Combating the world's longest-running hate campaign

October 29th, 2018

Evan Moffic is a rabbi in the Chicago area who leads Congregation Solel, a synagogue of 500 families. He blogs regularly for, and This is an excerpt of his upcoming book, First the Jews: Combating the World’s Longest-Running Hate Campaign (Abingdon Press, 2018).

Last August, an acquaintance at a local church asked for a meeting. I knew her because her son had married someone Jewish, and they and their son had joined the synagogue where I serve as rabbi. When we sat down in my office, she held back tears and said, “I’m scared. I’m scared for my grandson. I want to know he will be okay.”

I knew very little about her background, and I wasn’t sure how to reply. So, I asked, “Why are you scared? What happened to your grandson? He seemed okay last time I saw him.”

She answered, “He’s Jewish.”

Oh, I thought to myself. She’s scared because his parents are not raising him in the church. She wants to make sure he is getting a good religious education. Her concern is not uncommon. I’ve met with many mothers and grandmothers in similar circumstances. She did not know much about Judaism, I surmised, and was concerned about her grandson’s spiritual fate.

Was he going to learn about the Bible? Was he going to feel close to God?

“It’s okay,” I replied. “His parents are wonderful people. You can be sure they are giving him a strong religious education. And remember: Jesus was Jewish, and I even wrote a book about it. I’m happy to give you one.” I got up to get a copy of my book on the Jewishness of Jesus and brought it to her.

She looked at me strangely. She seemed to not understand anything I had just said. So, I continued, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean be rude. I’m also happy to talk with your pastor about ways we can remind your grandson of his Christian heritage as well.” She continued to look at me strangely.

“Am I missing something?” I asked.

She replied, “He’s Jewish. That’s fine. That’s wonderful. I know he will get a good education at this synagogue and will be close to God. But just look around the world, Rabbi. So many people hate the Jews. Look at what happened in Charlottesville. Look at what’s happening in Israel. Look at how many people have forgotten about the Holocaust. I am worried about his safety . . .

“Rabbi,” she continued, “why is there so much anti-Semitism? Why are the Jewish people always hated and attacked? Why?” Tears rolled down her face.

That’s where First the Jews began. It is my answer to her question. It is a look at history’s most enduring hatred. In this book, I explore how anti-Semitism affects Jews — but I also argue that anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem. It affects all of us. And it threatens not only physical safety and security. Anti-Semitism is a litmus test of the social fabric — anti-Semitism’s uptick usually goes hand in hand with other social and political problems, like political divisiveness, suppression of basic rights and increased violence.

What is anti-Semitism?

As the grandmother of my congregant saw, anti-Semitism is growing today. Anti-Semitic incidents increased by 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017!* Many of the rioters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 carried signs that said, “Jews will not replace us.” Anti-Semitism is a core value of both the alt-right movement and the Far Left, and anti-Semitism underpins many commonplace tropes that at first blush seem to be apolitical and unrelated to Judaism. But what, exactly, is anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism is hostility toward Jews. It appears in behavior, words, political policies, economic transactions and religious practice. Anti-Semitism can even appear when Jews are not present, as was the case in Japan during the early twentieth century, when people expressed hostile views of Jews even though they had never met one. In addition, certain actions can be anti-Semitic in effect but not intent. For example, someone can say, “The Jews killed Jesus” without thinking he or she is saying something hostile toward Jews. But as we will see, this belief has had destructive and deadly consequences.

We also need to point out that anti-Semitism is not technically the right term for referring to persecution of Jews because Jews are not the only Semitic people. Others throughout the Middle East are considered Semites.

While certainly a prejudice, anti-Semitism is not synonymous with bigotry or racism. Judaism is not a race, because a person can convert into Judaism, but Judaism is, in part, an ethnicity, because a person is automatically Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish. Thus, anti-Semitism is not simply a traditional form of racism or religious bigotry. It is both and more. Even more importantly, history suggests that when anti-Semitism grows, so does racism, bigotry, sexism and the other kinds of divisions we see spreading around the world today. As anti-Semitism grows, so does the erosion of our faith, culture and core values. A world not safe for Jews is a world not safe for anybody. Hence the title of my book. “First the Jews” is a quotation from the apostle Paul, who wrote in the letter to the Romans that God would save all who believed, “first the Jews” and then the Gentiles (1:16 GNT). But “first the Jews” is more than a biblical statement about God’s saving power. It is also a reminder that Jews are the first targets of tyrants. An old Jewish proverb says that when a Jew coughs, the world catches a cold. Put differently, treatment of Jews is a barometer for the health of a society.

The journey

We begin by looking now and answering the question, why has anti-Semitism surged over the last two decades? In doing so, we look at recent events on the left and right of the political and social spectrum: The anti-Semitism articulated by the alt-right is a new phenomenon, but not a surprising one — reactionary groups thriving on public anger and division have often persecuted Jews. However, the Left’s consistent targeting of Israel — which has anti-Semitic components — has led many Jews to feel betrayed by people they thought were peers and friends. It’s one thing to experience anti-Semitism from neo-Nazis. It is another thing to see it among people you trust.

Then we ask the broader question: Why does anti-Semitism exist at all? Why is it the world’s longest-lasting and most persistent hatred? My answer is the “Big Five” — the five rationales used throughout history for anti-Semitism:

  • Jews are different. 
  • Jews killed Jesus. 
  • Jews are greedy. 
  • Jews are an inferior race holding back scientific and human advancement. 
  • Jews are Western imperialists.

How can we best respond to anti-Semitism today? I focus in particular on the dangers that a decline in religious practice and in political civility pose for creating the kind of culture in which religious differences can coexist. I believe that our future depends on moving away from identity politics—a political discourse in which we reductively identify groups as either wholly “privileged” or wholly “oppressed” — toward an appreciation of the other and a focus on common ground. 

In First the Jews, I also include my personal story as a rabbi — how experiencing and witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism changed me from naive to committed, from a leader focused on serving only his own community to a rabbi committed to teaching people of all faiths. Ten years ago, I didn’t teach much about anti-Semitism, but I increasingly feel it’s urgent for Americans of all religions and no religion to address together the rise in anti-Semitism — and to consider what the consequences will be if we do not. Will we look back and see our era in the same way we look back and see the Europe of the 1930s? Or will we learn the lessons of the Holocaust and combat the resurgence of history’s oldest hatred?

*For  an overview  of current statistics  on anti-Semitism, see the audit by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) titled “U.S. Anti-Semitic Incidents  Surged in 2016-17.” 

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