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Anti-Semitism — Do We Say Something? #680

06/04/2021 04:11:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Sh'lach Lecha

“Let us by all means go up and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome.” (Numbers 13:30).

Anti-Semitism — Do We Say Something?

Is there anyone among us who has not heard — in our travels, at work or in social circles — the phrase “Jew you down?”

Often, congregants come into my office feeling uneasy or even guilty that despite having heard the phrase they decided to say nothing for a variety of reasons.

If you can relate, you are not alone.

Making a scene or commenting on someone else’s conversation can make us feel uncomfortable. It requires an investment of time, it leads us to confrontation, and in the end we often ask ourselves if it will it make a difference.

So, what do we do?

Many years ago, while traveling on business, I stopped at a gas station to top up my tank, and paid in cash. When the cashier handed me change from a $20 bill for a $7 fill, I noticed she had only given me back three dollars.

I calmly said, “I think I have another ten dollars coming to me.” To which she replied, “Okay, here is your $10. I wasn’t trying to Jew you, you know.”

I paused for a moment, and asked myself. “Should I, or shouldn’t I?”

And I did.

“Can I please speak to you privately,” I said to the clerk. She stepped out from behind the cash register and joined me a few feet away from customers.

“The term ‘Jew you’ is offensive,” I began. “It implies that Jews are dishonest, or cheaters or horde money. I am Jewish.”

She replied, “Its okay. Everyone says it. It’s just a figure of speech.”

“Actually, it’s not,” I continued. “So, this can go two ways. I either call the manager, or I want you to assure me you will never use that phrase again.”

She nodded and returned to the cash.

From time to time, I’ve thought about that incident, which occurred long before I became a rabbi, and wondered, “Did I do enough?”

The phrase was overheard this past weekend, as our family traveled south to commemorate Memorial Day.

The question always remains how to we respond? Is it harmless? Besides, “everyone” says it.

These days, it seems that stereotyping racial groups appears to be increasing, rather than diminishing. The Internet too often serves as a platform for racists. Television programs, websites and social media platforms openly mock the physical appearance or the misfortunes of others.

Good values and accountability seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Many search Google to see “what is trending” as if somehow, what the majority is searching for is what we should be interested in whether the content is good or bad.

Indeed, the issue of following the majority comes up in this week’s Torah portion named Shelach Lecha. God commands Moses to send 12 spies to the Promised Land to assess the Israelites’ prospects of conquering the territory.

Two of the spies Joshua and Caleb return with positive reports. They acknowledge that although the Canaanites appeared to be larger in size, the Israelites can prevail with faith and conviction.

Joshua and Caleb describe the land as flowing with “milk and honey,” and attempt to rally the people: “Let us by all means go up and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome.” (Numbers 13:30).

But the remaining 10 spies the majority promote a different viewpoint. They convene their “minyan” and report with great concern: “All the people we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

The people panic. “Let us go back to Egypt.”

Remember Egypt? That was that wonderful land of slavery and immorality, where the majority worshipped materialism.

Based on the report from the 10, the people begin to weep. Majority rules. God ultimately concludes that the Israelites are not yet ready to advance as a confident nation and condemns them to 40 years of wandering in the desert.

As a society, we cherish the idea of majority, especially, for example, when it comes to elections or achieving consensus within a community. But sometimes the majority especially when it embraces negativity and stereotypes is not right.

The theme takes us to current times. 

For included in a renewed gravitation toward herd mentality, is racism and with it a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism.

In recent months, we as Jews have witnessed attacks from all sides of the political spectrum as many have turned their backs upon facts, instead, accepting and adhering to majority attitudes. 

It begins quietly, with passivity toward language.

In a 2019 article written in the Jewish Telegraph Agency, writer Marcy Oster notes that the term “Jew down” seems to be making a comeback.

She documents a number of city council meetings across the country where the term was spoken often with no immediate challenge during debates and deliberation.

Similarly, also making a comeback are demeaning phrases such as to “gyp,” referring to gypsies, and to “welch,” referencing those of Welsh descent.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt in her book, Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, includes a chapter on what she calls the clueless anti-Semite — “the person who engages in anti-Semitism but doesn’t even know it.”

She notes, “Anti-Semitism has gone so deep into the roots of society that people don’t recognize that they are engaging in it when they engage in it. “This,” she adds, “does not excuse this behavior.”

Still, within a world where it appears that the majority is embracing so many negative trends, there are behaviors we can model based on the example of Joshua and Caleb.

For they call upon us to summon our best angels. It means that when derogatory words encircle us those which target Jews or other “racialized” groups we need to stand our ground.

We as Jews have survived not by blending into the majority, but rather by serving as standard bearers for what is right.

As I recall the gas station incident of many years ago, I am reminded of the importance of making a statement against the majority rather than merely walking away however uncomfortable that may feel at the time.

Rather, we need to be true to ourselves and to how our parents raised us. We must live life according to the righteous values inspired by Torah. It’s what we should be teaching our children and grandchildren.

Especially these days, when we hear an inappropriate term or slur whether it be about us or someone else we need to become upstanders rather than bystanders.

In the words of Joshua and Caleb, we must dedicate ourselves in mind and body to “go up.” Sometimes we need to ascend with the minority rather than descent with the majority. That message remains as relevant today.

Our tradition teaches that we cannot stand by passively as the world increasingly embraces quantity over quality. More importantly, each of us bears responsibility as soldiers of justice. 

The lesson of Joshua and Caleb has inspired our people for centuries; the majority is not always right.

Indeed, when it comes to unchecked racism and stereotypes, there can be no majority.

For it all begins with us one action, one word, one expression at a time.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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