Friday, February 19, 2010

Purim: The Madness of Anti-Semitism

It's a few days early, but I wanted to blog today on the upcoming holiday of Purim (Sunday February 28th).  (I'm also out of town next week, so...if not now, when?)

Purim is such a happy holiday, that we often lose sight of the terribly disturbing events that set the holiday story in motion.  Let us not forget: we rejoice only because we managed to overtake the evil Haman, and stop him from committing genocide against the Jews of Shushan.

Thus, Purim isn't just an opportunity to get happy.  It's also a chance for us to step back and reflect about the state of anti-semitism (the irrational hatred of Jews) in the world, and in our own lives, today.

There is ample anecdotal evidence of persistent violent anti-Semitism in Europe today.  This article is just one tiny representation of that. As far as widespread anti-Semitism in the United States in general, I strongly encourage you to check out the ample resources of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks such incidents.

Hitting more closely to home is the question of anti-Semitism on our college campuses.  For our college students: have you experienced it yet?  (I hope you don't!)

Some have suggested that the most prominent expressions of anti-Semitism on campus today concern Israel.  Opponents of Israel, and of Zionism (the belief in the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland of their own in Israel) express themselves in ways that are not just in political opposition to Israel - but are actually in religious/cultural opposition to Jews.

I don't know if you have heard about it, but lots of people (in the American Jewish community) have been talking about what happened a few weeks ago at UC Irvine, when the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to speak there.  You can read a posting about it on the LA Times website here.  And you can watch some video from the event here:

There's a lot to digest from this incident. Clearly this is an expression of anti-Zionism. Is it anti-Semitic as well?

There are obviously issues of free speech involved.

But, for me, the core question is one of dialogue. I was really struck by Ambassador Oren's response (which you can see in the above video) that he wished that the pro-Palestinian protesters would have stayed, instead of marching out en masse. Clearly the Ambassador is of the mindset that dialogue is a constructive process that will be necessary when/if we ever reach a peaceful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli issue.

But what are the limits? At what point are we no longer Jewishly obligated to engage in the "other." (As someone who personally comes to these questions from the left side of the political spectrum, my default approach is to never shun dialogue, if it is an alternative to violence.) But I would call your attention to the VERY IMPORTANT and thought-provoking piece by Rabbi David Ellenson, written in 2007 during the Iranian President's controversial visit to New York City. It seems ever-relevant in light of the UC Irvine incident, because it seems hard for me to imagine that the pro-Palestinian protesters were interested in "real" or authentic dialogue. As Ellenson puts it, they seemed to be using the occasion for mere propaganda.

As Purim approaches this year, I would encourage you to do some soul-searching of your own. Think about the occasions in your life when you have experienced anti-Semitism (whether at college, or in school earlier in your life, on the ballfield, etc.). What was the nature of it? How did it make you feel?

If you have the chance to celebrate this Purim, and you've experienced a little bit of anti-Semitism in your life, then I would encourage you to also celebrate the fact that we live in a pretty amazing country - a country that officially prohibits such reckless attitudes and behavior - a country that celebrates the notion of being a bit different. Definitely watch the video here if you haven't seen it already.

Use this week as a chance, as well, to think about how you might respond the next time you encounter anti-Semitism (whether it be in the classroom, on the quad, in your dorm, or in your neighborhood). To what extent can/will you engage that person in dialogue, to try to get them to realize how painful their words/actions were to you? And to what extent will you shun dialogue, if you come to believe that they are actually filled with a disgusting sense of hate?

Much to think about...I'd love to hear your thoughts on these questions.

Shabbat Shalom.

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