Is it Antisemitism?

Right smack in the middle of this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotcha, a pair of verses are set off from the rest of the text inside two inverted Hebrew nuns. It's a highly unusual set-up, as though the Torah needs us to notice these verses

Right smack in the middle of this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotcha, a pair of verses are set off from the rest of the text inside two inverted Hebrew nuns. It's a highly unusual set-up, as though the Torah needs us to notice these verses. And indeed, some of you may recognize them, for Jews around the world recite these verses (Num. 10:35-36) liturgically when we take the Torah out of the ark at the beginning of the Torah service and when we return it at the end.

׆ וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ יְהֹוָ֗ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃
וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה יְהֹוָ֔ה רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ׆
Vayehi binsoa ha'aron vayomer moshe; Kuma adonai v'yafutzu oyvecha, v'yanusu misan'echa mipanecha.
Uvnucho yomar shuvah adonai rivevot alfei yisrael.
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O LORD! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your haters flee from Your presence!
And when it halted, he would say: Return, O LORD, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!

When we sing the first verse -- and particularly the words "Kuma adonai v'yafutzu oyvecha, v'yanusu misan'echa mipanecha" -- I'd venture a guess that very few of us stop frequently to consider the question of who we are referring to when we talk about God's enemies and haters? This week, however, the conversation in the American Jewish community has pivoted towards the topic of antisemitism, and I'd like to unpack this phrase by sharing two different commentaries.

The first one appears in the Etz Hayim Chumash's "drash" commentary, which cites Sifrei (a rabbinic midrash), asking: "Does God have enemies? Anyone who hates the Jewish people because we strive to do the will of God is an enemy of God." These are strong words, but also striking ones to read in this moment, as the recent intense period of violence in Israel/Palestine seems to have kicked up strong anti-Jewish sentiments around the world. The ADL issued a report this week citing "acts of harassment, vandalism and violence as well as a torrent of online abuse... from London to Los Angeles, from France to Florida, in big cities like New York and in small towns, and across every social media platform." (Click here to read this preliminary ADL data report dated May 20, 2021.)

Of course, antisemitism deserves strong condemnation, by us and other Jewish communities, and also by our non-Jewish allies. And sometimes antisemitism is easy to spot: blatant acts of violence against people who are identifiably Jewish, bricks through windows of Jewish businesses, threats against Jewish students on college campuses, or and the 17,000+ tweets of "Hitler was right" (cited by the ADL report as happening in a single week this month!). These all feel egregious, not to mention scary! In the face of all this hatred, perhaps it feels comforting to know that within our history, there's a long thread of tradition that understands these haters of the Jewish people as the unequivocal "enemies of God."

Oy, if only it always felt so simple!! Closer to home, the reports I'm hearing from so many of you -- particularly those in the Kavana community who are deeply engaged in social justice work, part of diverse coalitions here in Seattle, and active on social media platforms -- is that it's frequently hard to tease out the blurred boundaries between appropriate critique of Israel, uncomfortable (but perhaps acceptable) anti-Zionist sentiments, and full-blown antisemitism. We all know how to recognize a synagogue shooting or identify the Nazi insignia that was on display at the Capitol on January 6th... but in recent weeks, we've seen events unfold and read all sorts of messages online that feel much harder to categorize.

Over these last few weeks, I have frequently returned to an article published in May 2018 in the Washington Post. This piece, written by my friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the Executive Director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is aptly titled "How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism."  I invite you to read the whole article, but in case the cliff-notes version is more helpful, I wanted to share the five useful markers that Rabbi Jacobs identifies as differentiating antisemitism from anti-Zionism:

