One of the major stereotypes about American Jews is that we’re all political liberals. There are in fact many prominent conservatives who are Jewish: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Eric Cantor, Ken Mehlman, Michael Savage, and more.
In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant’s office issued General Order #11, a decree which summarily expelled all Jews from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Cesar J. Kaskel of Paducah, KY immediately set out on a Paul Revere-like ride for Washington DC with a copy of the order, and persuaded a congressman from Ohio to take him to the White House so that he could show it to President Lincoln. The President immediately wrote to Grant, ordering that General Order #11 be revoked.
When General Grant ran for president in 1868, he was faced with a Jewish community who wanted answers about General Order #11, and assurances that no such thing would happen were he elected. He, too, repudiated the order, and later called it “his greatest regret.” (For a readable and complete account of G.O. #11 and its aftermath, I recommend Jonathan D. Sarna’s book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.)
Ever since then, American Jews have understood that it is important to our survival to be engaged in the political process. We don’t agree on the right candidate, we don’t always agree on the right policy, but we understand that without engagement in the process, we lose our voice in the public arena. Many Jews understand voting as a way to do tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. Again, there’s no consensus: how any one Jew defines “better” is individual!
Voting is not required by Jewish tradition, but it is a great Jewish American tradition. Whatever your politics, I hope that my readers will honor this tradition and vote whenever they have the opportunity. Our ancestors would envy us that privilege.
The video above is part of an interview with Osama Hamdan, head of international relations for Hamas. on the Lebanese Al-Quds TV channel on July 28, 2014. In it he makes the assertion that Jews have a custom of killing non-Jewish children and using their blood to make Passover matzah.
The belief that Jews kill people, usually children, and use their blood in rituals or to make matzah is called the Blood Libel. It is a lie. It is a particularly baffling lie in that Jewish dietary law forbids the eating of any blood: blood is drained from animals before butchering, and meat is salted to remove any stray drops of blood.
The Blood Libel has been around a long time. Apion, a Greek who hated Jews wrote about it in the first century CE. It then pops up periodically, but the first major European case was in 1144, in Norwich, England. In the Middle Ages, these accusations followed a pattern: a body was found, or a child disappeared, and the Jews were accused of the crime. Elaborate fantasies about the supposed rituals were imagined and written down by the accusers, which then became fodder for the next case. For more detail about it, there is an excellent but heartbreaking article in the Jewish Virtual Library.
The Blood Libel has continued in the modern era. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic document that was distributed by the Russian secret police in 1905. It is a catalogue of all the ancient lies about the Jews, repackaged for the 20th century. Henry Ford distributed it in the United States. It included the Blood Libel as well as other medieval stories about Jews poisoning wells, spreading plague, and so on. It was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. And now, in the 21st century, it continues to circulate on the internet, and it has surfaced in Islamist talking points.
The important thing to know about the Blood Libel is that it is a lie without any kernel of truth. Observant Jews do not eat blood of any kind, ever. All Jews categorically reject human sacrifice. And despite what Mr. Hamdan says, the Blood Libel is not in any of our books. It is only in the books fabricated by sick minds to poison the world against Jews.
I really hate this topic. I hate teaching it and writing about it, but tragic experience has taught us that these lies are extremely dangerous. May the day come, and speedily, when all such horrors are finally behind us.
I’m preparing to teach a class on anti-Semitism. It’s an important class for my Intro students, even if I don’t like talking about it.
If you want the short version of what I teach in class, you can read it in another blog post. But today, as I was preparing, I discovered a great new resource online, the ADL Global 100. For the first time, the Anti-Defamation League commissioned an independent research firm to survey adults in over 100 countries. (Previously, their survey covered only the U.S.)
The survey itself was interesting. People were read 11 statements, to which they responded “true” or “false.” If they answered “true” to six or more of the statements, they were counted as having anti-Semitic attitudes. The complete list along with the methodology is on the website, but to give you a feel for it, here are six of the statements:
Jews only care about their own kind.
People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.
Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.
Jews have too much power in the business world.
Jews are more loyal to Israel than they are to the country they live in.
Jews have too much control of the U.S. government.
To count as having anti-Semitic beliefs, they have to answer “true” to six of eleven statements similar to those. Again, the complete list of survey statements is on the ADL Global100 website.
So what were the results? 26% of adults world-wide have anti-Semitic beliefs, as measured by the survey. Nine percent of adults in the United States hold such beliefs. Before Americans congratulate themselves, remember, that translates to 21,000,000 people.
You can click around on the survey and find out the percentage for each continent and for each country. It’s fascinating reading. For instance, why is it that in the U.S., men and women have anti-Semitic beliefs at the same rate, but in Australia and New Zealand, men have those beliefs at a higher rate than women? Why does Panama far outstrip all other countries in the Americas, with a rate of 52%? What would account for the low rate in the Philippines, only 3%?
Perhaps if we could answer those questions, we might be on the way to ending it.
Yom HaShoah (Yohm Hah-show-AH or Yohm Hah-SHOW-ah) is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established in Israel as Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v’LaGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.
Yom = Day Zikaron = Remembrance Shoah = Catastrophe (refers now to the atrocities against the Jewish People in WWII.) Gevurah = Heroism.
It began in 1953 as Israel’s day for remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish men, women and children who were murdered in the 1940’s in Europe, established by Israeli law as a Memorial Day. Increasingly it has been adopted as a day for remembrance by Jews the U.S. as well. It is a memorial for our dead and for the heroes among them.
The originators proposed the date for the 14th of Nisan, which was the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to underline the fact that there was also Gevurah (heroism) involved, to counter the myth that Jews were passive victims. However, that is also the day immediately before Passover, so that was impractical. Instead, it was set for the 27th of Nisan, except when that day falls immediately adjacent to Shabbat, in which case it is moved by one day, forward or back as appropriate.
Like all Jewish days, it begins at sundown and ends at sundown. In Israel, it is marked with solemn assemblies and flags at half mast. TV and radio stations play classical music and documentaries. At noon, everything stops in the country: people even stop their cars on the street, and get out of them, to stand for a moment of silence.
In the United States, Yom HaShoah is marked with community memorial ceremonies and educational programs. If survivors of the Holocaust are available as speakers, they tell their stories. With the passage of time, that is more and more rare.
Not all Jews observe 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some Orthodox and Hasidic groups include Holocaust remembrance in the Tisha B’Av memorial of the disasters to the Jewish People.
Upcoming Dates of Observance in the Gregorian calendar:
Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.
We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.
Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.
I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.
And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”
There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.
Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?” “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.
We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.
We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.
I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.
There are places in the world where there are very few Jews, and where Judaism is officially or unofficially forbidden by the state. One of the great mysteries of the Internet, to me, is that periodically someone in one of those countries will write to my friends at BecomingJewish.net and inquire about conversion to Judaism.
All the folks at BecomingJewish.net can do is write back to them and explain that (1) it isn’t safe to convert to Judaism in their country and (2) there are few or no Jews there, so it isn’t possible to convert.
On the one hand, it makes me sad to think that someone who wants to be Jewish is living in a place where they simply cannot become Jewish. On the other hand, it speaks to a real misunderstanding of Jewish life, because even if they could convert, they could not have any kind of meaningful experience of Jewish life without a community.
Judaism isn’t something you do by yourself. It isn’t private, it isn’t personal. It is communal. We pray in a minyan, a group of ten or more. We have a minyan for important occasions, like a bris. How can you have a seder, if you have no one with whom to discuss? We don’t even study alone!
This is why my first advice to anyone converting to Judaism is to find a rabbi, find a community, and to be regular at everything: services, events, and so on. It’s only by spending time with Jews that you can learn to be a Jew, and get the goodies of Jewish life.
As for the people writing letters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to BecomingJewish.net, I have no idea what’s going on there. If they are real, I hope they can find their way to a place where there are more Jews.
“When I told the rabbi I was half-Jewish, he was not very friendly.”
The young man who said that to me had recently discovered that his father was a Holocaust survivor. His dad had felt it was not safe to be a Jew, so after the war he hid his Jewish identity, and only revealed it on his deathbed. Joe (not his real name) had been raised without religion, had become a Christian in college, and now was trying to deal with this new information about his family. He was also still grieving for his father, and exploring Judaism was one way to feel connected to his dad. He went to a synagogue (I do not know what synagogue, or which movement it was) and when he approached the rabbi after services and introduced himself with, “I’m half Jewish” the rabbi said, “That’s not possible.”
Joe was baffled and hurt. “What did I do?” he said.
Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m half-Jewish” or “I’m one-quarter Jewish.” That reflects their self understanding. What they need to know, though, is that in the rabbinic Jewish universe, there are categories labeled “Jewish” and “not-Jewish,” but that there is no “part Jewish.” An analogy: it’s like sitting in a poker game and suddenly yelling “GIN!” You know that the hand you hold looks like “gin” (and it does!) but that’s not a hand in the game of poker. “Part Jewish” may be accurate genealogy but Judaism isn’t genealogy.
Why is this? Go back in time, not even very far. Jews were despised by Christians, and not very well-thought-of by most Muslims. Being “half-Jewish” meant having the worst of both worlds: membership in a despised group, and outsider status within that group. Jews decided, sometime about two thousand years ago, to define any person who had a Jewish mother as a Jew, no matter who the father was. That way a child would not be labeled “half-Gentile” and suffer for it. Children with Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers would not be living in the Jewish community. They would be in the Gentile community with their mothers, so they were beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world, hence, not Jewish.
So if you have described yourself to someone as “half-Jewish” or “part Jewish” and gotten a strange reaction or a lecture about Jewish law, that’s what was going on. If you want to bypass the semantics, try saying that you have a “Jewish heritage.” That may make for an easier conversation.
And Joe? We talked at length. It turned out that he was a devout Christian. Ultimately he decided to say he was a believing Christian with a Jewish heritage. I was able to put him in touch with a program for children of Holocaust survivors, because he certainly qualified as a member there.
To my Jewish readers: we need to be careful in speaking to people who identify as part-Jewish, remembering that unkindness is never OK. And if you are a person who has Jews in the family tree, I hope that you will find friendly people with whom to explore as much as you wish.
We are in a time of changes for the Jewish community in the United States. I have a feeling that while traditional categories are not going to change, the number of people who identify as “part Jewish” will grow. It’s going to be an interesting millennium.
As a student rabbi I had the privilege of serving Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in the San Fernando Valley of California. Today I received the current newsletter and learned about a new film based on the experiences of a Deaf Holocaust survivor.
Five Needlesoffers an unusual angle on Shoah history. It tells the story of a small group of Deaf women caught in the Shoah. The survival of any of these women was remarkable, since the Nazis were thorough in murdering anyone (Jewish or not) with a disability. However, some women were able to hide their deafness and still find one another in the camp. A very few of them survived.
You can see the film at BSL Zone, a website of the The British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT). It commissions television programs made in British Sign Language by Deaf people for Deaf people.
The true story behind the film may be found in an issue of the newsletter of the Jewish Deaf Community Center of Los Angeles. If you read the true story, you will see that the filmmaker has combined a couple of different stories. Five Needles is a fictionalized account of the story of real Deaf Jews.
While this film has some rough edges, and I could quibble about some historical details, the story and acting and the mood they evoke are well worth the viewing time.
I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew. It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.
But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.
Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.
My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.
Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note. But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic. I hate, hate, hate it.