Torah Study

A Very Important Class

It’s that time again – I’m teaching the class on antisemitism tonight.

I looked over my old lesson plan, and almost changed it. We’re in a different world all of a sudden. We’ve had antisemitic “incidents” in Europe ranging from murder to riots, and an ugly inquisition at a student government meeting in California.

I decided to stick with my old lesson plan, because it is the basis for what my students need to know. Hatred of Jews goes way back in history. It has taken various forms over the centuries. Roman and Greek thinkers believed Jews lazy and disrespectful by nature. Christian antisemitism began as a set of religious beliefs about Jews. Religous antisemitism gradually took political forms, as Christianity became the established religion of Europe. By the 16th century in Spain, there was talk about “Jewish blood” and a sense of Jews as a race began to creep into the European vocabulary. Judaism was no longer an error of belief: it was a physical characteristic. Meanwhile, justifications for doing worse and worse things to Jews piled up.

And then, yes, the 20th century came and with it the horrors of the Holocaust. What I want my students to understand is that the Holocaust wasn’t just “a German thing” and it wasn’t just an episode. All of European history led up to it, and unfortunately, many of the same beliefs and attitudes that gave rise to it are with us today.

Some things have changed for the better: Vatican II brought a radical change of doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church, repudiating its old antisemitism. In the United States and in some parts of Europe, there is a strong feeling of “never again.” Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center track hate speech and hate crimes.

But we have also slid backwards in other ways. Nazi propaganda made its way into the Arab world during WWII, and so the blood libel and other horrors are still circulating, believed as fact. The Protocols of the Elders of Zionan ugly antisemitic hoax, is still circulating, too. And there are hate groups in the West as well: anyone who searches for “Jew” on Google will be greeted by an avalanche of filth.

The modern state of Israel has become a magnet for antisemitic rhetoric. Criticism of Israel is certainly a valid activity – I am not madly in love with many policies of the State of Israel and its government – but a frightening amount of the anti-Israel rhetoric one hears tumbles over the line into antisemitism.

So that’s what’s on my mind tonight. I need to make sure that those studying towards conversion understand that they are signing up for this, and that it isn’t going away. I want to communicate ways of responding, and ways to stay centered while reading the news. It’s a big job, and I feel one of the most important things I do as an “Intro to Judaism” teacher. I’ll finish with questions I’m going to ask the students:

What do you do when you hear someone say something antisemitic? How do you decide what you are going to do? What about hatred aimed at other groups such as people of color or Muslims? When did it last happen, and what did you do?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

7 thoughts on “A Very Important Class”

  1. Rabbi Ruth,

    I am worried about the direction the Republican Party is taking. For example, the Republican National Committee had a third of its members planning to go to Israel with the American Family Association, a group advocating the repeal of the First Amendment, protecting the freedom to practice one’s religion. This group does not want non-christian immigrants in this country, unless they convert to Christianity. I bring this up because we are not talking about a fringe group advocating antisemitism. (in this case, their target is Muslims) but a major political party, also skirting on the edge of violent racism, as witness their supporter, Ted (Toad) Nugent, who described the President as a subhuman mongrel. These are adults, not college students, and Americans need to pay much more attention to this than they do. Yes, it can happen here. Ted the Toad is from Arlington Heights, Illinois, and went to high school with my brother.

    I’d also like to mention the fact that a candidate for the governor’s office in Missouri recently killed himself when a senior Republican spread the rumor that the candidate was a man of Jewish ancestry. In the Republican mind, this apparently makes one unfit for office.

  2. Anne, I agree, it is very concerning that some of our elected officials have used the language they have used, and keep the friends they keep. I was glad to hear that the trip with the American Family Association was cancelled after the press called attention to that organization’s positions. The racism in some language about the President is shocking as well.

    And yes, you have a point about the poor man who committed suicide. I say “poor man” because I cannot imagine that anyone would take that step without being in dreadful pain. However, it is a comment on the state of things here in the US that someone felt so threatened at being identified as a Jew that he took his own life. It also says something that his opponents thought that calling him a Jew would actually hurt his chances at office.

    We must keep supporting organizations like ADL and SPLC, and keep speaking up whenever we hear racist, anti-Muslim, or antisemitic language. While it is sometimes frustrating that there is no “solution,” we know from history that speaking up DOES work here in the USA.

  3. I meant to say thank you on an earlier( but related)post…..I had always wondered wher the motion that “all Jews are rich” originated; my great grandparents arrived in England, in the late 19th century, with barely two pennies to rub together, and were escaping the pogroms and all the awfulness going on at the time. They settled in Manchester, raised five children, never had much of anything. So, reading your post was very informative( as are all your posts…Im a loyal follower. I do have a blog, but have not yet got into the swing of it….more “life stuff” happening, was back at the doctor this week, I’ve got PTSD, and life is just…..difficult, right now. Reading helps. A lot. Thank you for your words) all the best from Scotland. Alex and the cats x

    1. Alex, you are rapidly becoming my #1 source for great blog topics. Thank you for another idea!

      I am so sorry that life is dealing you such tough cards at the moment. You have my prayers and best wishes.

      1. Rabbi Ruth, I am feeling ridiculously flattered at that…..thank you 🙂 and thank you for your kindness, and prayers….I am very thankful for them love Alexxx PS and now Im off to read your latest entry 🙂

  4. One of my personal frustrations with current events is the extent to which even the meaning of the word “antisemitism” is denied. I heard Christine Craft on KGO radio in recent years haul out the canard that “it can’t mean hatred of Jews because Arabs are Semitic too.” Never mind that the person who coined the word was doing so at the behest of the Nazis with the explicit intent of providing a more clinical-sounding, “scientific,” and therefore more acceptable alternative to “Judenhass,” i.e. “hatred of Jews.” I’m also frustrated with the extent to which political opposition movements here in the Bay Area are co-opted by the anti-Israel/pro-Palestine crowd. I regularly hesitate and ultimately decide not to take part in public political assemblies because it’s inevitable that that point of view will e in the forefront and I don’t want to appear allied with it.

    1. I recently took a course on antisemitism from the Rev. Bruce Bramlett, an expert on the subject. He dealt with precisely this argument in the first class meeting. As he explained it, “semitic” is a language group. Until Wilhelm Marr coined the term “antisemitismus” (German) in the 19th c, no one talked about “Semites.” The whole thing derives from a made-up term by a pretentious journalist who wanted to sound scientific.

      I actually find the term “Jew Hatred” more useful, but we seem to be stuck with this stupid word.

      And yes it is very tough having discussions in the Bay Area right now!

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