  1. Seeing Jews as insidious influencers behind the scenes of world events. She explains, "On the right, it's 'globalists' and 'elites' who manipulate events. On the left, it's 'Zionists.' The terms may differ, but the fundamental conspiracy theory is the same."
  2. Using the word "Zionist" as code for "Jew" or "Israeli." Zionism can, in fact, mean supporting any one of a huge range of visions regarding a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel. Using a phrase like "Zionist entity" (as opposed to calling the country of Israel by its name) is problematic when it's being used to assert a global power structure.
  3. Denying Jewish history. By this, Rabbi Jacobs is referring, for example, to the assertion some make that Jews have no national history in the land of Israel, in order to argue that Jews are nothing more than European colonizers. (In fact, both Jews and Palestinians have long historic ties to the land.)
  4. Dismissing the humanity of Israelis - She argues, "A movement motivated by concern for human rights requires caring about the dignity, well-being, concerns and self-determination of all people." Failing to condemn rocket attacks against Israeli civilians and making statements blaming Israelis for their own deaths are two examples that cross this line (and would feel just as problematic to me as dismissing the humanity of Palestinians).
  5. Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews. This is no more fair than assuming that all the members of this community supported all the policies of the Trump administration. On this point, Rabbi Jacobs also writes, "An explicit disavowal of a connection to Israel should not be a prerequisite for Jewish involvement in broader social justice issues, as has become the norm on college campuses and in many progressive spaces."

As you know if you've been reading my emails to the Kavana community over recent weeks, I am not shy about criticizing Israeli government policy -- and particularly the policies that oppress Palestinians, are theoretically being enacted in my name as a Jew, and are practically being carried out using my U.S. tax dollars. Like Rabbi Jacobs, I firmly believe that it's our responsibility as Jews to work for justice and fight for human rights everywhere, including in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories. Although these messages sometimes live in tension with one another, I also believe that these calls for justice can and must be made without bigotry, hate speech, and antisemitism entering the picture. Where lines are crossed into antisemitic rhetoric and/or behavior, we must be quick to point it out and stand up, both for ourselves and for one another.

I want to return now to our parasha and share a second commentary on the same words. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, also known as the Or HaChayim, was a prominent Moroccan rabbi who lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s. (Incidentally, he moved to Jerusalem during his lifetime and was buried on the Mount of Olives, the same neighborhood about which I shared a story in last week's newsletter.) With a strong mystical/kabbalistic influence, the Or HaChayim interprets the "enemies" ("oyvecha") as the spiritually negative forces that were holding captive divine sparks in the world, and "haters" ("misan'echa") as those forces who display their hatred of God indirectly by seducing God's servants into becoming disloyal. (Click here to read this whole commentary, in the right sidebar.)

This is a shockingly different take on the text than the classic rabbinic read! In the Or HaChayim's interpretation, the enemies the verse talks about aren't people at all, but rather the spiritual forces within each of us that hold us back from realizing our divine potential and lure us away from paths of goodness.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, I'll say that I'm drawn to the both/and approach, rather than the either/or. In other words, I appreciate both of these commentaries. I believe that there really are enemies in the world who take the form of antisemites -- that is, people who would do harm to the Jewish people. We need to defend ourselves against antisemitism and call on others to join us in that fight against this and every form of hatred. And, I also believe that there are times when the truest enemy lies within our own selves... a seductive force of spiritual negativity that holds us back from manifesting goodness in the world.

It can feel lonely to sit in this place of trying to hold complexity. If you are feeling this loneliness and looking for a little inspiration, I urge you to listen to my friend Rabbi Sharon Brous's sermon entitled "I Reject the Premise of the Question" from IKAR last Shabbat. She ends with references to a wide range of fellow travelers -- from Israeli politician Stav Shaffir to Palestinian activist Suleiman Khatib to Israeli writer Amos Oz -- with whom we share a camp, and I found it uplifting and comforting to feel that we are actually in good company.

In addition, based on responses to last week's Kavana newsletter and the events of recent weeks, it seems that there is sufficient interest in the Kavana community to host programs addressing at least two distinct strands of interests around Israel/Palestine. Please see below for more information about an intimate in-person gathering we'll be hosting outdoors this coming Monday to grapple with what it feels like to be a Jew in social justice spaces when Israel is in the headlines. And, if you keep reading below, you'll also see that next Wednesday, we are teaming up with many of our Jewish Emergent Network partner communities to host an exclusive and open conversation with Daniel Sokatch, designed to give participants the opportunity to gain some critical context and ask the hard questions.

Whoever the enemies and the haters are -- be they external antisemitic foes or internal forces of evil -- we pray this week that they be scattered and forced to flee! Thank you for your continued support of Kavana during these tough times. It's not easy to be a Jew right now -- nor to be a human -- but together, we are keeping each other strong and marching in the right direction as we continue this trek through the wilderness of Bamidbar.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum