2020 has been a trying year. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll – in human life, in economic terms, in the functioning of society and in frayed nerves. The impact has been universal, if unequal. Our hearts go out particularly to those who have suffered, and lost, the most.
While the swift emergence of not only one but multiple vaccines effective at combating the coronavirus represents a substantial source of hope – and a scientific marvel – all signs indicate that months will pass before the treatment is very widely accessible, and during these months thousands more may yet die. Despite that threat, fatigue over restrictions meant to contain the pandemic have too many – from virtually every demographic group – relaxing or outright refusing to abide by precautions that grate on all of us. Some people, perhaps given pause by the very speed of the new vaccinations’ development, will hesitate to accept inoculation once possible.
Highly religious communities – by their nature placing a premium on congregating for prayer and other rites, on tradition uninterrupted and on faith – have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to resisting the perceived dictates of secular authorities. Certain religious groups, including Catholics and fervently observant Jews, have gone to court to fight, of late successfully, against curbs on gatherings for prayer. National media have shown some hassidic Jews continuing to gather in large numbers for weddings, schooling and eminent rabbis’ funerals. These episodes, though not reflecting the entirety of a large and diverse population – and not necessarily implying the absence of any health precautions – do indicate a suspicion of anti-religious (or specifically anti-Jewish) tendencies by some in government. This outlook is the product of long and difficult historical experience, and is also borne of a sense that in some places gyms and bars have been subjected to less scrutiny and regulation than synagogues and other places of worship.
Of course, ultimately nothing can condone reckless behavior that endangers the collective well-being. Scenes of fundamentalists – of whatever stripe – completely flouting public health guidance are deplorable.
But what does Judaism itself have to say about exceptional circumstances like those we have confronted over the past year?
While undoubtedly committing the fate of human beings to God – and charging human beings with reaching out to God and with bettering their treatment of fellow creatures in the divine image – the Torah says “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” (Deut. 4), commanding: “and you shall guard your souls exceedingly.” It further says, of keeping God’s ordinances, “v’chai bahem” (Lev. 18), that “you shall live by them” – not perish by them. Additionally, relates Deuteronomy (chap. 30), “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is “not in the heavens,” but is to be observed within earthly realities.
Accordingly, rabbinic tradition has held that “pikuach nefesh docheh et kol haTorah kula,” that saving a life takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in Judaism; indeed, if a Sabbath must be violated by first responders to prevent death, or if medical experts require a patient not to fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason, doing so is not only allowed but mandatory. After all, the Ten Commandments themselves include “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20) – and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) says that “anyone who destroys a life, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, while anyone who sustains a life, it is considered as if he has sustained an entire world.”
Preserving life, then, is a most elemental of Jewish religious duties – a righteous deed that is prerequisite for all the rest. “I have set before you life and death... And you shall choose life,” states Deuteronomy.
Of relevance, the Talmud also repeatedly makes clear that “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law: when official regulations are established, they demand compliance. And Jews are called upon to be paragons of rectitude – for their public trespasses create “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, while their acting justly represents “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of God’s name.
And not least, Jews are instructed to choose “darchei shalom,” paths conducive to peace among people. The Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina (Berachot 64a), “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” The sage Hillel famously taught (Avot 1), “Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love humanity and bring them closer to the Torah.”
Life, and observing dueling commitments within its confines, involves complexity. Virtually all action involves some sort of risk, and it is for competent decisors to provide guidance on navigating tension of the kind that will periodically surface between religious commitments and civic commitments, let alone between religious commitments and the call to “choose life.” What is clear, though, is that for all the importance of communal religious practice – and in a community-centered people, places and acts of public worship are indeed vital – saving lives and preserving societal harmony are also critically important religious imperatives.
Believers, who discern God’s hand even in dark times, must work to see God’s hand in solutions to plight as well. And they must strive to be active partners in enabling these solutions to bring their healing.
Few causes are as naturally resonant with Jews as the never-ending quest to protect the very lives of people of color.
The Torah teaches that all human beings are born in God’s image, and commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The rabbinic compendium Ethics of the Fathers says: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.”
Central to Jews’ own history is their oppression beginning with enslavement in ancient Egypt.
For Jews, who have suffered so much at the hands of bigots – including those invoking the absurdity that is racial supremacy – inequality on account of superficial appearance is a moral outrage of the highest order. It was for this reason that so many Jews have played an outsize part in advocating for the human rights of Black people, in America and elsewhere.
As early as 1902, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote that “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.” In 1942, B’nai B’rith’s National Jewish Monthly stated that “Jews must be as ardent for the defense of Negro rights as they are of their own.”
