Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur 5778 – Empathy in Troubling Times

Many of us were shocked by what happened in Charlottesville in August. The ADL describes the scene:

Marchers threw Nazi salutes as they waved swastika flags, proudly wore swastika pins and shirts, and shouted “sieg heil!”  A sign carried by rally-goers warned that the “Jewish media is going down;” another declared that “Jews are Satan’s children.”  A white supremacist told a reporter that “the f****** Jew-lovers are gassing us,” and another one called a Jewish counter-protestor a kike. “Blood and soil,” which the white supremacists chanted several times, is the translation of the Nazi slogan, “Blut und Boden.” And at least once, white supremacists changed their refrain, “You will not replace us” to “Jews will not replace us.”

A wide array of anti-Semitic Neo-Nazis and white supremacists participated in the rally in Charlottesville.

Vanguard America – whose followers include James Alex Fields, the man who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one – blames Jews for Communism, the pornography industry, the corruption of the mass media, and the deaths of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. The group’s manifesto calls for eliminating the purported dominance of a “rootless group of international Jews” over the US economy.

The Traditionalist Worker Party claims that the true loyalty of American Jews is to Israel, not America. Its platform states, “the organized Jewish community’s record of deceit, duplicity, and double-standards in lobbying against American interests within the American political system is unmatched.” The organization’s leader, Matt Heimbach, has said on the record that “Hitler was a good person.”

The League of the South describes “the Jew” as “an ancient and implacable enemy of our people and civilization.” They warn the US faces a “civil war” between “the forces of Western Civilization…and the forces of Judeo-Marxism.” They describe the Holocaust as “a dubious story” told “to induce Christian guilt.”

And then there’s the National Socialist Movement, a group that venerates Hitler. Their leader, Jeff Schoep, writes “My advice is never ever remove the bright shining light off of the Jew, for it is the Jew that is the true enemy of all humanity on this planet! All the other races and racial problems we have go back to the Jew, and the focus should never be removed from them.”

The white supremacists are also busy on Twitter. I went on to Twitter to see what kind of stuff was out there under hashtags such as #killthejews #nukeisrael and #hitlerwasright.

Not that I WANT to share much of what I found with you – it made me want to vomit – but there’s very little that I even can share in a synagogue setting – it’s all laced with profanities.

Antisemitism is getting worse. The ADL reported an astonishing 86% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the first three months of 2017. And that was on top of a 34% increase in such incidents in 2016. Particularly disturbing is the fact that anti-Semitic bullying and vandalism at K-12 schools is getting much worse – as many incidents in the first quarter of 2017 as there were in all of 2016.

College campuses are also seeing an upswing in anti-Semitism, and on campus we get it from both sides.

A white nationalist group, Identity Evropa, a group that claims to “promote white culture,” has launched “Project Siege,” a promotion of its hate-filled doctrines on campus. Identity Evropa encourages “remigration:” They’d like immigrants to go back where they came from. They don’t allow Jews as members.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Palestinian-supporting far-left protestors are driving an increasingly hostile atmosphere toward Jews on some University of California campuses, CUNY, and at Northwestern University. In March of 2017, Students for Justice in Palestine at San Diego State University held an “Israeli Apartheid Week.” These groups often harass Jewish speakers, especially ones representing the Israeli-government.

The situation in Europe is even worse.

In America, anti-Semitism mostly takes the form of verbal harassment and property damage, such as graffiti or defacing synagogues or cemeteries. Serious physical assaults against Jews in America, thankfully, are still pretty rare.

That’s not the case in Europe. The Community Security Trust in the UK, a nonprofit established to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish community in the UK, warns of “unprecedented” attacks, abuse, and harassment. They recorded 80 violent assaults against Jews in the first six months of 2017.

Over the last five years a number of Jews were murdered in hate crimes in France. In 2012, a Frenchman of Algerian descent got off his motorbike in front of the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and started firing a 9mm pistol at students and parents. He killed a 30-year-old rabbi and his 3- and 6-year-old sons. He chased down an 8-year-old girl, Myriam Monsonego, grabbed her by the hair and put his 9mm gun to her head. The gun jammed, he switched weapons, put the new gun to her head, and fired. The girl’s father arrived just in time to see his daughter executed.

In 2015, an attack at a Paris supermarket left four Jews dead. The Chabad rabbi in Malmo, Sweden, has endured over 150 anti-Semitic attacks, both verbal and physical.

French Jews have been responding to increasing anti-Semitism by making aliyah, moving to Israel, in record numbers. In 2012, 1,900 French Jews emigrated to Israel. By 2014, that number had risen to over 7,200.

How worried should we be?

I suspect most of us are “concerned,” but not terribly worried.

The violent anti-Semitism in Europe is driven by Muslim fanatics; we haven’t seen as much of that here in America, at least not since 9/11.

Even here in Alabama, a bastion of white supremacists, I don’t feel afraid to wear my kippah in public. Although, admittedly, Birmingham is something of a bubble.

