Hardly a day passes without reading of someone, somewhere uttering an antisemitic trope. That part is not new; for millennia, this has been the norm. In the pre-Internet era, one could read, primarily in the Jewish media, about an antisemitic public official, a neo-Nazi, or a desk clerk at a restricted hotel uttering hateful comments or spinning conspiracies about Jews.
What is new, or relatively so, is that today we’re learning of Jew-hatred in real time, within hours of it being spouted. It comes from expected, and from unexpected, quarters. And sometimes it’s simply the portrayal of Jews that sends an antisemitic message.
Take the recent Canadian-produced NBC series “Nurses,” whose premise centers around five nurses and the lives and people they interact with. The most recent episode involved a young Hasidic accident victim named Israel and his father, whom we meet in a hospital room, where they’re engaged in conversation with one of the nurses.
The young Hasid needs a bone graft, he is told, and that will require using the bone of a cadaver. Israel expresses shock at the idea of having a “dead leg” inserted into his body, to which his father — dressed in a Hasidic black hat and coat, and wearing payot — says disgustedly: “A dead goyim leg — from anyone. An Arab, a woman.” The nurse, belittling both the father and son, responds: “Or, God forbid, an Arab woman.”
Never mind that Orthodox practice would allow for this graft, much more important, is that the picture presented to the viewer is classic antisemitism. Dressed in black and closed-minded (with one of them literally named Israel), the message is that these Jews are both peculiar and bigoted.
Any stereotyping is dangerous. But the Orthodox community often gets the brunt of this kind of instant presumptuousness. They are portrayed as an oddity or as an easy foil. The show made no attempt to give any kind of context to Orthodox Jewry or its medical worldview. The writers of this episode needed highly identifiable Jews to make the story work — and who cares about who might be hurt as long as it fits neatly into the one-hour timeframe.
But murderous attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Poway, California, or Monsey, New York, are just a few examples of how antisemitic rhetoric can turn violent.
My guess is that most viewers of this program are not Jewish. Those who know us only at a distance would understandably not know about how diverse we are. We have a communal spectrum that runs from left to right, and everything in between, and includes the religious and the secular. Is the viewer’s education about the Jewish people to be gleaned from the likes of “Nurses” and other highly watched programs that traffic in biased presentations about sectors of our community?
I’m old enough to remember episodes of “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” and other TV dramas, that treated Jewish subjects with compassion and a seriousness of intent. That those programs aired at a time when Jews were subjected to admissions quotas, restricted neighborhoods, corporate glass ceilings, and other forms of discrimination made this treatment of Jews all-the-more important in fostering mutual respect.
Today though, in the broader world around us, there seems to be a growing tolerance toward anyone saying anything about whomever they wish, without any filter or fear of opprobrium. And increasingly, Jews have become the target.
“Saturday Night Live’s” Michael Che delivering a blood libel about Israel and the COVID vaccine masked as a “joke”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)’s assertion that a Jewish space laser and the Rothschild family were responsible for California’s wildfires; and Lowell, Massachusetts, School Committee board member Robert Hoey’s referring to a former city employee as a “kike” on live public access TV are just a few very recent examples of what is becoming a frightening trend.
The Canadian producer of “Nurses” has apologized for the offensive episode, and NBC has pulled this episode and others from the air.
“Contrition tours,” where networks, politicians, comedians, and others offer a quick, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry,” or give apology interviews with friendly journalists, is one way of getting these kinds of controversies quickly out of the way. But that is not enough.
The media can play a large role in sensitivity training for the public at large, but first it needs to take a course or two itself. Playing off Jewish stereotypes for shock value, or for a few laughs, is both irresponsible and reckless.
We need to see more positive programming about the Jewish community and its many contributions — in so many fields — to this country. School systems need to utilize textbooks that teach about our story as an immigrant people who came to America from dozens of countries to find a land of opportunity denied to them in the darker corners of Europe and elsewhere. And while people may know a bit about the Jewish religion, more attention needs to be paid to its history, customs, and traditions. Doing that might prevent a repeat of the “Nurses” debacle.