In 1964, the two white men murdered by the KKK along with a Black man for helping Mississippi African-Americans to vote were Jewish. American Blacks and Jews jointly battled Jim Crow laws, and successfully partnered to enable the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the rabbis joining Black leaders marching in Selma, Alabama. Heschel said, “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America… I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way.”
Jews helped found, fund and staff predominantly African-American civil rights bodies like the NAACP. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “it was usually in the Jewish communities where desegregation began.” Despite the stark risks, individual Jews were to be found in disproportionate numbers among those resisting apartheid in South Africa. Later, Jews played a key role in spreading awareness of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and in bringing international attention to mass violence in the Darfur region of Sudan.
And whether through the aid agency MASHAV or a growing array of non-governmental organizations, Israel – despite its small size – has contributed to developing Africans’ agriculture, health services, infrastructure and more.
In turn, many Africans and African-Americans alike, not least those looking to the Bible for inspiration, have felt a deep bond with Jews. Imagery of the Israelites’ exodus to the Promised Land was especially poignant for Black slaves. Black soldiers helped to fight and defeat Nazism – and were treated barbarically by Hitler’s Germany when taken captive by it.
Multiple African countries have also been home to their own Jewish communities. Ethiopia has proudly traced its ties to the fabled relationship of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. Sub-Saharan Africans broadly welcomed early support from and close cooperation with Israel, largely pioneered by Golda Meir.
Mainstream African-American leaders have long stood against anti-Semitism – particularly King, who notably added, “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.” He recognized Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
Later, soul legend Ray Charles told a B’nai B’rith audience: “Israel is one of the few causes I feel good about supporting… If someone besides a Black ever sings the real gut-bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
DILEMMAS SURROUNDING #BLM
Indeed, almost always, white supremacists have hated Jews of all colors as much as they do people of color. Their equal-opportunity malice again surfaced in Charlottesville, Virginia, where – nominally gathered in 2017 to defend the “heritage” embodied in Confederate monuments – many chanted “Jews will not replace us.” These racialists, oblivious to the hollowness of their ideology, see even white Jews as biologically impure and as responsible for race-mingling more generally.
But the protest movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter has presented Jewish supporters of the anti-racist cause with some dilemmas.
First, even while recognizing the need for dramatic change, minorities have rarely benefited from a climate of extreme polarization or from unnuanced reactions to complex societal problems – all these intensified by things like a pandemic, economic crisis and heightened populism.
Many activists have demanded not just comprehensive reform of police departments but their defunding or even disbanding. Yet Jews – who have been, even in America, by far the leading target of faith-based hate crimes – could be among the many populations made more vulnerable in the absence of active policing. The reality is that we are obliged to guard against abuses by those in power, but also against misconduct by those who do not wear a uniform.
Second, it is true that on practically every continent are to be found markers of those who were associated with ideas and actions that we rightly consider abhorrent today. It is not always clear who should decide which demerits warrant landmarks’ demolition.
This said, a distinction can reasonably be made between preserving sites that simply record history and keeping in place, without critical commentary, tributes glorifying those guilty of dehumanizing others. Most American Jews – whose voting patterns are remarkably aligned with those of African-Americans – would oppose the prominent display of statues celebrating a Confederacy that destroyed American unity and championed racism.
But one might wonder: why isn’t there widespread insistence on similar treatment of those who persecuted or fomented hatred of Jews? These could include almost countless figures – from Augustine to Chaucer, Martin Luther to Peter Stuyvesant, Voltaire to Wagner, Melville to Ford, Helen Thomas to Malcolm X.
Which leads us to the more central Jewish concern regarding the revitalized movement against anti-Black racism: the potential for even it to be exploited by those who harbor a different but no less destructive bigotry, anti-Semitism.
No community is immune to prejudice, to emotional blind spots and to absorbing slurs and stereotypes from the wider society.
After migrating from the South, many African-Americans encountered Jews as teachers, social workers and doctors, but also as landlords, employers and store owners, experiencing a distinct differential in their respective socioeconomic positions. Too few Jews and people of color have had genuinely meaningful interaction during their formative years. Israeli society, too, is not devoid of divisions and disparities. More broadly, many Jews, scarred by dispossession, humiliation and endless atrocity, have certainly yearned to be associated with the dominant Western culture – sometimes internalizing its errant “conventional wisdom.”
EXPRESSIONS OF ANTI-SEMITISM
But some people of African descent, too, have been influenced by prejudiced ideas or impulses.
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has praised Hitler as a “very great man,” called Judaism a “gutter religion,” threatened the Jewish community with “destruction” and described Jews as “termites,” “bloodsuckers” and the “synagogue of Satan.” Yet he denies he is an anti-Semite – and was seated beside former President Bill Clinton on stage at the funeral of Aretha Franklin. On a cable channel founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Farrakhan again referred to Jews as “Satan” last month, and said, “it is my job now to pull the cover off of Satan so that every Muslim, when he sees Satan, picks up a stone as we do in Mecca.”
Farrakhan has also been lauded by celebrities including Kanye West, hip hop artist Jay Electronica, rapper Ice Cube and NFL player DeSean Jackson, who apologized for posting a quote, which he attributed to Hitler, saying that Jews “extort America” and “plan for world domination” while “Negroes are the real Children of Israel.” Now, former Kansas City running back Larry Johnson has written of a “Jewish cabal” guilty of “Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Ritualistic Child Torture, Perversion [and] Human Sacrifice/Murder.”
Weeks ago, television personality Nick Cannon reposted an interview he had conducted with rapper Professor Griff – who previously blamed Jews for “the majority of the wickedness that goes on around the globe” – in which Cannon praised Farrakhan as well, and commended his guest who said he was “speaking facts” about “the Cohens and the Moskowitzes.”
Radio host Charlamagne tha God said that ViacomCBS then cut ties with Cannon, who subsequently expressed remorse, because “Jewish people… have the power.” British hip-hop artist Wiley added, “Jewish [sic] would do anything to ruin a black mans [sic] life.”
A few more prominent Black figures have also made anti-Semitic remarks in the past – the Rev. Jesse Jackson used pejoratives like “Hymies” to refer to Jews during his presidential campaign in 1984, while the Rev. Al Sharpton employed incendiary rhetoric (“If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house”) around the time of the deadly 1991 Crown Heights riots.
The late Georgia state representative Billy McKinney declared that “Jews have bought everybody. Jews, J-E-W-S” – while his daughter Cynthia, who became a member of the U.S. Congress, promoted anti-Israeli conspiracy theories related to 9/11 and suggested that the number of Holocaust victims is inflated. Both continue to have Georgia motorways named for them.
After two African-Americans killed six people in 2019 at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey, an African-American member of the local Board of Education, Joan Terrell-Paige, called Jews “brutes” who threaten to bring “drug dealers and prostitutes” into the Black community, and said rabbis were suspected of “selling body parts.” She retained her post nonetheless.
Some African studies programs have promulgated a theory that anti-Black racism has its roots in a supposed Jewish belief that the biblical Noah’s son Ham was “cursed” with blackness. Author Alice Walker – while championing Palestinian nationalism – has called on Jews to “abandon race and culture and religion,” smeared the Talmud as the cause of global evil and referred to “Zionist Nazis.” Poet Amiri Baraka’s writing included such lines as “I got the extermination blues, jewboys [sic]. I got the hitler [sic] syndrome figured.”
On the African continent, meanwhile, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime strongman, periodically made anti-Jewish assertions and called white farmers so “hard-hearted, you would think they were Jews.” Idi Amin, the Ugandan president, said Hitler “was right to burn six million Jews.”
Among a new generation of activists, Tamika Mallory, former Women’s March co-chair, extolled Farrakhan and reportedly accused Jews of collective guilt as exploiters of people of color. Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, who once wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” was censured for saying, of the sway of pro-Israel activists, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Marc Lamont Hill, previously a CNN commentator, also attempted to spin Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and delivered a speech at the United Nations – echoing jihadists’ aspiration to completely destroy Israel – that called for a “Palestine from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea.”
And French-Cameroonian political candidate and comedian Dieudonné popularized a Nazi-like salute, while calling Holocaust commemoration “memorial pornography.” He also co-founded an “Anti-Zionist Party” and implied approval of a lethal terror attack, by an Islamist of Malian ancestry, at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
Even Johannesburg-born Trevor Noah, years before having been chosen to host “The Daily Show,” joked about the Holocaust and wrote that “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful.”
A FRAUGHT MOMENT
As to Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives – which is a loose coalition that includes BLM, itself highly decentralized – adopted in 2016 a platform that mimics Palestinian polemics by singling out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, as an “apartheid” state that commits “genocide.” Yet Israel is the Middle East’s sole pluralistic democracy – and Palestinians have over the course of its existence actually multiplied in number significantly. Their leaders have also rejected every serious proposal of statehood and peace alongside Israel.
Unfortunately, ANC officials and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were among the South African leaders who came to spearhead sub-Saharan realignment with anti-Israel Arab regimes – some in Africa – that are no paragons of human rights. The country’s role in this regard was perhaps symbolized by its hosting, in Durban in 2001, of a U.N. conference on racism that – true to the world body’s double standards against Israel, resulting from the combined power of nearly 60 Muslim-majority member states – labeled Israel alone as racist and featured shocking displays of anti-Semitism.
Fast forward to 2020. The defacing during protests against police brutality of a Los Angeles synagogue with graffiti reading “free Palestine” and worse, claims by BLM in Britain that the suffocation of George Floyd was taught by Israelis, the shouting at a French anti-racist demonstration of “dirty Jews” and the chanting at a Washington BLM march of “Israel, we know you, you murder children too” are just some examples of scapegoating that – by targeting Jews, demonizing Israelis, delegitimizing Israel and denying a Jewish right to equal self-determination – would be considered modern anti-Semitism.
But some progressives, keen to associate racism exclusively with the far-right, have not only excised anti-Semitism from their conception of intersectional prejudice but also sought to preempt legitimate opposition to anti-Israel bias with a straw-man claim that Jews tar all “criticism” of Israel as anti-Semitic. In any other context, it would be a liberal article of faith that others have no business casting aspersions on a minority group’s ongoing experience of bigotry.
The result of this antipathy is a searing quandary for Jews whose very whiteness is rejected by white supremacists but who are implicated in undifferentiated white privilege by some more strident Black rights activists. Vocal elements of both these factions have embraced Palestinian symbols to signal virtuous solidarity – while employing the technique of typically, but not always, targeting “Zionists” instead of Jews.
For their part, even Palestinian extremists argue that they “can’t be anti-Semitic” because they are Semites too – only to then stigmatize Jews as foreign to the land and Israel as “racist” for policies born not of interracial subjugation but mutual conflict over territory, sovereignty and, especially, security.
This is not to say that Israel cannot be critiqued fairly – it can – but superimposing distorted analogies between white colonial oppressors and Israeli Jews does not serve the cause of anti-racism or reconciliation. Neither does depriving Palestinians of their own agency and responsibilities in peacemaking.
In sum, we are compelled to grapple with the full complexity of bigotry. Anti-Black racism, both overt and subtle, is insidious, and it remains frighteningly resilient. But anti-Semitism too – whether undergirded by class tensions, inherited teachings of religious contempt, European racial myths, Arab anti-Zionist narratives, resentment of support deemed paternalistic or a simple identification of Jews with advantaged whites – must be acknowledged and tackled.
The writer James Baldwin long ago said that “just as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol.” He conceded, “Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”
EMPATHY, NOT RIVALRY
Surveys by observers including the Anti-Defamation League have in fact shown the persistence of anti-Semitism among people of color at higher rates than most other Americans. In some cases, this has been linked to a spate of assaults on Orthodox Jews in the New York City area, the largest Jewish population center outside Israel.
Clearly, it is all too easy even for members of victimized groups to generalize, to focus on examples of benevolence and hardship in one’s own community but wrongdoing and undue advantage in the other.
What, then, should be the principles guiding a vital but sometimes delicate relationship like the one between African-Americans and Jews?
To begin with, we must avoid competition over virtue and victimhood – stressing mutual empathy instead, and shared objectives.
No minority should be shamed for any success that some of its members may have achieved – nor for responsibly advocating its rights.
Civil rights campaigners should never accept the exclusion, marginalizing or vilification of certain communities but not others.
An oppressed community must certainly never be told that the sheer extent of the bigotry to which it has been subjected suggests that victims have brought their suffering upon themselves.
No minority should have its history, let alone its identity, denied or appropriated. Of course, denigrating others’ culture or appearance is also wrong, as are epithets – no matter the target.
And even when a particular stereotype does contain some kernel of truth, it must not be stripped of critical context. While, for example, certain social challenges may be pronounced in parts of the Black community, these are chiefly the result not of any predisposition or dereliction but sustained, compounded disadvantage that still has not been fully rectified. While some Jews have come to be successful in finance – though Jews were subjected to hatred both when capitalist and socialist, when rich and poor – this is not on account of some unusual delight in banking or usury, but because Christian rulers barred them for centuries from many other vocations.
Not least importantly, demagogues from any corner – like Farrakhan, no less dangerous and unrepentant than David Duke – should be shunned consistently, and without equivocation.
THE ALLIANCE LIVES ON
Fortunately, there have been plenty of heroes in a Black-Jewish allyship that is both reciprocal and profound.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote that “for the tacticians of the new anti-Semitism, the original sin of American Jews was their involvement – truly ‘inordinate,’ truly ‘disproportionate’ – not in slavery, but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.” In 1943, the Central Conference of American Rabbis said of African-Americans, “It is we, their fellowmen – who have acquiesced in or been apathetic about their maltreatment – who have suffered spiritual hurt, for no soul that tolerates oppression remains unspoiled or unsullied.”
Decades later, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins were among the civil rights icons who mobilized to push back at anti-Semitic sentiment in the African-American community. Rustin confronted radicals “speaking material directly from ‘Mein Kampf’” and said that some activists’ identification with those attacking Israel “is based on a terrible perversion of the truth, not only the truth about the P.L.O. but the truth about our own movement as well.”
In 1988, B’nai B’rith presented an award – named jointly for King and Heschel – to John Lewis, the Georgia congressman laid to rest last week, who stood out by eschewing the 1995 Million Man March for having been “fatally undermined by its chief sponsor,” Farrakhan.
In the run-up to the lockdowns this year over the novel coronavirus – one which, early on, revealed intolerable racial discrepancies in enforcement of social distancing, and in access to superior healthcare – I traveled to multiple African countries and witnessed an unmistakable rebirth in African-Israeli friendship, notwithstanding the African Union’s own exclusion from its proceedings of Israelis, but not Palestinians.
Here in the U.S., after a young bigot murdered study group members at a historic Black house of worship in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, a local synagogue responded: “Today we are all members of the Emanuel AME Church.” Southern synagogues are now pushing for the removal of a Charlotte, North Carolina, statue of Judah Benjamin – the highest-ranking Jewish official in the Confederacy. It was the Jewish mayor of Minneapolis who responded emotionally and swiftly to the death of George Floyd, earning praise from his friend, the African-American mayor of neighboring St. Paul.
W.E.B. Du Bois, despite some early expressions of anti-Semitism of his own, came to describe Jews as a “tremendous force for good and uplift.” Jackie Robinson, the beneficiary of special affinity from fellow baseball trailblazer Hank Greenberg, backed Jews facing job discrimination by the Arabian-America Oil Company, and he called for the dismissal of a Black figure who told Jews that Hitler “didn’t kill enough of you.”
He wrote in his autobiography that he was “ashamed to see community leaders who were afraid to speak out when blacks were guilty of anti-Semitism.” Honored by B’nai B’rith as well, Robinson asked: “How could we stand against anti-black prejudice if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”
Likewise, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote over recent weeks that hostility to Jews is “a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation.“ Zach Banner, a member of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, added: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate… We need to uplift them and put our arms around them.”
Although tethered to a body long characterized by systemic anti-Israelism – condemning the Jewish state more than all other countries combined – U.N. chief Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who married the half-niece of Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg, said, “I know that… it has sometimes seemed as if the United Nations serves all the world’s peoples but one: the Jews.” During his own tenure, however, the U.N. held a first-time seminar on anti-Semitism, an international Holocaust remembrance day was instituted and he eventually urged that scrutiny of Israel not “monopolize” the organization’s activity.
And days ago, South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng withstood rebukes from the ANC for saying that by maintaining a one-sided stance toward Israel, “We are denying ourselves a wonderful opportunity of being a game-changer in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” He added: “Hatred is toxic.”
Of course, it was none other than Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews.”
Since George Floyd’s recorded killing – just one more casualty of bigotry, added to the innumerable casualties not documented on camera – a most common description by African-Americans of their emotional state is exhaustion. People of color are exhausted of dying, exhausted of fighting to live, exhausted of trying to explain their entitlement to lives of dignity, exhausted of trying to explain that racism is still a problem.
After thousands of years of adversity, Jews are exhausted, too. They’ve experienced genocide only to have it denied even as the last survivors remain among us. They withstood persecution in exile only to rear children suffering not just violence on Jews’ native soil but the accusation of having collectively morphed from a David into nothing less than a Goliath.
Despite all these challenges, progress in pursuing civil rights has, of course, been made – and this has come precisely through a determined partnership between Black and Jewish people, among so many others. Our communities’ core aspirations truly are intertwined. It is only through mutual empowerment that we will see them continue to materialize.
Let us take care never to undercut the cause of fighting bigotry by deploying it against our closest allies in the fight.
Read David's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
Just over half a year has now passed since the start of the Jewish year, whose high holidays are also known as the Days of Awe.
One of the climactic sections of those most sacred days’ liturgy relates:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many will pass away and how many will be born, who will live and who will die… who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague… who will be serene and who will be tormented, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
Barely into a new decade – 2020 on the civil calendar, 5780 for Jews – we now approach another apex of the Jewish year, Passover, in decidedly unfamiliar circumstances.
During our commemoration of the exodus, we recall the ten plagues that befell Egypt before it set free its enslaved Jews – including, ultimately, the plague of the Egyptian firstborn, which from Pharaoh’s throne to the humblest of citizens prompted “a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no home in which there was no dead.”
Now, our society faces a new plague – a pandemic, one to which none are immune.
Passover has come to exemplify the coming together of the most basic unit of human bonds – the family – but a pandemic is set apart in its rupture of the social fabric, even at the individual family level. This year, many will be forced to hold their Seder in solitude.
In terms of Jewish religious life, COVID-19 has quickly spurred the most significant disruption (with the possible exception, in Israel, of the 1973 Yom Kippur War) since the end of the Holocaust, whose 75th anniversary will soon take place.
In the global scope of the current outbreak, the impairing of public religious practice not only hearkens back to the Spanish flu of a century ago but may be, plainly, unprecedented.
Preempting the intensive spring cleaning that is customary before Passover – reflecting what should be a deep cleansing also of the soul – we now adjust to hyper-hygienic habits meant to ward off the novel coronavirus.
For many observant Jews, this moment has yielded a first-ever experience of inability to worship communally in a synagogue, particularly on a major holiday. This alone can be traumatic.
Of course, though, religion is just one of the virtually limitless aspects of life affected by a threat that is both invisible and insidious.
During the Seder this year, perhaps there will be extra resonance in the tradition of shedding wine drops from our glasses in a gesture of compassion – even amid celebration – for Egyptians who suffered in the freeing of the Jews from their yoke.
Next week, we can have in mind all those who now suffer. We can think of both the young and old, those living alone and with others, those in hospitals and those without access to hospitals, those with preexisting illness and with brand-new illness, those unemployed and those who will be unemployed, those stuck at home, those without a home, the bereaved and those on the front lines.
This is simpler to do meaningfully now – because “they” could easily become “we.”
After entering a period during which everything from food and toilet paper to the wellbeing of public officials and healthcare workers has been called into question, when we recite the Seder song “Dayenu” – giving praise for each of the blessings bestowed upon us – the looming hardship will make it easier not to take those blessings for granted.
How much we would now value the ability to shake a hand, give a hug, have a guest, go to the market, press an elevator button, receive a package or rub our own eyes in the morning without weighty existential calculations!
If nothing else, in an age when many have fixated on individualism, a pandemic forces a deeper appreciation of community and companionship, collective action and solidarity. A pandemic brings sharp urgency to the words from Ethics of the Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Passover reminds us of a central motif of the Jewish, and human, saga: redemption – but one can only be redeemed from some sort of affliction. Passover exults in liberation, but it mustn’t be forgotten that the sudden and dramatic exodus from Egypt followed hundreds of years of abject torment.
In Judaism, meaning can be found even in its ordering of the day: “there was evening, [then] there was morning.” Light follows, and is given its very meaning by, darkness.
Until morning breaks, Jews’ prayers take the form of appreciation of all that we do still have, of appeals for deliverance and of stubborn confidence that deliverance will come: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Indeed, two thousand years after dispersion from it, Jews in our time began to be restored to the city at the heart of our collective consciousness.
Soberingly, we are taught that not only individuals, but also nations, are subject to vulnerability, to consequences and the shifting tides of history. In these days of awe, we can recall that none of history’s greatest empires have reigned supreme permanently; most are now not in existence. Only time will tell how the world is altered, even reordered, by a storm as substantial as the current one.
Nonetheless, in this month of salvation, we renew our faith in its arrival again.
When the children of Israel settled in Egypt, the patriarch Jacob – alternately known as Israel – was told, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of descending to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up.” Tribulation was part of the journey, part of the reality, as much as that can thoroughly elude our will and our grasp.
“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts,’” the prophet Isaiah relays. But he goes on: “So says the Lord, ‘Keep justice and practice righteousness, for My salvation is near to come, and My benevolence to be revealed.’”
For the first time in most of our lives, many of us are now confined, limited in our mobility, our sense of mastery over our existence. In the diminishing of that unbridled freedom – certainly of being carefree – let us do what we can to support each other, and to take comfort in the promise of return to a more cherished liberty.
Read David's expert analysis at the Times of Israel.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
Purim, and before it “Shabbat Zachor” and the Fast of Esther, are particular times of community for us as Jews. The specter of so many now being forced away from community reminds us of its immeasurable importance – and not to take it for granted.