Most of us have not personally experienced anti-Semitism recently. The one thing that did affect many of us, the threats against the JCC and the day school, was perpetrated by an Israeli Jew (although, it should be pointed out, others were allegedly paying him to make those threats).

My initial thought was that we don’t need to be too worried.

And then I read our own Ruth Siegler’s memoir of survival, “My Father’s Blessing.” I teared up when I read how the last time she saw her father, in Auschwitz, he gave her the birkat cohanim, the same blessing I bless my kids with (via Facetime) every Friday.

But what causes me to feel a little more worried is when she describes how surprised they were by the change in the Jews’ status.

Ruth wrote,

My family, as well as the other Jewish families of Senzenich, were treated as equals by our non-Jewish neighbors. Until I was about six years old, I felt very comfortable with the non-Jewish residents of our town. Many of my friends and those of my parents were not Jewish, and I saw no hint that any trouble for Jews in Germany was on the horizon.

But that all changed with Kristallnacht. Ruth said,

Kristallnacht was the beginning of a long nightmare for my family and millions of other German Jews. I was 11 years old at the time. The events of Kristallnacht started in the afternoon on November 9, 1938. The insanity came with no warning.

Ruth was a child in 1938; she could be forgiven for not seeing it coming. Her parents, presumably, weren’t so surprised. Everything in Germany changed in 1933. Hitler was appointed Chancellor, civil liberties were restricted in response to the Reichstag fire, Dachau opened for business, originally to hold political prisoners, Hitler declared the Third Reich and was made dictator, and state anti-Semitism began: there was a one-day, government-sanctioned, boycott of all Jewish businesses, and “non-Aryans” were forced to retire from the legal profession and civil service. Racism and anti-Semitism were the law of the land. Gay and transgender people were persecuted along with the Jews and other “inferior races.” White supremacists on steroids were in charge.

Racism and anti-Semitism were hand in hand during the Third Reich, and they are hand in hand today.

I’m not losing sleep over the increase in anti-Semitic property damage and verbal harassment in America.

What I do lose sleep over is the rise of the radical right and its hateful ideology: racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-anyone who’s not a straight, white, Christian, preferably born in America.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on “The Year in Hate and Extremism,”

The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century …  After half a century of being increasingly relegated to the margins of society, the radical right entered the political mainstream last year in a way that had seemed virtually unimaginable since George Wallace ran for president in 1968.

Fortunately, President Trump has purged the most visible members of the radical right from his inner circle. Sebastian Gorka, Mike Flynn, and Stephen Bannon, all of whom were tied to the radical right, are all gone.

Unfortunately, the seeds sown by the radical right, the seeds of division, discord, and identity politics, seem to be growing stronger by the day.

The response to the radical right has too often been to counter hate with hate.

Black nationalist groups – black racist groups – have also shown a growth spurt in response. There were 180 known such groups in 2015, 193 last year. Micah Johnson, who assassinated five Dallas police officers last year, had liked the Facebook pages of the New Black Panther Party and the Black Raiders Liberation Party before going out on his killing spree.

Another response has been the antifa movement, which is short for Anti-Fascist, or Anti-Fascist Action.

Antifa activists believe in fighting fire with fire. They reason if the radical right is violent, the radical left needs to stop them, with violence if necessary. A recent article by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic describes their tactics:

Since antifa is heavily composed of anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action: They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.

I worry that hate is contagious.

I worry that moderates express support for the radicals. I worry when moderate Republicans support the radical right’s calls for racist and anti-immigrant policies, and I worry when moderate Democrats support antifa’s use of force to limit free speech.

I worry that algorithms used by social media companies are putting us into echo chambers where we only hear the voices that we already agree with, voices that drive us to greater division as we no longer hear the other side of the story.

I worry that universities are no longer places where young people are exposed to all kinds of ideas and people; instead we have trigger warnings, antifa ready to drown out speakers from the right, and Students for Justice in Palestine ready to drown out speakers from Israel.

But all that worry, in a way, is part of the problem.

If we’re worried about something, our natural tendency is to blame someone.

Worried about crime? Blame blacks.

Worried about job security? Blame immigrants.

Worried about the banking system or the media? Blame the Jews.

Don’t like the way the election turned out? Blame the Russians, or rednecks.

Don’t like football players kneeling during the national anthem? Blame Colin Kaepernick, or, more broadly, ungrateful privileged overpaid black athletes.

Brene Brown, a professor at the University of Houston who studies empathy, says that the impulse to blame comes from living in a “scarcity culture.” And it’s an artificial scarcity, because in truth we have plenty – but people are continually being told – or telling themselves – that they’re not good enough, not safe enough, not extraordinary enough, not fill in the blank enough.

So we go out into the world “armored up.” We shield our hearts. We’re ready to kick butt, and if the world is cruel, or our boss is mean, or some idiot cuts in front of us, it bounces off our armor, and we blame others.

Armor works. It protects us. The only problem is it not only keeps bad stuff out, it keeps good stuff out. And it keeps our good stuff locked away from the world as well.

Professor Brown said, “Our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted.”