In May, we will observe the 15th anniversary of Jewish American Heritage Month. While positive programming about our community should be a 12-month-a-year endeavor, this special designation on the national calendar offers many opportunities for educators, government officials, media operatives, and others to spotlight our community in a positive way.
The danger we face is the mainstreaming of antisemitism. Where once these expressions of hatred were confined to the margins or were never discovered because there simply was no Internet megaphone, today they are seemingly everywhere, including network television.
As is often said, it may start with the Jews, but it never ends there. It’s not just about us: just follow what is written or said on social media, TV and talk radio, statements from political figures, and off-handed comments by celebrities; they are everywhere. It is one long parade of insults, put-downs, threats, loose talk, and worse.
Is the “Nurses” episode a wake-up call, or just another statistic in a week or month of egregious incidents? Our task is to speak up each time this happens, and as important, to ensure that our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others beyond our community do not become inured to the threats before us.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
On Friday, I was honored to speak virtually with Hilah BBG chapter. The girls ran a beautiful virtual Friday night Shabbat service and after, we talked about Jewish leadership, Israel, anti-Semitism and more. They asked great questions!
I talked about my first trip to Israel, in 1998, where I attended a B’nai B’rith Convention in Jerusalem. I was 15 at the time and saw the impact of bringing B’nai B’rith members from all over the world together. I was able to participate as a BBYO delegate in elections and especially enjoyed the installation dinner. I also listened to my first Israeli singer, who was a guest performer. And I had the privilege of meeting Benjamin Netanyahu at a dinner on top of King David’s citadel. The experience definitely brought me closer to Israel and solidified my involvement in B'nai B'rith.
The girls asked about my volunteer work and I noted that my experience in BBYO and now volunteering in a Jewish organization such as B’nai B’rith International impacts my views of the world and the value I have learned—and continue to learn—about being a global citizen.
Israel advocacy and anti-Semitism were big topics of the night. We talked about the most common lies I hear about Israel—that it’s an “apartheid state”—and how to identify and respond to inaccurate allegations about Israel, as well as the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel belief: anti-Israel is indeed the new anti-Semitism.
The girls asked me what I find most difficult about being a Jewish woman and advocate for Israel in the workforce. I told them that dealing with misinformation and ignorance of others is challenging but I am passionate about speaking openly to those who are willing to learn and as a result, I have had great conversations with people.
The girls were interested in how they can get involved in Israel advocacy. B’nai B’rith International is active at the United Nations in New York and its agencies around the world, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva. B’nai B’rith leaders regularly meet with ambassadors and government leaders and our international connection gives us a voice to advocate for Israel and the Jewish people in the diaspora.
They also wanted to know about my global travels on behalf of B’nai B’rith. When they asked about the favorite place I have visited on behalf of B’nai B’rith my answer included two spots: Japan and Prague.
Perhaps the most memorable experience I have had as an advocate for Israel was meeting with Gilad Shalit in London after his release (the Israeli soldier was a Hamas hostage for more than five years). We got to dance, go out into the town and have stayed in touch via Facebook. I’ve also met with the Deputy prime minister of Japan and spoke in depth about Israel’s history and right to exist peacefully in the middle east. Japan and Israel’s positive relationship has grown in the past few years. Finally, I noted that serving as a B’nai B’rith delegate to WZO has also been an amazing experience.
And we talked about takeaways for the girls: what to keep near their hearts and minds as they move up in the world, through high school and college and beyond. I concluded by telling them that going forward in their lives, they need to question and challenge anyone who supports the BDS movement and uses anti-Israel rhetoric. They must, as Jewish leaders, know the facts and have intelligent conversation with people they encounter. I told them that many anti-Israel statements are misinformation used to promote anti-Semitism. Lastly, I told them to visit Israel, learn the history, and experience it for themselves. I promised them that after such a visit, they would leave with a piece of Israel in their hearts that will inspire their future leadership goals and endeavors and make them better advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.
We had an inspirational and motivating conversation and I am very excited about their enthusiastic participation and interest in Israel advocacy, combating anti-Semitism, leadership and B’nai B’rith’s global work. I look forward to more opportunities to speak to Jewish youth about important topics facing Jews and leadership.
Rebecca Anne Saltzman serves as a senior vice president at B'nai B'rith International and as chair of the Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee. Saltzman also sits on the Executive Board of Directors, has served as the marketing chair and is past chair of the Young Leadership Network (now called B’nai B’rith Connect). In 2012, Saltzman earned the Label A. Katz award, an honor for individuals under 45 who have demonstrated outstanding service to the totality of B’nai B’rith and have worked to achieve the goals of the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership program.
As B’nai B’rith continues to celebrate its 175th anniversary, the menorah continues to be a link to the past, a commitment to the present and a promise for the future.
The founders of B’nai B’rith found their inspiration in the Torah. The name they chose, “Sons/Children of the Covenant,” referred to the covenant that the Jewish people have with God. That definition made them a Jewish organization, with the Torah as a guide to living a Jewish life. B’nai B’rith’s founders wanted each of the members of the organization to commit to becoming a better person by developing good character. This would be accomplished through their personal relationships as well as by helping others that needed assistance in their community.
They chose the menorah, one of the ritual objects described in the Torah, as their emblem. The seven-branched menorah is described in detail in Parashas Terumah. The placement within the Tabernacle is very specific.
We are told that the menorah should be made out of one piece of gold and God shared its creation in a vision to Moses. Commentaries have interpreted the design to have several meanings.
The Italian commentator Sforno interprets the branches, saying that the three branches on the right represented intellectual ideas and the ones on the left represented ideals that applied to how one made a living. The central candle represented the Torah. The six candles on the left and right are connected to the candle in the middle.
The menorah would stand in the outer chamber of the Tabernacle as an inspiration to those who saw the light it emitted. It was not to be placed in the Holy of Holies, as that was the place for the Torah, which did not need any additional light beyond its own. In Parsha Beha’aloscha, we find out that the job of lighting the menorah was given to Aaron, Moses’s brother, and the tribe of Levi. While other tribes were involved in the creation of the Tabernacle, the tribe of Levi did not have a special role until this important responsibility was given to Aaron. The menorah becomes a central piece of history later on later in the Chanukah story, as the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, were the ones who drove the Syrian-Greeks out of the Temple.
The menorah has continued to be the emblem of B’nai B’rith, and in each of our districts, regions and communities we find its counterpart. We have seen it used in many ways; on the large display banner surrounding a stage of leaders and dignitaries at special events, on invitations or on certificates of service. It is proudly displayed on a lapel pin and used as a signet ring. You will see it on T-shirts, hats or neckties.
The menorah candles are used for the induction of members, installation ceremonies, conferences and special occasions. Each candle represents an ideal that B’nai B’rith members are expected to strive for. Light, justice, peace, benevolence, brotherly and sisterly love, harmony and truth are the words and concepts described in the reading. These words and concepts are also referenced in daily prayers, often as attributes of God and how man treats his fellow man. The traditional ceremony used today is one found in B’nai B’rith guides to ritual, but many other creative interpretations exist. The honor of lighting the menorah is one that is taken very seriously, and the ceremony is given a place of honor. The candle lighting ceremony has also been used to share the work of the B’nai Brith Program Centers and /or events in Jewish history, with each candle assigned a special project or event.
B’nai B’rith has been described by scholars as an organization that helped create civil society in America. The desire and need that existed for a Jewish civil society organization helped create the mission that continues to this day. As the Jewish community spread its wings across America, activities that support the Jewish and general community grew. Across the globe, the Jewish community adopted the organization as their means of organizing themselves within the Jewish community. The menorah came with them and the ritual demonstrated a link for all of those involved.
