Anti-Semitism: Horses, or Zebras?

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Yesterday was a bit of a whirlwind as reactions and reactions to the reactions swirled in the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order around anti-Semitism.

Early reports claimed the order was redefining Judaism as a “nationality,” a problematic designation since it has the potential to lead to a further identification of Jews as “other” or “un-American.” It reinforces the idea that Jews have dual loyalty, or even loyalty to another entity or country in opposition to the country in which they reside and hold citizenship.

Yes, Judaism is more than a religion. People identify as Jewish who connect with ethnicity or culture. Reconstructionist Judaism promotes the idea of Jewish peoplehood, and its founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s seminal work is called “Judaism as a Civilization.” The concern is when governments engage in defining such as legal categories, especially of minority groups, history has shown it can have disastrous consequences.

And this order came following Trump’s speech to the Israeli-American Council National Summit, in which he (once again) traded in language that indicated Jews are wealthy and think only of their finances, and criticized Jews that “don’t love Israel enough.” Both statements echoing classic stereotypes against Jews.

It now seems that the initial reports about the Executive Order were misleading, and the definition or re-definition of Jews vis-a-vis hate speech was not what initial reports intimated it would be. The order does have the problematic potential to distort dialogue and limit free speech around the debate on Israel/Palestine, and that is another matter.

This is not the first time the initial reaction to an incident with anti-Semitic overtones missed the mark. There have been a number of incidents recently that were initially condemned as hate crimes, or seen as part of a particular pattern of anti-Semitism, that turned out not to be the case.

One was the fire at a synagogue in Duluth, MN that turned out not to be arson as originally assumed, but the result of an unhoused person seeking warmth in the frame of a Sukkah. While there was a lot of media coverage when the event first happened, with speculation as to cause, it seems that there is less reporting about the actual facts of the case.

Another was the stabbing of a Hasidic man in Monsey, NY (near where I grew up.) While again first it was received as another in a line of violent anti-Semitic incidents, the investigation is on-going, and there are reports of rumors within the Hasidic community that the killing was an “inside job,” and possibly a case of mistaken identity in a retaliatory attack around an issue of Jewish divorce. Again, not necessarily a hate crime.

Even after the most recent shootings at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, I read initial reactions that condemned a pattern of “white supremacy,” when it turned out to be perpetrated by people connected to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a different type of hate group. While it appears this market was targeted, and the perpetrators had posted anti-Semitic (and anti-law enforcement) rhetoric on-line, it is unclear at this time if the targeting of the store was part of a larger attack against Jews in general, or an attack against these particular Jews. On one level it doesn’t matter–this is clearly an act of anti-Jewish violence and a hate crime–but on another it makes a difference as to how to categorize it, and to be clear if it fits with larger patterns or trends.

And following these incidents, it seems we were quick to condemn, but not as good on the follow-through as more nuanced facts emerge. Indeed the lack of follow-through has the double issue of seeing anti-Semitism where it isn’t, and potentially missing other matters that should be discussed. For example, maybe the incident in Duluth should have sparked a renewed conversation of the obligations of the Jewish community for the people in our midst experiencing homelessness.

I admit I too got caught up in the reaction to the Executive Order, which raised the question for me: why? Why was this the natural response, even if the facts weren’t entirely correct?

While the facts may have been off in this case of the Executive Order, the reaction seems justified, or at least understandable, even if misdirected in this instance. For we are living in a time in which anti-Semitism is on the rise, white supremacy is more vocal and visible, and our President does say and do things both implicitly and explicitly that reinforce long standing Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitic language.

The fear and discomfort are real. Our culture is replete with actions and attitudes against Jews and other vulnerable minorities. And when these conditions exist, there will be a tendency to see things in a particular way. The fact that some folks got it wrong initially about the Executive Order does not mean the underlying conditions do not exist.

There is the old proverb, “when you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, when something happens, think of the most common explanation rather than something that can produce a similar result but be much less likely. Increasingly it seems that anti-Semitism is “horses,” more often the explanation for events, rather than “zebras,” the isolated and rarer case.

In response to these times, we will as Jews continue to strengthen our connection to our communities and our traditions. We will continue to forge deep relationships and we will continue to work for social justice for all those facing discrimination and oppression. And we will continue to call out and condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms. 

And, there will be times when the condemnation is not exact. That is the price of vigilance.

One response

  1. Eleanor van Noppen

    Thank you for explaining about Trump’s nonsense. i am one of the Sanctuary volunteers I belong to United Churches. God bless You!
    Eleanor van Noppen


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