This Sunday we Jews will eat hamentaschen (triangular pastries), drink wine, and shake groggers (noisemakers) to celebrate Judaism’s most fun holiday: Purim.
Yet, underneath all this frivolity, Purim is essentially about Jewish confrontation with anti-Semitism. In different historical contexts, anti-Semites from Haman to Pharaoh to Hitler have extended anti-Semitism to its ultimate expression—genocide, the extermination of the Jewish people.
Purim strikes a particularly somber note this year. Many Jews had come to believe that anti-Semitism had largely subsided in the US. From an attitudinal perspective this may well be true:
According to Pew Foundation studies (most recent survey January 9-23, 2017), non-Jewish Americans feel “more warmly” toward Jews than toward any other religious group in our society, outside of their own.
Within the last few months, however, the FBI and ADL have tabulated a significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents, including 100+ bombing threats against Jewish Community Centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester.
How are we to understand this discrepancy between the relative “warmth” non-Jewish Americans feel toward Jews and the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents? How can both be possible at the same time the same society?
Numerous sociological studies indicate that relatively few—roughly 15%—of members in any group are predisposed toward bigotry because of their psychologically “authoritarian” personalities.
The Hamans and Hitlers of the world often start with Jews as their targets, but then add many others in their hatred. These “authoritarian” individuals tend to express bigotry against a range of “others,” such as Muslims, African Americans, gays and lesbians, refugees. They’re even prejudiced against groups that don’t exist, like Lilliputians.
Furthermore, they can be found throughout the political spectrum. Anti-Semites on the left, for example, tend to view Jews as financial and political elites who oppress the less affluent and educated; right-wing anti-Semites tend to condemn Jews for preponderant liberalism and cosmopolitanism.
This is why anti-Semitism is essentially best understood as one particular manifestation of human bigotry. Xenophobia may have different victims, but all of its expressions are prejudicial “cousins” to anti-Semitism. With roots in irrational stereotyping, anti-Semitism resists fact-checking. In the mind of the anti-Semite, Jews can be simultaneously communists and capitalists.
What is more, this recognition of the familial relationship of anti-Semitism to other bigotry is key to effectively fighting anti-Semitism. To do so, we enlarge the “we”— standing strong together with our non-Jewish neighbors to oppose all prejudice.
Fighting prejudice universally, however, does not necessarily come easy. Prejudice comes from both nature and nurture, so almost all of us have biases to overcome. Biologically it’s hard-wired into us. Our cultural environment—and need to conform to it—then influences the targets of our bigotry.
Societally, the communities that have been most effective in eradicating prejudice have 1. Isolated the approximately 15% of hard-core bigots and 2. Worked in coalition with everyone else to change culture, through leadership, education, government, laws and law enforcement, media, and religion.
This is why we need the President, Congress, the press, and other leaders to proclaim, together, a “zero tolerance” policy against all acts of bigotry whereby every perpetrator will be prosecuted and punished. The recent letter by all 100 Senators was a step in the right direction.
Such statements need to be more than “lip service.” Opposition to hatred needs to be enshrined in law and investigated seriously and prosecuted diligently. In Shushan, Mordecai and Esther could not have succeeded in their fight against Haman without the support of King Ahasuerus.
On a personal level, overcoming our inherent prejudices takes focus and work. We need to open ourselves up to personal interactions with others, celebrate our differences, and commit to living in mutual respect.
We Jews, in particular, can best begin with ourselves. By studying and practicing Judaism, we can build inner resilience and outer dignity. When we stand tall, exemplifying Judaism’s highest values and respecting others’ identities and practices, we can reach the peak “pluralistic” balance of living as proud Jews while nurturing friendships and partnerships with everyone else.
Let us learn from Esther and Mordecai. They stood up proudly as Jews. They worked with the non-Jews around them, especially Queen Esther’s husband, King Ahasuerus. Together they defeated Haman and foiled his plot to exterminate the Jews.
When we too stand proudly as Jews and work in coalition with others, all of us can effectively fight anti-Semitism in our own day.
Mark L. Winer served as a full-time pulpit rabbi for 30 years in the New York area and 13 years in London, England. He is also a sociologist (Ph.D. Yale), and has written widely on interfaith relations and contemporary Jewry. Mark and his wife Suellen live in Boca Raton.
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