The menorah’s message for today’s members and supporters becomes even more meaningful when it is shared at events that bring together leadership from around the world. At these gatherings, individuals are honored for their good work in the community when they are called to light one of these candles. You will see the menorah used in the logo of B’nai B’rith International. It also is a symbol of the Jewish people and our bond with Israel, as it is part of the official seal for the country and stands outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Help us keep the candles burning by introducing people you know to the wonderful work of B’nai B’rith as members and supporters. There is a pin with a menorah waiting for them.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai brith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. This June will mark her 38th anniversary at B'nai B'rith. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
It hardly mattered that few of the players representing Israel in the World Baseball Classic last month knew the Hebrew terms for balls and strikes. Nor did it cause concern that only two of them possessed Israeli citizenship.
What mattered was that the team, compromised mostly of American players of Jewish descent (persons who are eligible for Israeli citizenship could play for the team), willed and plucked its way to the second round of the international championship. In doing so, they captivated the baseball world and provided both Israeli and American fans with that most irresistible of all sports narratives: an underdog story.
Who were these guys? An compendium of has-beens and never-weres (only two of the team's players appeared on a Major League roster last year), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world and tagged by ESPN as the "Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC." The ace of their pitching staff, 38-year-old Jason Marquis, hadn’t played organized baseball since June 2015. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway spent last season in the minor leagues with two different clubs, but as a Yale alumnus, he helped cement Team Israel’s place as the most educated squad in the WBC.
And yet they won—all three of their qualifying games, all three of their first round games, and a second round game against Cuba in the Tokyo Dome, witnessed by a visiting B'nai B'rith delegation waving Israeli flags and Purim groggers.
The players wore t-shirts that read "Jew Crew." During the pre-game playing of "HaTikvah," the Israeli national anthem, they would remove their game caps and don matching blue kippahs.
But what particularly captured the team ethos of cheekiness and unflappability was its designation of the kitschy life-sized doll "Mensch on a Bench" (the players called him Moshe) as the team's mascot. One player referred to Moshe as "a metaphysical presence" within the team.
They defeated more highly regarded squads from three different continents before succumbing to the Netherlands and Japan. What is also significant, though, is the fact that they competed on equal terms against teams who saw the matchup with Israel not as an opportunity to stoke Israel's political isolation—as is so often the case in international gatherings—but simply to play ball.
Israel's supporters view the Jewish state as blessedly unique, a source of intense pride. But what they want for Israel on the international stage is for it to be treated like any other country, subject to the same rules and standards. The WBC offered the Jewish community, and the world, a glimpse into a present and future in which Israel takes its rightful place among the nations and generates little controversy or backlash for doing so. No boycotts, no demonstrations, no extra security precautions. May the best team win.
Team Israel was a 200-1 underdog in 2017, but how can you not like their chances in the next WBC tournament, in 2021. 200-1? Feh. According to Mensch on a Bench creator Neal Hoffman, "We've faced worse."
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Fusfield.
Most of my professional life has been spent creating and running programs for B’nai B’rith International, having spent the last 39 years as a member of the professional program staff. I cannot look at a newspaper, magazine article or television show without thinking about how the subject can be utilized as a program. As social media brings this content to us at a rapid fire pace, I get this information even faster. The challenge is putting this content into perspective and seeing that there are some issues that will always be relevant for a program that will interest a B’nai B’rith audience.
As the years go by, the specifics may have changed, but I see each program taking form as a six point star (especially since it makes a very nice visual on a power point presentation!).
You do not have to be a trend spotter or a programmer to see these subjects as important to people. It is most likely a topic that is important to you. In B’nai B’rith, these topics are reviewed by the program centers and committees that provide content for the events that are brought to B’nai B’rith and the community audiences.
We have also offered an interest census to help us understand what is important in programming. The topics come from the themes mentioned above, the news headlines, or as we see them defined during an election year, the topics that are on political party platforms. It may have been a recent lecture topic at other organizations or the result of the consensus of coalitions we are part of, to provide a thematic approach to a subject for the Jewish community to educate itself and act with a unified communal response.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: