On the Jews, Israel, and Antisemitism – Part I; Chayyei Sarah
Rabbi Josh Weinberg
(בראשית כג:ט)וְיִתֶּן־לִ֗י אֶת־מְעָרַ֤ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בִּקְצֵ֣ה שָׂדֵ֑הוּ בְּכֶ֨סֶף מָלֵ֜א יִתְּנֶ֥נָּה לִּ֛י בְּתוֹכְכֶ֖ם לַאֲחֻזַּת־קָֽבֶר׃
“Let him sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.” (Genesis 23:9)
Since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th and Israel’s subsequent bombing and ground war in Gaza, antisemitic incidents have been rising across the world. Governments and civil society groups in the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America, and Africa have reported a significant increase in attacks against Jewish people and their property.
No one is shocked that Israel’s response has come under great criticism. And many of us in the Jewish community are feeling the double whammy blow of grieving and mourning the victims of the attack, and the additional blow we feel as so many in the world only see Israel as the aggressor. They deny the extent of Hamas’ brutality and champion the moral bigotry of not holding Hamas accountable.
As Jews, we have the experience of being the perpetual “other.” For many liberal Jews, this moment has proven to be an alarming wake-up call. 85 years since the great November pogrom (euphemistically known as “Kristallnacht” or the night of broken glass) When the Jewish State was brutally attacked in a pogrom-style massacre for no other reason than being the Jewish State, many in the progressive and intellectual circles freely associate Hamas’ actions with a legitimate form of resistance and continue to see Israel as the all-out aggressor. Many so-called progressives have demonstrated a shocking inability to internalize the notion that Jews, despite being in positions of power and affluence, were immediately transported to the antisemitism of yesteryear with the Hamas attacks.
I have never been one to link my Jewish identity with combating antisemitism. I am not Jewish because of those who hate us, and I am not inspired to live a Jewish life because of the Holocaust or because of continual adversity and hatred. However, the events of the past month have served as a bitter reminder that antisemitism is real.
Over the next few weeks, this column will be dedicated to a discussion, exploration, and confrontation of contemporary antisemitism and how Israel, Zionism, and Jewish Peoplehood have become the modern target of an age-old phenomenon.
Let us first establish context:
As NYT Columnist Thomas Friedman penned yesterday:
“Israel is facing threats from a set of enemies who combine medieval theocratic worldviews with 21st-century weaponry — and are no longer organized as small bands of militiamen, but as modern armies with brigades, battalions, cyber capabilities, long-range rockets, drones, and technical support. I am speaking about Iranian-backed Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen — and now even the openly Hamas-embracing Vladimir Putin. These foes have long been there, but all of them seemed to surface together like dragons during this conflict, threatening Israel with a 360-degree war all at once.”
This is a scary reality. And it comes from around the world with a renewed sense of hatred of Israel and the Jewish people. Israelis today are facing a renewed attempt to will it out of existence through military prowess and/or intellectual reasoning.
Hamas has been clear: Israel simply shouldn’t exist.
According to Ghazi Hamad, a top Hamas official who gave a shocking interview on Lebanese TV:
“Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We must remove that country, because it constitutes a security, military, and political catastrophe to the Arab and Islamic nations, and must be finished. We are not ashamed to say this, with full force. We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do this again and again. (This)… is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth because we have the determination, the resolve, and the capabilities to fight. Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs. The occupation must come to an end.”
The news anchor then asked: “Occupation where? In the Gaza Strip?”
“No, I am talking about all the Palestinian lands,” replied Hamad.
“Does that mean the annihilation of Israel?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Hamad. “The existence of Israel is illogical. The existence of Israel is what causes all that pain, blood, and tears… Therefore, nobody should blame us for the things we do. On October 7, October 10, October 1,000,000 –everything we do is justified.”
Although global sympathy was firmly on Israel’s side after Hamas slaughtered more than 1400 people – the worst single day for Jewish deaths since the Holocaust – public opinion has turned amid Palestine’s increasing number of civilian casualties from Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. Israel has been increasingly treated as a pariah state the simple foundation of which is illegitimate.
I have written about antisemitism as a reservoir in the culture, something there to be drawn on. This is a reservoir that has been built up over centuries, even over millennia. There are three key elements in this: first, the idea that Judaism was superseded by Christianity (second, the idea that Jews are forever conspiratorial and up to something against the common good; and third, the connection of Jews with money. These ideas have been repurposed to undermine Jews and Judaism over the centuries in multiple political contexts. They are repurposed in some of the current antisemitic attacks on Israel.
Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore elegantly articulates in The Atlantic:
“The decolonization narrative has dehumanized Israelis to the extent that otherwise rational people excuse, deny, or support barbarity. It holds that Israel is an ‘imperialist-colonialist’ force, that Israelis are ‘settler-colonialists,’ and that Palestinians have a right to eliminate their oppressors. (On October 7, we what that meant.) It casts Israelis as ‘white’ or ‘white-adjacent’ and Palestinians as ‘people of color.’
This ideology, powerful in the academy but long overdue for serious challenge, is a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century. But its current engine is the new identity analysis, which sees history through a concept of race that derives from the American experience. The argument is that it is almost impossible for the ‘oppressed’ to be themselves racist, just as it is impossible for an ‘oppressor’ to be the subject of racism. Jews therefore cannot suffer racism, because they are regarded as ‘white’ and ’privileged’; although they cannot be victims, they can and do exploit other, less privileged people, in the West through the sins of ’exploitative capitalism’ and in the Middle East through ‘colonialism.’”
As we read this week in Parashat Chayei Sarah, Avraham insisted on purchasing the plot of land as the burial cave for his wife Sarah. Rashi, commenting on Genesis, says in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak that all of Genesis is included in the Torah to document the Jewish people’s rights to the Land of Israel. Rashi, in a prophetic foreshadowing of our own time, says that when the nations of the world turn to the Jewish People and claim we are colonialist robbers who took the Land by force, by might but not by right, then we will look in the Torah and respond: “God created the world and originally allotted the land to the seven nations. But when those nations sinned through their pagan immoral behaviors, God took the title for the land away from those nations and gave it as an eternal gift to the Jewish People.”
Abraham put two and two together: he realized that for his descendants, who would return to the Promised Land after living in a foreign country for hundreds of years and multiple generations, it might be far from self-evident that this land, inhabited by the Canaanite nations, belonged to them. He feared that their enemies would accuse them of having no connection, no rights to the land, and that his descendants, hearing their enemies’ taunts, might lose their self-confidence and belief in the justness of their cause. How to make sure then that his descendants would know that they have a deep moral connection and a just right to this land?
Of course, our biblical story does not serve as a deed to the land nor as internationally recognized legitimacy. However, any student of history will be painfully aware that the Jewish people ruled Judean kingdoms and prayed in the Jerusalem Temple for a thousand years, then were ever-present there in smaller numbers for the next 2,000 years. In other words, Jews are indigenous in the Holy Land. If one believes in the right of exiled people to return to their homeland, then the return of the Jews is exactly that. Further, there was never a period of time or a generation over the past 2000 years that Jews did not live in the Land of Israel.
Our Biblical connection to the Land does not give us Jews carte blanche to annex or usurp territory that we conquered in modern wars. But, it needs to be internalized as the intellectual attempts to advocate the de-colonizer theory and by default legitimize the murder of Jews who have committed some kind of “original sin,” continues to grow and is quickly seeping in as accepted theory in higher education and intellectual circles.
More on that next week, Shabbat Shalom.
 The Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents had risen by about 400% in the two weeks following the Oct. 7 attack, compared with the same period last year.