Especially in our age of social media and smartphones – when new generations’ definition of “social” is nothing like that of predecessors, and many of us are less than present even when we are physically present – we’re reminded that while we can sometimes call in for meetings, we never should “phone it in” when it comes to the many relationships that give life its very value. Our tradition has much to say, and to model, about the implications of excessive separation, of aloneness. While the Bible describes the Jewish people as am l’vadad yishkon – a nation that in some respects will “dwell apart” – we’re also told lo tov heyot ha’adam l’vado, that it is not good for people to be alone. Estrangement from the community, even if temporary, is considered a substantial hardship, and we’re taught, of course, that the very essence of Torah is v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, to actually love our neighbor as ourselves. We’re a social people, a social community, and a social, interconnected species. Isolation – social distancing, quarantine – is not a natural, let alone optimal, condition.
For those of us involved in cultivating our community’s ties to others, Purim is a particularly relevant holiday. On the one hand, it highlights the theme of external enemies committed to our harm and negation. But it’s also about more complex relationships – for this, look no further than the Persian King Ahaseurus – as well as outright allies; unlike so much of the scriptures, the Book of Esther involves critically navigating intergroup engagement – maintaining identity and values, while engaging with others – in the context of exile.
Beyond the particular Jewish crisis of Purim – though it arguably reflects a broader human susceptibility to bigotry – a more “general” emergency, especially an epidemic or pandemic like the coronavirus outbreak, underlines our common humanity. The current reality – with its alarming specter of infections in China and the United States, in Iran and in Israel – brings home the point not only that challenges like diseases don’t discriminate, but that we’re all united in our basic similarity, in our vulnerability and in our need to combine efforts to tackle these adversities, out of decency but also a fundamental self-interest that are ultimately one and the same. Such cooperation in harsh circumstances can be not merely the most effective approach, but the only effective approach.
During a trying period like this, we find one more critical takeaway in Purim: hope. Our sages tell us that though the Book of Esther is remarkable in the absence, explicitly at least, of God in its text, it is this same book, with its account of salvation against the seeming odds, that will uniquely be preserved in the Jewish canon, forever. Reflecting all that we’ve overcome in our history, Purim points to the promise of v’nahafoch hu – of times of anxiety and difficulty giving way to better ones. As the megillah says, neh’pach la’hem miyagon l’simcha, u’me’evel l’yom tov. Its story is one of grief transformed into joy, mourning into a time of festivity.
Ken tih’yeh lanu – so may it be for us all.
This month, something positive and unusual happened at the United Nations, a body that was a source of hope for many Jews after the Holocaust and helped give rise to the revival of the Jewish homeland, but has since often been passive about, and sometimes complicit in, hostility globally to the Jewish people and their only nation-state.
This month, a person of stature within the U.N. system -- and within the notoriously wayward human rights apparatus at that -- took the initiative to prepare and deliver a report to the General Assembly on the problem of anti-Semitism.
Moreover, he adopted an exclusive focus on that problem, and on the whole did so thoroughly, seriously and professionally. And that author originally hails from a majority-Muslim country, where he previously had served as foreign minister.
Ahmed Shaheed prepared his report -- under the rubric of the "promotion and protection of human rights," specifically the "elimination of all forms of religious intolerance" -- in his current capacity as special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. While the especially politicized Human Rights Council and its designated experts are typically better known for animus to Israel -- Michael Lynk, the latest partisan rapporteur on Palestinian rights, a position whose very mandate testifies to the overt one-sidedness of the U.N. on the conflict with Israel, just affirmed a call to single out Jewish civilian communities in Palestinian-claimed territory for economic warfare -- Shaheed also previously served as special rapporteur on Iran. His reputation in the Islamic Republic was such that Tehran dismissed Shaheed, a diplomat and politician from the Maldives, as an agent "for the Zionist regime and also the CIA."
Shaheed's report on anti-Semitism, though surely not without omission or flaw, is largely unprecedented at the U.N. -- and especially important at a time when anti-Jewish bigotry, discrimination and persecution have again surged in many parts of the world, uniting extreme rightists and leftists, and those motivated by ideologies rooted in politics, religion and racial theory alike.
In his report, to which B'nai B'rith made contributions and in which we joined in advance consultation, Shaheed referenced these realities in considerable detail. After a period of soliciting input from Jewish communities, U.N. member states and others, he described antisemitic tropes, domestic and regional trends in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, the broadcasting of anti-Semitism on online platforms, various government measures that curtail Jews' religious rights and current "best practices" in monitoring and combating anti-Jewish hate. He added some of his own recommendations to states, civil society, the media and the U.N. system.
