After Pittsburgh: Dealing with Anxiety

Image: Photo of shiva candles at Temple Sinai, Oakland, for the victims of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Mark Snyder, all rights retained.)

A number of Jews have expressed their anxiety to me since the terrible murders at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve always known that there were people who hated us, but this is different,” one said. “It’s as if an alarm has gone off deep in my bones.”

“I am afraid to go near the synagogue,” another said to me, via Twitter.

“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”

There are many different factors at play here.

  1. The shooting in Pittsburgh was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. This feels like a big deal because it IS a big deal. Never before has an attack on Jews near this magnitude taken place on North American soil.
  2. There is a long history of mass attacks against Jews in Europe, and it is not surprising that American Jews perceive this attack to be a continuation of that history. The roots are the same (see Where did Anti-Semitism Come From?)
  3. This attack was not an isolated incident. The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016, especially targeting Jews who are public figures or journalists.
  4. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
  5. Jewish education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that a mass murder like the one in Pittsburgh sets off a fear that this is a harbinger of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and many anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons.
  6. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events can heighten the feeling of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that reassure me, as I struggle with my own anxieties:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the rise of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to the general good feeling we enjoy today.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that might surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. There have been memorials and “Show Up for Shabbat” events ever since the shooting, but it is never too late to gather with Jews for comfort. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and ask about security procedures.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, and certainly there have always been people who quietly assimilated because the pressure was so horrible, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From?

Image: A woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492.

Anti-Semitism has deep roots in Western culture, roots running back to ancient times.

Anti-Semitism is a fancy word for the hatred of Jews. It was coined by Germans in the 19th century as a more scholarly-sounding substitute for Judenhass, “hatred of Jews.” It refers only to Jews; anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias are separate issues. It’s a mark of the bigotry of the coiners that they didn’t bother to notice Muslims and Arabs. “Semitic” is a language group which includes Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. There is no such thing as a Semite (again, it may be used by someone who wants to sound fancy, but that’s it.)

The concept of Jew-hatred is as old as Western civilization. It has evolved over the centuries, and not in a good way. It began as complaints about character flaws. The Greeks looked down on the Jews for laziness because we insisted on keeping Shabbat.

“In remembrance of the exile of his people, Moses instituted for them a misanthropic and inhospitable way of life.” – Hecataetus of Abdera, 3rd c. BCE

The Romans had an addition beef with us: we were unmanageable and kept revolting against their Empire. They also regarded the Sabbath and the sabbatical year as laziness. They thought our religion was downright perverse.

“Jews hold sacred what everyone else calls profane, and permit what everyone else thinks immoral. They sacrifice rams and bulls as an insult to the gods of the Egyptians. They are lazy and rest one day of the week, and one year out of seven.” – Tacitus, 1st c.

Early Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. They split off over disputes about the necessity of brit milah (circumcision.) After the Great Revolt against Rome, Christians had a strong incentive to convince the Romans that they were a completely separate religion from Judaism. In the gospels, which most scholars date after the Great Revolt, there are verses that become the seeds of religious anti-Semitism, for example:

So when Pilate saw he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and upon our children.” – Matthew 27:24-25

Later Christian scholars interpreted verse 25 as the Jews taking responsibility for the death of Jesus. As the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus (Jesus = God) developed, Christians saw Jews as committing the crime of deicide, the murder of God.

What, then, to do about the Jews? This became a pressing question as Christianity gained followers and respectability in the Roman world. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) formulated a plan for the Jews that held until about the year 1000. He said that Jews were “a special people” who serve as a warning that lack of faith in Jesus would be punished. Therefore, according to Christianity, the murder of Jews was not permitted, but the humiliation of Jews was a good and necessary thing.

(Note: This was the prevailing doctrine until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. The publication of the document Nostra Aetate (“Our Age”) put an end to this doctrine. Some other Christian denominations have followed suit, others haven’t.)

The Emperor Theodosius II (402-450) of the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire made Christianity the established faith of the Empire in 483. He published the Theodosian Code of laws, which placed restrictions on Jewish life. Jews were forbidden to convert anyone to Judaism. They were barred from the military and from the civil service, except for tax collectors. No new synagogues could be built.

This code was soon after adopted by the Western Empire as well. Thus religious anti-Semitism became a matter of state as well as religion throughout the region that had been the old Roman Empire. Under this situation, the Jews as a people continued to observe their traditions, although sometimes individual Jews did assimilate into Christian society.

This was the situation up until the First Crusade (1096-99). Crusaders marched across Europe towards the Middle East, charged with recapturing the Holy Land from “infidels.” As they traveled, they encountered Jewish communities which they sacked for being “unbelievers.” By some counts, one-third of the Jews of Europe were murdered by Crusaders. The communities of the Rhineland were particularly affected. Soon after, the Jews of Constantinopel (Istanbul,) Syria, and Jerusalem suffered as well.

I “will go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the Crucified by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name “Jew.'” – Godfrey of Bullion (1060-1100)

Things got progressively worse for the Jews of Europe following the Crusades. While Augustine’s teaching was still the official teaching of the Church, it was no longer observed by the laity of Europe. Jews were not citizens of the nations of Europe. They were prohibited from most ways of making a living. Wherever they lived, it was at the sufferance of the local ruler, subject to sudden expulsion. We had become a people with no citizenship, no home.

At intervals, there would be accusations that a Jew or a Jewish community had stolen a Christian child, to use the blood to make Passover matzah. This is known as the Blood Libel. Matza, of course, is made of flour and water, and Jews are forbidden by Jewish law from the consumption of any blood whatsoever; even rare meat is forbidden by kashrut (kosher laws.) However, logic was less exciting a story than the idea of child-murdering, blood-sucking Jews, so the Blood Libel became the default explanation for child murders in Europe. (Click the link for more information about the Blood Libel.)

In most of Christian Europe, where the law of the land and the laws of the Church were one and the same, Jews had very few ways of making a living open to them. One way was actually prescribed by the Church. Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest (see Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-20) but Jews were allowed to fill the economic gap. They were allowed to lend money at interest to Christians, providing a service without which economies cannot grow.

No one loves the person to whom they owe money. This heightened the hatred of Christian Europeans for their Jewish neighbors. It also put the Jewish communities at greater risk for expulsion, since if the ruler wished to erase his debts, all he needed to do was banish the Jewish community.

The fact that Jews had been scattered again and again around Europe meant that an individual moneylending Jew might have cousins in cities across the continent. This made it easy to move funds from one city to another, and one country to another. These family networks were the first international banks. At the same time, this situation gave rise to the anti-Semitic trope of the evil Jewish banker. It was the seeds of the accusation that Jews were a conspiracy to control the world.

The expulsions from one country to another reached a crescendo in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decided to “purify” Spain of all unbelievers. They issued the Alhambra decree which gave non-Christians, including Jews, a choice: convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be killed. Sephardic (Spanish) Jews scattered all over the world, from the Islamic lands to the East to the Spanish colonies in the Americas.

Some Jews chose to convert to Christianity. It is at this point that we begin to see a racial element to Jew hatred, because those families that converted were known as New Christians and were under suspicion for centuries to come. They were regarded as unreliable converts, liable to revert to Jewish practice, and the Inquistion became the system and court within which they were examined, sometimes under torture, and executed. “Jewish blood” was a liability in Spanish life into the 20th century.

It is worth noting that this colonial period in European history is the same point at which other notions of race began to pick up devotees, as white Europeans encountered dark-skinned people who had resources they wished to colonize. That process is much easier with the concept of race to justify it.

So by 1500, three of the tropes of modern anti-Semitism were in place: the blood libel, the moneylending “international” Jew, and the idea of Jews as a race whose undesirable characteristics are inherited.

More history of course would follow, but for those looking for the roots of modern anti-Semitism, the picture is set. For instance, the blood libel still circulates in the Palestinian and Arab press, both in its original form (murdered children provide blood for Jewish pastry) but in new forms (murdered children provide organs that can be sold on the black market.) The trope of the “globalist” Jew who seeks world domination through an international conspiracy to destroy Western white society has its seeds in the European hatred of its designated moneylenders. The notion of Jews as a race would bear evil fruit in the eugenics of the Nazis, and it is still a trope among American anti-Semites today. (When I converted to Judaism, an old acquaintence tried to assure me that we could stay friends because I wasn’t “racially Jewish.” Ugh.)

So don’t let anyone tell you that anti-Semitism is only about Nazis, or that it is dead. It survives in a thousand clichés, such as “Jewing them down” or alleged compliments “Jewish accountants are the best.” It survives in the belief that George Soros is the spider at the center of a vast international web of conspiracy, when in fact he is a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist. It survives in any talk about Jews as a race when actually we come in all colors and backgrounds. It survives in the notion that Jews care only about other Jews, and in the belief that every recession is actually engineered by Jews.  It survives in conspiracy theories that Israelis were behind 9/11.

Speaking of Israel, since the establishment of the State of Israel, we have had to deal with a phenomenon known as the “New” anti-Semitism, or anti-Semitism of the Left. To learn more about that, I recommend An Open Letter to a UCLA Alumna who Confused anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism by Rabbi John Rosove or the book The New Anti-Semitism by Phyllis Chesler.

If you want to fight anti-Semitism, I suggest reading Nine Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. I do not understand why this hatred is so persistent, only that it is vital that we fight it. Many other bigotries are fed by anti-Semitism: white supremacy and racism to name just a couple.  Two organizations that fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds are  ADL: The Anti-Defamation League and The Southern Poverty Law Center.

May the world be protected from such evils.

May we see the humanity in every human being.

May the day come when all human beings treat one another with the dignity and mercy  they wish for themselves. Amen.

Terror in Pittsburgh

Image: Pittsburgh cityscape (mgehring/pixabay)

I am sick at heart.

I do not usually post on Shabbat morning, but I see that many people are looking on this blog. Perhaps you are looking for comfort, or strength, or for some way to understand the events in Pittsburgh this morning.

CNN reports as I write this that a man walked into services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, carrying a gun. He shouted that he wanted Jews to die. He shot at least 12 people and four people are dead.  When the local police arrived, he shot at them, hitting some of them, and then was taken into custody alive.

Baruch Dayan Ha’emet – Blessed is the true Judge. I grieve for the dead, for the families of the dead. I pray that those who are injured are able to heal quickly and completely.

Police are beginning their investigation, which will likely go on for some time. They want to find out if this person is associated with others, and look for how we can make events like these less likely in future. They need to put together the evidence to convict this man of his crimes. Good.

In 1999 I was a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. I was out of town, and when I heard on the news that three “Northern California synagogues had been firebombed,” I was terrified. It was the first time I, as a Jew, had heard of an attack on my community, not on Jews in other times and places, but here and now. It was my first experience of violent anti-Semitism.

TodayI would be able to get a lot of information instantly, but in 1999 the Internet and CNN were not what they are now. Eventually I found out that it wasn’t my shul, it was three Sacramento synagogues. Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento had had the worst of it, a firebombing. The other two synagogues were vandalized but damage was much less.

I will never forget what my rabbi, Rabbi Steve Chester, said to me. “The things you want to watch at a time like this, ” he said, “Are ‘how long did it take the police to come? How long before the fire department? What did the public officials say?’ Because unfortunately there have always been and will always be people who hate Jews, but as long as the community is with us, as long as our neighbors see us as their neighbors, we are going to be all right.” He continued, “If the police are slow to come, or don’t care, then we have a larger problem and we should worry.”

There have always been and there will always be people who hate Jews. I am going to write more posts on anti-Semitism in the coming days, but what I want to say today is that I am reassured that the police came immediately and the news coverage of this terrible event has been sympathetic to the Jews, not the murderer. We can pay attention and take comfort in that.

This horror was intended to frighten us, whether the gunman was a lone anti-Semite or part of an organization. If we react with fear, staying away from synagogues, hiding signs of our Jewishness, we will give him a victory he does not deserve. It is natural that it is our first reaction, but it must not be our final reaction.

As a community we need to embrace our cousins at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with love and sorrow as they grieve their dead and deal with their own wounds. As a community we must strengthen the security at our own synagogues and institutions. As a community we need to tell the anti-Semites, “No. We will not allow you to terrify us. We will go on doing mitzvot, living our lives, because we will not make a false god of you or the terror you bring our way.”

This is a terrible day. We ache for the families of those who were killed. We ache for the wounded and their families. But I pray that we will not let one evil man sway us from our task as Jews: to live lives of Torah despite it all.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History – Book Review

Image: Political Cartoon: “USA to Russian Tsar: Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews, 1904.” Chromolithograph. Public Domain in the U.S. 

In April, 1903, 49 Jews were murdered in the small city of Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, in the Pale of Settlement section of the Russian Empire. 600 Jews were raped or wounded, and over 1000 homes and businesses were ransacked.

Unlike previous such incidents (which have precedents going all the way back to the First Crusade and before) this time the Western press mobilized public opinion against the Russian Empire for allowing the carnage. Hearst Newspapers carried one lurid photo after another. Reporters and Jewish relief workers mobilized to document what had happened and to help the survivors. The political cartoon above is a rather mild example of the coverage.

Stephen J. Zipperstein has written a gripping and fascinating account of the events leading up to the pogrom and its aftermath. It had a cacophony of effects that would echo through the 20th century and beyond.

What do the founding of the NAACP, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the rise of Zionism, the “New Jew,” and the Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter” have in common?  It’s Kishinev.

If you think you already know all about Kishinev, you probably don’t. If you think you know who write the Protocols, you might be surprised. If you are dreading an account of violence and gore, know that Zipperstien is more interested in causes and effects than in a salacious or bloody-minded account of the matter.

This book gave me a great deal to think about, especially about the power of publicity and its unintended outcomes. I heartily recommend it.

A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.


The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!

10 Ways to Identify Fake News

Image: David Mikkelson and Ari Ratner address a breakout group at the ADL conference in San Francisco, 11/13/17. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is the last of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Finally I attended a presentation titled “Misinformation and the Battle for Truth.”

David Mikkelson is the founder of, the oldest internet fact checker.
Ari Ratner moderated.

Mikkelson was very interesting, partly because he has such a long tenure with the issue of misinformation online. He has been operating since 1994.

In the beginning, he said, most of the questions they got were had to do with hoaxes and urban legends. Since 2008 misinformation online has become highly politicised. There are also issues of people putting out misinformation for profit, since fake news is cheap and viral.

According to Mikkelson, the economics are fairly simple. Posting on social media is free. Revenues are generated by advertising on the sites themselves. The purveyors of this stuff look for “grabby” pictures and clickable headlines. Bots are cheap. One profitable strategy is to pit groups of people against one another: they all click and click and click, the angrier they get.

After the election, he said, we began to realize the “fake news” phenomenon. The president leaped onto the usage of the term and unfortunately has rendered it almost meaningless.

Someone asked about personal attacks Mittleman has received. He said most of those have been “mostly misinformed.”  One memorable case was that of Hal Turner, a white nationalist radio host. He claimed that a secret North American Union (a “one world” entity) was secretly issuing currency. He spent a lot of time on the radio talking about how the “owners of Snopes are helping their rich Jew pals deceiving.” He said that everyone in fact-checking gets some of this; what he didn’t say was how many of those other firms are thought of as Jewish.

Currently, he said, there’s less overt anti-Semitism online, but that the hate is more towards immigrants, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, etc.

He talked about the need to educate ourselves in fact-checking, and especially for young people to be helped to understand how they can do this for themselves. Some suggestions:

  1. Use fact checking websites like
  2. Look at the site where the material appears. What are their sources? Search on the writers’ names and see what else they’ve done.
  3. Keep an eye out for websites that mimic the respectable news sites, such as BBC, ABC, etc. Some fake news sites use design to boost believability.
  4. Watch for indications that someone is paying to publish. Always look for possible bias. Sponsored content must be evaluated as such.
  5. The more outrageous information is, the less likely that it is true. Keep checking.
  6. Does this source (the website, etc.) have a particular political bent? Are all their articles from the same point of view?
  7. Do the facts in the article match the headline? Headlines sometimes are clickbait and the article says no such thing.
  8. If studies are cited, who paid for those? How reputable are they?
  9. Watch for confirmation bias. We are inclined to believe things that match with the opinions we already have. Anyone can fall into the trap of believing something because it appeals to them. WHY do I want to believe a particular item?
  10. Finally, beware the lure of “secret knowledge.” It’s very exciting to have secret information. But if it is all lies, that’s a problem.

He said that at the platform level, some companies are taking steps. Still on a basic level.  (This matched my impression of the presentations from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube earlier in the day.) He said that the platforms don’t want to limit what users see.

Someone asked about what other countries are doing.

Mikkelson said that in Europe they take legislative approach that wouldn’t work in the U.S. because of Constitutional issues. For instance,  Facebook can be fined for not getting hate stuff down fast enough. He pointed out that the global aspect of this is part of what complicates solutions.

Someone asked about “sponsored news” and his comment was that “at least they are telling you it was paid for.” Funding media is a huge challenge.

He pointed out that there is a difference between fact checkers and journalists. One of the strategies used by the oil companies in the Standing Rock conflict last year was that they sponsored “fact checking sites” that were strongly biased in favor of the oil companies. So always look at the sources: who is paying?


“Anti-Semitism on Campus in the Bay Area”

Image: A panel of experts discuss issues of anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, 11/13/17)

This is a continuation of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Next there was a panel talking about anti-Semitism on campus, specifically at San Francisco State University.   The situation there has been particularly difficult lately (see this article from the J Weekly for more about the specifics.) The panel was composed of Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish Studies at SFSU, Ollie Bern, Director of the San Francisco Hillel, and Abigail Michaelson Porth, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council. Each of them came to the issue with a different point of view, although all were in basic agreement on the problems.  Seth Brysk, the Central Pacific Regional Director of the ADL was the moderator.

The panel talked about the differences between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-normalization. The latter is a tricky concept; here’s a Jewish point of view on it and a pro-Palestinian point of view on it. I don’t feel qualified to explain it myself at this point.

Marc Dollinger spoke at length about his belief that the University should be a place where we engage with ideas. He was clear that while he sympathizes with students who feel upset, it is also important for them to learn to listen to new ideas and to develop and articulate their own thinking.

Ollie Been was eloquent about the challenges, that no student should be required to have a particular point of view in order to participate in university discussions. He also told us that at least one professor of ethics at SFSU has argued for the exclusion of Hillel from campus life, since it is a Jewish organization.

Abigail Michaelson Perth talked about the response of the Jewish community in our area, specifically the decision to invest in SFSU. Jewish foundations have funded programs of many kinds on the campus, not just the Jewish Studies Department. She expressed her frustration at the way that support of the university was received, as evidence of undue influence:  “We feel dismissed and our students disrespected.”  Marc Dollinger pointed out that the community support has been critical for Jewish faculty, staff, and students.

Panelists noted that other Bay Area campuses have handled similar conflicts quite differently. Ms Michaelson Perth pointed out that there are examples of best practices at many of the University of California campuses – not at all hard to find. The situation at SFSU is therefore particularly frustrating.

Ollie Been expressed concern for both populations of the students, the marginalized Jewish students, and the Palestinian students as well. Both are very small minorities on campus. He spoke about the need to build relationships with other communities. Allyship has to be genuine.  Building relationships is hard work and must be sincere and ongoing. We have to teach students how to do this and mirror in larger J community. WE have to show up for others.

Seth Brysk mentioned a resource on the site: Think. Plan. Act. It’s a set of tools for dealing with anti-Semitism on campus.

There was a question from the floor about potential students. Dr. Dollinger was candid that SFSU can be a shock to sheltered Jewish students. However, he pointed out that it is an opportunity to engage with people who have had different experiences. For the right student, it can still be a worthwhile experience.

Ms Michaelson Perth said that while it is important for the Jewish community to continue to be involved at SFSU, we should also recognize that it isn’t for everyone. And for the Jewish community at large, we have to make choices about continuing to invest in a campus that is so hostile.

Ollie Been said that anti-Semitism is everywhere. SF Hillel is there for the students. It’s important not to over-dramatize the situation. It is possible to fight BDS without invoking Hitler. He also advocated for a student-centered approach to activism on campus.

Marc Dollinger recounted an incident that inspired him. He said that the current Hillel students are smart, brave, and intelligent. At one meeting, the University President said that Zionists are not welcome on the campus. An undergraduate challenged him immediately and asked him to define Zionism, and then engaged with him about his definition.

There was a lot more, all of it thought provoking.


“No Platform for Hate” – A Tech Panel

Image: Nellie Bowles of the New York Times interviews a panel including Melissa Tidwell of Reddit, Juniper Downs of YouTube, and Monika Bikert of Facebook. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, taken in San Francisco on 11/13/17) 

I know if I wait to rewrite this, I’m not going to get around to posting it. Therefore what you are getting are my slightly-edited notes from the ADL Conference “Never is Now” which I attended in San Francisco yesterday. This is the first of three posts.

Jonathan Greenblatt gave the keynote.

Nellie Bowles from the New York Times interviewed a panel of representatives from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube. Fascinating stuff, beginning with the fact that gradually dawned on me: all of them are attorneys, judging from their bios.  All chose their words carefully, and talked about what the companies have done to rein in hate speech on their platforms.

Unfortunately, the answers all came out sounding to me like “not as much as one might hope.” It’s clear to me that the profit motive is alive and well in Silicon Valley and tends to crowd out other concerns. Ms. Bowles kept pressing them with different versions of the question, “Are you going to hire editorial staff to make judgments about the stuff that goes up, and its provenance?” and the answer was always, “Let me tell you about this cool tech thing we are doing.” Unfortunately, that’s where they’d lose me. Either I couldn’t follow enough of what they were talking about, or they really haven’t made all that much headway in dealing with these difficult issues.

On the other hand, it was great to see a panel all made up of powerful, intelligent women, and I did feel they personally take the issues very seriously.

The ADL announced the establishment of a new Center for Technology and Society to combat the growing problem of hate speech and harassment online. Funded by the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. I think this is a very promising development.

(More about the conference in my next post.)




Responding to Hate in 5778

Image: Members of the Temple Sinai Community write messages of love and New Year’s wishes on paper covering anti-Semitic graffiti. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

How was your Rosh Hashanah?

Linda and I watched services at our congregation online for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I knew from experience that the seats would not work well for me, and we had an aliyah to the Torah the next morning. I love the flexibility that the online service gives us for managing such things.

The next morning, I woke to an email from the staff, titled: “Graffiti on our building”:

Shanah Tovah.

We received a call early this morning that someone wrote anti-Semitic slurs on the side of our building. The police have been contacted and we will have security on the premise. The graffiti will be covered when everyone arrives for services this morning.

While this is surely upsetting, this will not define our experience of coming together as a community today. Our strength and resilience will sound through our voices in song and prayer.

The graffiti will be covered with paper. We invite members of the community to write words of love and friendship as guiding lights for the coming year.

May this be the year that peace comes to our world.

Whoa! Not what we wanted for the new year, that’s for sure. Still, I marveled at the creativity of the solution. Instead of allowing the graffiti to stay visible, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin chose to cover it with paper and then encouraged us to cover it with blessings.

This response was possible in a Reform setting. Cutting paper, hanging paper, and writing would all be problematic in a halakhic setting, but it certainly was a satisfying way for us to “talk back” to the person or persons who had done this. It also gave us a chance to model before our city that we choose love over hate.

Our responses included everything from “Shalom!” in a heart to “Go A’s!” (the local baseball team.) During services, painters came to cover the graffiti, and staff moved the paper indoors to the meeting hall. We painted over the bad and kept the good.

In case you are wondering what was written on the wall: it was ugly, it was obscene, and it was baldly anti-Semitic. Those words were written with the intent of terrifying us, of spoiling our joy in the New Year. We are choosing as a community not to focus on them, not to hold them up, because to do so would be a reward to the person who wrote them. Law enforcement knows what the words said, and an investigation is underway.

I’m happy to report that the police came immediately and stayed watching over us all day. the mayor showed up to support us, and local TV stations broadcast interviews with congregants. We felt loved by the city of Oakland. We did our best, with our graffiti, to love her back.

I teared up multiple times during the service, thinking how many times Jews have said those exact prayers after something dreadful happened. We aren’t the first Jews to pray in a vandalized building. We won’t be the last, alas.

Also, I was aware of the fact that not every religious group gets this treatment. In Charlottesville, the police department rebuffed the Jews who asked for help during the demonstrations this summer. I know that many African Americans have reason to be concerned by a police presence. I know that mosques in the United States face graffiti and much worse on a regular basis.

We are a long way from the ideal still, but I hope for the day when, in the words of President George Washington:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. – Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, August, 1790

Washington’s words carry some irony, of course. The enslaved persons on his plantation and elsewhere in the new nation could not “sit in safety” and many of them were “of the stock of Abraham.” Still it is my hope and prayer that just as those words are more true now than they were in 1790, the day will come when they are indeed accomplished.

May the day of peace for all those “of the stock of Abraham” (Jew and Muslim, and spiritually, Christians as well) and for all of every faith community come speedily and soon.  Amen.

Messages from the Jews of Oakland (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

“Never Again!”: Do We Mean It?

Image: Rohingya people at a clinic operated by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). Health clinics operated by the Myanmar government are closed to them. Photo: © EC/ECHO/Mathias Eick., Myanmar/Burma, September 2013.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Wiesel




The Nazi Holocaust.

The Rape of Nanking.

Ukrainian Holodomor (Forced Famine).


Native Americans.

Each of the names above should give every decent person the shivers. Each is an example of genocide. If any of them aren’t familiar to you, click the link to learn.

Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1948 defines genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

One other thing that all genocides seem to have in common is that there are always some people who deny that it is happening or justify it with lies. Later on, they insist that it never happened, no matter how much evidence there is that it did indeed happen.

Right now most of the world seems to be in denial about yet another genocide, one taking place this very moment.

The United Nations human rights chief today lashed out at the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar which has led to more than 300,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in the past three weeks, as security forces and local militia reportedly burn villages and shoot civilians.

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, noting that the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed since Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators. – UN News Centre, 11 Sept 2017

The Rohingya people of Myanmar have had a precarious existence for a long time. They were explicitly excluded from citizenship in Myanmar under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. Since then they have been officially stateless. The government of Myanmar justifies this distinction with a claim that they are recent arrivals, illegal aliens. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the 1982 laws “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races”.

For more in-depth information about the Rohingya people, see this article in the Lancet.

The international press has focused on the facts that most Rohingya are of the Muslim faith, and that some Rohingya people have fought back against their oppressors. As has happened in the past to other ethnic groups (Jews and African Americans, for instance) any effort to defend themselves is taken as evidence that they are bad people. If they don’t defend themselves, it’s seen as a sign of weakness and inferiority. This is right out of the genocide playbook.

Racism underlies Burmese attitudes about the Rohingya:

Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese envoy in Hong Kong, hoped to dissuade others from feeling sympathy for the Rohingya. His method for doing this was by revealing his shocking racism. The Rohingya, he said, “are as ugly as ogres” and do not share the “fair and soft” skin of other Burmese ethnic groups.

Therefore, the Burmese consul general concluded, “Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” using the other name for Burma while trotting out his government’s long-standing contention that the Rohingya are interlopers in Burma and don’t deserve citizenship rights.

– from Why Does this Buddhist-majority Nation Hate these Muslims so much? – Washington Post, 2/15/2015

So what can we do, as a people who have vowed that this will “never again” happen to a group of people? Nicole Sganga wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times that covers the best options very well. I urge you to read the article and see what possibilities on that menu are open to you.

For those who worry about the fact that they are Muslim, let me suggest that the surest way to radicalize people is to give them no good options. These people have lived peacefully in Myanmar/Burma for centuries, and the surrounding states don’t want them. Nobody wants them. Compare that to the situation of the Jews in the 1930’s; it is no different.

Some may say that there is enough to worry about here in the United States. There is another assault underway on the availability of healthcare (at this writing, on Sept 18, 2017.) Many of us know and care about people who are threatened by the change in U.S. immigration policy. (At least one of my students is a DREAMer, and I am terribly worried for her – you may also know someone in that category and not be aware of it.) For Jews, there are ongoing worries about Israel.

But this is genocide. This is a deliberate effort to eradicate an entire ethnic group, and to drive any remaining remnant from the place that has been their home for centuries. For any of us who have said “Never again!” this is a situation we cannot ignore.

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This article was amended to add the genocide against Native Americans, thanks to a reader who pointed out my oversight.