Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Conversation We Never Seem to Have

Early on Saturday afternoon, we heard the news that an angry man had burst into a synagogue not far from Fort Worth, Texas, and he was holding a rabbi and several other congregants hostage. The man was demanding the release of a convicted Muslim terrorist. In this case, fortunately, the hostages were finally released unharmed, but I can only imagine what their ten-hour ordeal was like.

And no, this frightening incident shouldn't immediately devolve into online comments about Muslims. It wasn't that long ago-- October 27, 2018-- when an avowed white supremacist, whose social media indicated hatred of immigrants and hatred of Jews, attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue. On that day, he murdered eleven worshipers. 

Both incidents share a common thread: an angry guy who decided to take out his anger on a group that had never met him, in a place where he had probably never gone before.  And many of us might ask: Why attack Jews at prayer? Why take out whatever grievances you have on people whose 'crime' seems to be that they attend synagogue? 

These kinds of attacks have become more common in the past few years. We saw Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, carrying torches and chanting "Jews will not replace us." And if you spend any time on social media, chances are you've encountered anti-Jewish comments. I've seen this happen on social media more times than I should have to. Yes, it's only words, but it still can hurt.

After an attack on a synagogue, or some other antisemitic incident, politicians issue the usual regrets and offer thoughts and prayers. But here's what usually doesn't happen-- the media rarely refer to antisemitism. It's usually framed like the perpetrator was some disgruntled guy who was angry about Israel (umm, no offense, but what does that have to do with threatening people praying in a synagogue?). Or they say it was some Muslim extremist. Or some white nationalist. In other words, it's often treated like a one-off. An exception. In no way part of any larger trend.

But it IS part of a larger trend. Agreed, many countries are far more tolerant today than they used to be. But let's be honest: many are not.  In too many places, kids are taught antisemitism from childhood-- and no, that's not just true of Muslim countries. Nationalism-- often Christian nationalism-- is on the rise throughout Europe, and there is little tolerance for anyone perceived as "other." Countries that used to welcome the stranger, including Hindu and Buddhist countries, are now treating the stranger as an enemy.

And in America, while most churches no longer teach overt hatred of the Jews, I can speak from first-hand experience that too many people are still learning it somewhere. I still meet lots of folks who only see me as someone who must be converted; or who believe the Jews are going to hell; or, worse yet, who still believe the Jews own the media or run the government or are to blame for [insert social problem here]. 

It would be nice if we could talk about this, rather than downplaying it.  It would be nice if church leaders, mosque leaders, and leaders of other faiths, would take an objective look at what kids are learning about Judaism. It would be nice if politicians would stop making Nazi and Hitler references whenever they disagree with some government policy. And it would be nice if the media would tell the truth about where things are: there really has been a rise in antisemitism in the US, and it needs to be called out. Pretending everything is fine isn't working. Ignoring prejudice doesn't make it go away. It's time to have an honest conversation, and come up with some strategies, so that people can go to synagogue or wear a Star of David or express pride in being Jewish without worrying about whether it's safe.

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