Critically, he explicitly framed Jewish rights as human rights, established anti-Semitism as a concern worthy of U.N. action and signaled that unchecked anti-Semitism bodes ill for society as a whole.
As B'nai B'rith did in a recent private meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Shaheed urged the designation of a high-level U.N. point person on the scourge of anti-Jewish prejudice -- and, vitally, he urged adoption by yet more parties of the indispensable working definition of antiSemitism of the intergovernmental International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That definition encompasses the virulent and defamatory anti-Zionism that is likely the most prevalent contemporary form of lethal anti-Semitism.
While Shaheed noted the disingenuous assertion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that it is merely anti-Israel but not antisemitic, and he wrote that boycotts can be lawful, he "stresse[d] that expression which draws upon antisemitic tropes or stereotypes, rejects the right of Israel to exist, or advocates discrimination against Jewish individuals because of their religion should be condemned." BDS leaders routinely engage in all three, especially the latter two.
Regrettably, Shaheed did write at one point that claims that Israel's very existence is racist, requirements of Israel not applied to other democracies and the equating of Israeli policy with that of the Nazis are "not designate[d] as examples of speech that are ipso facto antisemitic" under the IHRA definition, when IHRA specifically does include those among examples that would be considered antisemitic under the working definition. This discrepancy, all the more so considering Shaheed's endorsement of the IHRA definition and his prior listing of the very examples mentioned, is confusing and might perhaps yet be remedied.
Additionally, Shaheed's not having called out by name various especially prominent international traffickers in crude anti-Semitism (merged frequently with anti-Israelism) is unfortunate. These might include Malaysia's self-described anti-Semitic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, American-based Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, many ranking Iranian officials and their proxies in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and especially Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as Yemen's Houthis, whose very flag reads "Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam." Sadly, international surveys have found shockingly ubiquitous antisemitic attitudes in many predominantly Muslim societies -- not just animus to Israel but to Jews.
This said, such a reality makes Shaheed's nearly 20-page report, with meaningful and accurate information far outnumbering the errors, all the more significant. His sincere and comprehensive treatment of anti-Semitism, including unreserved discussion and condemnation of anti-Israel extremists, reflects a moderate and pluralistic component of the Muslim world, one with deep roots that deserve cultivation. It also resists the broader tendency to obscure the pandemic of modern anti-Semitism, especially as manifested in hate for Israel or "Zionists," in the face of so much intercommunal strife and social upheaval globally.
Finally, Shaheed builds upon the notably positive example set by current U.N. chief Guterres -- a former prime minister of Portugal, with its history of devastating Catholic anti-Semitism, who has repeatedly not just deplored anti-Semitism but recognized the delegitimization of Israel as antisemitic. Guterres also recently launched efforts to combat hate speech and protect places of worship. His initiatives, though requiring further development and additional actions -- including, but not limited to, existing U.N. Holocaust commemoration and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) program for addressing anti-Semitism through education -- cannot be taken for granted.
Good next steps could include having the Alliance of Civilizations, referenced by Shaheed, not only build selective bridges between the "East" and "West" but not exclude Israeli Jews in the process. Israelis should finally be hired for senior positions in the world body and be given the chance to make the immense contributions of which they are capable. Now that, following the efforts of B'nai B'rith and our partners, the U.N. gave some recognition to one major Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, on its staff calendar (beginning in 2015), it could do more to avoid important international meetings, particularly those related to the Middle East, on such holy days.
And especially -- despite any political pushback -- U.N. leaders must more vocally and persistently call out the anti-Israel discrimination that makes the Middle East's only democracy the beleaguered sole Jewish member of the family of nations. Palestinian political narratives and goals should not be favored over those of Israelis through: a rapporteur on Palestinian rights alone; an international day of solidarity with Palestinians; exceptional, standing bodies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices, the Division for Palestinian Rights and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; an unparalleled would-be blacklist marginalizing only companies deemed associated with Israeli Jewish settlements; World Health Organization motions obscenely criticizing Israel (alone); a permanent agenda item at the Human Rights Council, Item 7, scrutinizing Israel (alone); and more condemnatory resolutions, "emergency" sessions, "fact-finding" missions and other measures targeting Israel than all other 192 U.N. member states combined. UNESCO resolutions should never again be allowed to whitewash or minimize Jews' eternal connection to their most sacred places in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Fanatic terrorists attacking Israelis should be, as others are at the U.N., described and combated as such.
In a word, the lives of Jews -- even when they are Israelis, even when they are Zionists -- should be valued like those of any other people. This alone can be the basis of any credible and effective effort to say no to anti-Semitism.
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