If we’re willing to do something scary – take our armor off – we can instead see the pain of other people, we can empathize with other people.

And empathy is very different than sympathy. You can have sympathy with your armor on. Sympathy is feeling for you; empathy is feeling with you.

Most of us don’t want sympathy. It feels like being pitied, and no one wants to be pitied. Brown is from Texas, where people will often say “bless your heart” as an expression of sympathy. I understand “bless your heart” means something a little different in Alabama – something more like “boy, are you stupid.” But she hates it as an expression of sympathy. She wants to make a t-shirt that reads “Bless my heart and I’ll punch your face.”

Empathy is about being present, being engaged, really hearing what the other person has to say, and sharing their feelings, whether it’s scared, depressed, or frustrated.

As society seems more and more divided, we all seem more and more armored up, and less and less likely to listen to each other.

The whole controversy of black athletes taking a knee during the national anthem is an interesting case study. It started out as a way to call attention to the Black Lives Matter concerns – that young African American men are not treated the same way as young white men by society, especially by the police.

It’s now spiraled completely away from that and become some sort of proxy culture war, with people taking sides for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the original motivation behind the act.

The particular action of kneeling during the national anthem, however, came about as the result of the kind of empathic, hearing each other conversation that no one today is having surrounding the issue.

Colin Kaepernik, the football player who started all this, first sat instead of standing for the national anthem as a way to call attention to racial oppression in America.

Nate Boyer, who is white, and at the time was a Seattle Seahawks long snapper and a former Green Beret combat soldier wrote Kaepernik an open letter, published in the Army Times. Boyer talked about the one time he got to stand for the national anthem at a professional football game, and said:

I thought about how far I’d come and the men I’d fought alongside who didn’t make it back. I thought about those overseas who were risking their lives at that very moment. I selfishly thought about what I had sacrificed to get to where I was, and while I knew I had little to no chance of making the Seahawks’ roster as a 34-year-old rookie, I was trying.

That moment meant so much more to me than even playing in the game did, and to be honest, if I had noticed my teammate sitting on the bench, it would have really hurt me.

He was respectful though – empathic even. He added,

Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it. When I told my mom about this article, she cautioned me that “the last thing our country needed right now was more hate.” As usual, she’s right.

Kaepernik responded (reported by ESPN) by not only listening to Boyer – he arranged an in-person meeting. 49er Safety Eric Reid joined that meeting in San Diego. It was Reid who suggested kneeling instead of sitting. Boyer said,

It’s a good step, and it shows progress on your part and sensitivity and that you care about other people and how this affects them, their reaction. It’s still definitely a symbol. People take a knee to pray. In the military, we take a knee all the time. It’s one of the things we do. When we’re exhausted on patrol, they say take a knee and face out. So we take a knee like that. We’ll take a knee as the classic symbol of respect in front of a brother’s grave site, a soldier on a knee.

There’s an incredible irony at work here. The people most vehemently opposed to players “taking a knee” claim it’s disrespectful to the flag and veterans. Yet the gesture came out of a desire to do just the opposite. And not only that, the gesture was the result of a heart-to-heart, real dialog between Kaepernik and a veteran.

To be clear, I’m not saying I think taking a knee is a great idea. I don’t think it’s working. I think it’s starting a dialog about the wrong topic – instead of starting a dialog about racism, it’s starting a fight about taking a knee.

But I do think Kaepernik and Boyer were very effective role models for all of us.

Kaepernik and Boyer point the way out of this ever-escalating cycle of hate.

Kaepernik and Boyer show us how to take the wind out of the sails of the white supremacists and antifa.

We need empathy. We need to not only listen to each other, but to be willing to be vulnerable and show some empathy.

We need to stop demonizing people.

There’s a beautiful story in the Talmud about how some bandits were harassing Rabbi Meir. His wife, Beruriah, heard the rabbi praying for the death of these bandits.  Beruriah said, “wait, what are you doing?  Do you think this is permitted because of the verse which says “let chata’im, sins, cease?”  Does it says “chota’im, sinners?  NO—it says SINS.”  So R. Meir changed his prayer, to one that the wicked people should do repentance.  And they did repent, and stopped tormenting him.

Instead of countering hate with hate, we need to work to subvert hate. We need empathy – we need to hear what it is that has people hurt, scared, afraid. Responding with empathy instead of with hate may generate an opening for a real conversation, and a new solution, as happened when Kaepernik and Boyer actually sat down to talk.

And the first place we need to eradicate the hate is our own hearts. I don’t care who it is that you hate – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, David Duke or Louis Farrakhan, hate isn’t the answer. We need to get past our own fears, take our armor off, and be able to empathize with others.

And we should remember that those who hate the Jews for the most part also hate others. We need to band together with other people of good faith.

Al Sharpton – a man who has had some conflict with the Jewish community in the past – wrote an opinion piece in one of the leading Israeli newspapers, Haaretz, saying that Jews and African Americans need to join together in the struggle against racism, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all of its forms.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said,

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.


G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for a good year!

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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