Demonstrators raise Palestinian and Israeli flags in support and opposition to a resolution in support of a ceasefire in Gaza at Oakland City Hall on Monday, Oct. 28, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Demonstrators raise Palestinian and Israeli flags in support and opposition to a resolution in support of a ceasefire in Gaza at Oakland City Hall on Monday, Oct. 28, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

We must relearn our history to fight for a Jewish future: four ideas

In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Joseph interprets the pharaoh’s dreams and teaches him, and us, two important lessons.

The first is that “years of plenty will be followed by famine,” which we should take to mean that we cannot rely on good times lasting forever, either in the natural world or in the political and social order.

The second is that there are things we need to do during the good times to help us better make it through the difficult times that will follow. During times of plenty, we must put grain into storehouses.

These are important lessons for us today as we consider the rise in antisemitism, of Jew hatred, that is happening across the country and here in the Bay Area. 

The proud and vibrant history of the Jewish people is filled with countless great achievements, yet it is also a history of catastrophes. In every century of the past two millennia, we can find the stories of our people’s persecution, a history of exclusion, expulsion, violence and genocide, all wrapped up in the most malevolent conspiracy theories and blood libel. 

Perhaps we imagined that all of this was ancient history. Perhaps, as the astute journalist and commentator Yair Rosenberg has noted, we American Jews have thought that we were on a holiday from Jewish history. Sadly, we are not. 

Antisemitism and its attendant conspiracy theories are alive and well here today. Over the past decade we have heard it from the far right, including the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia.

And increasingly, and most clearly since Oct. 7, we have seen it from many quarters of the progressive left, from many people and groups we thought were our allies. We have seen it in the silence of so many feminist groups unwilling to condemn the mass rape and obscene sexual mutilation of Israeli women and girls that took place on Oct. 7. 

We heard it at a recent Oakland City Council meeting, where people got up and made false allegations that the IDF was behind the Oct. 7 massacre and that the rapes were a fabrication. 

We see it on our college campuses across the country, where increasingly large numbers of Jewish students now report feeling unsafe. On many campuses, students are being trained to see the world through a framework of simplistic and false binaries. Groups of people are permanently labeled as either the oppressors or the oppressed, the colonizers or the colonized, the powerful or the powerless.

Rabbi David Wolpe, who resigned on Dec. 8 from Harvard’s Antisemitism Advisory Group, noted that this is not a useful tool for understanding Jewish history, antisemitism, or for making sense of the history of Israel and Palestine.

But it is a framework that has been normalizing antisemitism.

On Facebook, the group Mothers Against College Antisemitism has grown to more than 53,000 members. One question they are asking each other: “Is it safe for us to send our children to college?” And really, embedded under the surface of that question is a scarier one: Is it safe for us, as Jews, to live here? 

What can we do? What is our equivalent of Joseph’s second lesson, putting grain in the storehouses? Let me suggest some ideas: 

We need to learn our own history and develop a deeper understanding of antisemitism. Antisemitism is a complicated phenomenon, it is different in some important ways from the other “isms” that we often speak about, and we cannot expect non-Jews to learn this on their own. But we need to learn it. 

We need to find effective ways of talking about it with our friends, Jewish and non-Jewish. In most cases, I don’t think it’s helpful to call people antisemites. But we must be honest with those we thought were our allies when they are trafficking in the tropes of antisemitism that are so hurtful to us, and so dangerous to the Jewish community. 

We need to build coalitions and work to oppose all forms of hatred. Our Jewish Community Relations Council does yeoman’s work in building alliances and partnerships with religious, racial and ethnic groups across the Bay Area. We need to continue this work, even at times like these when the work feels frustrating and difficult. 

Lastly, we need to support one another in community, and we need to be brave. Rabbi Rachel Timoner recently wrote in the New York Times “Please, please do not take your mezuza off your door. Please do not take your star from around your neck. Please do not stop standing as steadfast supporters of our Israeli family, who feel more alone in the world now than ever. Please do not stop doing all the Jewish things you do. Every one of them, every Jewish thing you do, matters.” We must do what Jews have always done during dark times: We light a light. May we all work to bring both light and courage into this dark and challenging moment.

Arthur Slepian
Arthur Slepian

Arthur Slepian is the immediate past board chair of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, and the founder of A Wider Bridge.