-hating governments — the Babylonians and then, centuries later, the Romans — destroyed the Temples in Jerusalem.
- Hanukkah is about a tyrant who hated Jews and Judaism and tried to get rid of it.
- Yom Ha-Shoah is about the ultimate Jew-hatred — the Holocaust.
We even tell a little joke about it. Definition of a Jewish holiday: “they hated us; they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.”
So, we Jews know all about this. It’s old news. Which doesn’t make it any easier.
So, why do they hate us? Because Jews have always been different.
- We had only one God. Every other people had gods for all sorts of things.
- And our one god is invisible! No pictures, no statues.
- Shabbat! Some Romans said that only crazy people would spend 1/7 of their lives resting! A total waste of time!
- We didn’t eat what other people ate — like pork and shellfish.
- We knew that Jesus wasn’t the messiah, because the world was the same as it always was.
- And then, they said that we killed Jesus. No. It was the Romans. (In fact, most modern Christians no longer believe this lie about the Jews.
- Then, they said evil things about Jews — like we were in league with the Devil.
- Sometimes, they made us convert to Christianity or Islam.
- Sometimes, they killed us.
- Sometimes, they kicked us out of our countries — like England, France, and Spain.
- Then, they said that we were part of a vast international conspiracy to control the world.
- And then, the Nazis said that we weren’t really human at all. They wanted to exterminate us — a word that you would use with an insect or a rodent.
- And then, when we created the state of Israel, they said that we didn’t deserve it.
So, you might ask: if being different is so difficult, what’s the point?
One of the great Jewish teachers of our time — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks — teaches that Jews should be different — because it teaches everyone that it is OK to be different.
Yes, jokes can hurt. Especially about the Holocaust. If someone tells you to “get back in the oven” (a reference to the Holocaust), or if someone throws pennies at you because they imagine that Jews are cheap — you don’t have to tolerate it. Tell a teacher, your principal, your parents. Fight back.
Fight back by teaching others a little bit about Judaism. When someone makes a hateful remark, try this: “I’m surprised to hear you say that. I thought that you were smarter than that. Did you know that Jews….or Judaism…?”
Fight back by not letting your fear win. The haters who are threatening Jewish institutions think that if they scare us, then we will stop going to those places. That would be an easy way to hurt Judaism.
Prove them wrong. Keep doing Jewish stuff, and going to Jewish places — especially your synagogue and the JCC. Go now, more than ever. The best response to hatred is love: love of other Jews, love of God, love of Judaism, and love of humanity.
Which brings me to….
People who hate Jews usually hate other people as well. It’s like one of those “twofer” deals. Someone hates Jews; they probably hate blacks, and/or Muslims, and/or LGBT people. Hatred is like eating potato chips; you can’t stop with just one.
Fight Jew-hatred by reaching out to other groups. Jews are not the only ones who are threatened now. There are immigrants, and Muslims, and Latinos, and LGBT people.
When Jews reach out to those groups, sometimes those groups reach right back. When those cemeteries were ruined, Muslims raised over $100,000 to clean them up. Some
Muslim veterans are offering to guard those Jewish cemeteries. One veteran tweeted: “I’m a #MuslimMarine in Chicagoland area. If your synagogue or Jewish cemetery needs someone to stand guard, count me in. Islam requires it…”
This is amazing, and we should celebrate it.