By Rabbi Aaron Miller
In the early years of my rabbinate, antisemitism rarely crossed my mind. I saw how antisemitism was rising in Europe, and I knew how pervasive it had become in the Middle East. But somehow, I held the illusion that the spread of antisemitism was contained to a specific time (the past), certain places (not here), and fringe people (whose names I have never heard). Antisemitism had not disappeared, but it felt like a distant siren shrieking so far away that I could hardly hear its blare.
Now, as these past days have shown, antisemitism is spreading like wildfire, and the alarms are sounding everywhere. Antisemitism has rightly been called “the world’s oldest hatred.” On its surface, antisemitism is a hatred against Jews, but underneath, antisemitism emerges from a person’s need to hate someone and, conveniently, yet again, landing on the Jew. For antisemites, hatred comes first, and for thousands of years, Jews have been their first targets.
This has been a terrifyingly familiar week for the Jewish people. When Kanye West posts about Jewish bankers or Jewish media moguls or Jewish blood libel, for all his creative genius, his antisemitism is actually quite stale. When the United Nations publishes yet another report singling out the State of Israel for crimes against humanity, as it recently did, we know we have been here before. When a former president tweets, yet again, about Jewish dual loyalty, he is not saying anything that Jewish people have not heard countless times before. Jewish space lasers? That’s a new one, but for anyone who has studied or experienced antisemitism, this week’s flare up is surprisingly old.
Today’s antisemitic outbursts do not reveal anything about Jews, but they speak volumes to our times. I should not even have to say it, but there is no Jewish conspiracy. There is no cabal. There are no secret meetings. We are not parasites, or termites, or cancers spreading across the globe. The world has not and will never be saved by long-suffering international superstars or politicians who believe they are the only ones courageous enough to stand up against the Jewish strawman of their imaginations. The first revelation of antisemitism is the madness of the antisemite.
Antisemitism’s other great revelation is a society so dysfunctional that Jew-hatred spreads. The world is full of dangerous people. We Jews know this better than most. But this week, we have seen how a broken political system, or a soulless corporation, can bring their ravings to the mainstream. Like fire, antisemitism is only dangerous when it is allowed to spread.
At the risk of sounding too much like Jerry Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, the spread of antisemitism depends on a host of conspirators. While Republicans are right to call out antisemitism on college campuses or under the guise of intersectionality, they have been slow to reject Ye’s “bold” ideas on Jewish world domination. While Democrats are right to sound the alarm on right-wing antisemitic violence or shameless dog-whistling, they are doing precious little to address anti-Israel purity tests that its Jewish activists increasingly must pass. If antisemitism remains a cudgel that the right and left use only to wallop each other, then today’s hatred has more than enough room to spread. And unchecked, this madness will consume us all.
Jews are the first victims of antisemitism, but history has shown that Jews are never the last. Millions of people starved to death while Russian elites peddled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Societies collapsed and nations fell with the Nazis’ rise to power. Jews suffered gravely and disproportionately during these upheavals, but as the expression goes, crazy does not know where to stop. Jews are a nation’s canary in the coal mine. The same forces that hurt Jewish people will eventually come for everyone. They always have. No exceptions.
As we witness our democracy fraying and civility reaching ever new lows, the time has come for people who are not Jewish to be just as worried about antisemitism as Jews have been. I used to think that the Holocaust finally taught the world a lesson in acceptance 2,000 years in the making. I naively hoped that future generations would see once and for all where the hatred fueling antisemitism inevitably leads. This week has shown, again, how easily people forget. Though antisemitism hurts Jews first, its spread only exacerbates the crises that cause it. We are in crisis now. It will take everyone committed to reconciliation and understanding to fight for a future where these things are far from guaranteed.
Jews have been fighting hatred for millennia against the strongest forces the world has ever known. But altogether, we comprise only 0.2% of humanity. Now is the time for allies who are not Jewish to join the struggle and raise their voices with ours. Together, and only together, can we stop antisemitism’s spread. We can make sure this chapter of madness has finally reached its end. And then, together, we will be able to write a new story, one in which God’s children can come back together once again.
Rabbi Aaron Miller is associate rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation.