White nationalists and supremacists and neo Nazis surrounded and taunted counter protestors in Charlottesville.
Beginning tonight, millions of Jewish Americans will observe Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and then, ten days later, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Together, these high holy days reflect a duality, even a paradox of progress: We cannot fulfill the promise of the new without first recognizing and seeking forgiveness for the pain of the old.
For Americans of every faith, this timeless tradition might inform and inspire our journeys toward a collective tikkun olam—repair of our world. Indeed, we cannot strive to mend without first acknowledging what is broken. And among the wrongs we must make right, one specific sin that stains the conscience of our nation is the resurgent scourge of American antisemitism.
Today, antisemitic bigotry is becoming more brazen—and dangerous.
During the last five years, the Jewish-American community has endured a record number of hate crimes, a 35% increase between 2021 and 2022.
This includes the horrific 2018 terrorist attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, of which American Jews are reminded every single Saturday as they walk past police officers posted at their synagogue doors—as well as the 2019 murders of Jewish people in Poway, California, Jersey City, New Jersey, and Monsey, New York. Last year, another perpetrator took four people hostage during a Sabbath service at a temple in my home state of Texas.
We hear the echoes of violence in the coded language and dog whistles of our conspiratorial and paranoid politics. We scroll through the onslaught of antisemitic expression up and down our social media feeds. We see it in the sinister insinuations about surnames like Soros and Rothschild. We sense its spread in the cancer of Holocaust denial, metastasizing online and off.
Antisemitism is among the oldest forms of hate. Its ongoing expression aggravates intergenerational trauma for a community that remains vulnerable—for a people who experience that vulnerability intensely, despite what some simplistically assume to be their full acceptance in mainstream American life.
One might even draw a parallel between the Jewish communities of the United States today and those of Germany and Austria a century ago, who thought themselves assimilated into their home countries but were condemned as the “other.” Through the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of people self-identified as German Jews, German first. But as the next several decades unfolded, it became all too clear that the reality was the exact opposite: Their neighbors saw them only as Jews, who happened to reside in Germany.
America’s history is rife with our own version of persecution and pogroms, entangling even those that our familiar stories anoint as heroes.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, simultaneously defended the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way” while turning away Jewish asylum seekers through the 1930s. The very ideology that they were fleeing manifested itself again in Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis brandished torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
We can and must do better.
We must look to the lessons of history, which affirm—as do the Jewish high holy days this week—that there can be no reconciliation without atonement, no justice without accountability.
I feel this obligation acutely as the leader of an institution that protects and promotes democratic values, which also was founded by Henry Ford—an icon of innovation, and industry, and philanthropy, and one of the twentieth century’s most virulent American antisemites.
Further, all of us engaged in building a fairer, more just America ought to embrace our responsibility to speak out about this ancient strain of inequality—this category of caste—exactly as we call out racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia.
To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, a Rabbinic text on ethics, we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Making amends for the sins of our past requires a fundamental reckoning. And the first step is rejecting indifference.
Let’s root out bias in our own actions and question the causes and concessions at the root of our inaction. Let’s condemn acts of explicit prejudice and find the will to challenge silence, as well.
Ultimately, let’s regard solidarity not as a finite resource that we might somehow deplete, but rather as a muscle that we strengthen with use.
Reflecting on the last century, Elie Wiesel, a hero of mine, cautioned that “indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor, never his victim.” As we mark these high holy days, let us cast off our indifference—and forge a new beginning, with hope, worthy of the ideals we cherish.