At the community Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Memorial Program last spring, the Wexner family very generously offered participants a complimentary copy of a new book, Antisemitism Here & Now, by historian Deborah Lipstadt. I took a copy and was glad I did. In the book, Prof. Lipstadt makes an observation especially worth sharing tonight. She writes of a disturbing new development; a “growing tendency among those who fight antisemitism to see it as a problem that exists only on the “other” side of the political spectrum. Those on the left see Jew hatred only on the right. Those on the right see it only on the left. Both are correct in what they see. But they are blind or rather willfully blind themselves to the antisemitism in their midst.” (p.211)
This observation comports with my own experience. I’ve noticed in conversations throughout the year, and when I am emailed articles and opinion pieces about the threat we face from antisemitism, that the condemnations are typically aimed at one side of the political, partisan divide – the one which my interlocutor opposes anyway. These exchanges on the topic are with smart people who follow the news cycle closely, and sincerely want to make sure their rabbi is similarly well-informed. I want to make it very clear that I admire and respect their diligence. I believe antisemitism is real and a serious problem and I feel reassured my congregants share that concern. Also, I am just as guilty of bias. It definitely feels better to lambast examples of bigotry on other side than it does to call out my own side for tolerating or engaging in antisemitism.
Unfortunately, I have a very human weakness. I get suspicious when I sense I’m being told only one side of a story; and for an ulterior purpose. I’m willing to be informed, but I’m not interested in being recruited. I call it a weakness, because, logically, the source shouldn’t matter, just its veracity. Nonetheless, instead of shaming me into switching sides, picking on the side I feel loyalty to has the unintended effect of causing me to dig my heels in deeper.
I like to think of myself as reasonable and therefore open to reasonable arguments when they point to conclusions in conflict with my own. When my friend says, “Rabbi, the views you espouse are wrong, here’s a better way of looking at the issue,” I should be willing to listen. When my friend says “Rabbi, the folks you support are morally deficient,” I’m prone to say, “Your side needs to take a look in the mirror.” My hunch is most of us feel this way.
This is the “blindness” that Prof Lipstadt is referring to. Rabbi Tarfon in the Talmud put it this way, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who accepts reproof, for if one says to him: Remove the mote from between your eyes, he would answer: Remove the beam from between your own eyes!” (Arachin 16b) It is all too easy to point out the moral deficiencies of others but they aren’t likely to accept it unless it is coming from a source that is itself beyond reproach. We don’t wish to see where we might be morally wrong; especially when those pointing it out to us seem just as bad or worse. Under those circumstances we prefer to be “blind” to our faults.
On the issue of antisemitism, neither side is beyond reproach. I will not risk the holiness of Yom Kippur and our beautiful sanctuary by giving specific examples. I shouldn’t need to. I’m not talking about the sin, I’m talking about the blindness that prevents us from seeing it. Listing the transgressions would lead to keeping score; I’m talking about how we need to resist the urge to use charges of antisemitism to score points in the first place.
A special feature of the prayers we say on Yom Kippur is that we confess our sins in the plural. It’s well known that we do this in order to express the sense of responsibility we extend for one another. Perhaps you or me personally did not commit a highlighted sin; no matter, someone did and we admit guilt- by association as it were, for our sinful peer.
Declaring emphatically “We did this” rather than “Someone else did this” even though “we” did no such thing, sounds heroic and altruistic. But it is in a prayer after all. It is scripted and, even though we intend pray with sincerity, it isn’t really like admitting personal guilt in an actual conversation. I think the language of our prayers is meant to make us feel as though we are admitting the shortcomings of our group, and its effectiveness depends upon our level of identification with the group.
What if we applied this religious thinking to our political allegiances? This would mean liberals confessing the sins of liberals and conservatives confessing the sins of conservatives. Both sides would resolve to clean up the antisemitism, and any other shortcomings, of their own side.
The Torah instructs us, “Rebuke thy neighbor!” Rebuke, performed correctly, is a crucially important mechanism for maintaining decent social standards. Done incorrectly, it causes harmful divisiveness and hurt. For the Talmudic rabbis the key word is “neighbor.” The reach of one’s admonishments may be gauged by the scope of one’s influence. The word “neighbor” implies influence is measured by the degree of intimacy. The closer the person being admonished, the more effective the admonishment is presumed to be. If one’s stature at home grants influence over the household, then one may expect to admonish the household; but not some other random family. If one’s influence extends over the entire town, one may presume to admonish the town; but not some other town where he or she is not recognized. If the whole world listens to a single person, that person must be prepared to criticize the entire world. (Talmud Shabbat 54b)
The rabbis explicitly apply this rubric to criticising politicians. One talmudic rabbi, Shimon ben Pazzi, was a regular house guest of the political head of the Jewish community. He was reluctant to criticise his host, the leader. His colleagues demanded he do so anyway. If you are “neighborly” with a leader, you have a right and responsibility to let the leader know what you think about their leadership. (ibid, 55a)
If you are supportive of a political party or political leader, you enjoy a special right and responsibility to reprimand fellow supporters of that party or leader when they speak or behave immorally. You enjoy the standing, or credibility, to do so. If you prefer the less risky path of joining in on criticizing the opposing side or its leaders, you may possess a solid sense of self-preservation, but it’s a sign you fail to meet the high bar set by the Jewish tradition for delivering effective rebuke. If we all focused on criticizing our own leaders and not those from the rival group, admonishment might be harder to do, but it will more likely be heeded.
The Talmud says, “Always rebuke someone who will hear you. Never rebuke someone who will refuse to hear you.” (Yev. 65b) And elsewhere, “If you have a fault, acknowledge it before someone else calls attention to it.” (BK 92b) Taken together, these rules set us on a trajectory of promptly chiding our own side and to leave denouncing our political adversaries to their constituents. Adherence will encourage precision and care. We will find ourselves less willing to exaggerate offence when the offenders are those we are otherwise in sympathy with, and the other side will see that we take the scourge of antisemitism more seriously than loyalty to party.
I hope we may all continue to have tough conversations and share insightful articles. We must take antisemitism and other evils very seriously, which includes staying educated on the pertinent developments. But I think we need to try harder to look closely at the side we otherwise mostly agree with. When we do, we need to keep in mind the tendency to be blind to the shortcomings of one’s own side. Taking the blinders off may mean we see more nuance, less black and white and more gray. Refocusing on our own side may prove hard to do; like a betrayal. We may feel forced to judge with more charity. We may have to summon the courage to still judge forthrightly. Our loyalty shouldn’t be to party but to our sense of right and wrong. Tragically, antisemitism is on the rise. It is ugly; it is bad enough seeing it far away. We cringe at seeing it up close. But that’s exactly where we cannot afford blindness; certainly not of the willfully blind.