A UC Berkeley student wears a “Bring Them Home – Now!” dog tag in support of hostages taken by Hamas at Berkeley Hillel on Monday, March 4, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A UC Berkeley student wears a “Bring Them Home – Now!” dog tag in support of hostages taken by Hamas at Berkeley Hillel on Monday, March 4, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

In Berkeley and beyond, we can’t let antisemitism define our Jewishness

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The use of Berkeley as the paragon of antisemitism in America, as in Franklin Foer’s recent Atlantic article, obscures the fact that my city also houses an incredibly vibrant, creative Jewish community.

That vibrancy has been on display since Oct. 7 as my community has responded to Hamas’ attacks with grassroots organizing that has successfully brought attention to antisemitism in city council resolutions, in public schools and at the university level. Pushing back against an increase of antisemitism, we are drawing closer together.

The experience has put me into contact with Jews I did not know. I’m especially thrilled to be welcoming those who, until recently, were less engaged. Yet I can’t help but worry that these new investments in Jewish communal organizing risk allowing antisemitism to define our sense of Jewishness.

How can we be vigilant against the very real threats that we face without becoming cynical and suspicious of the broader community?

Each small encounter with antisemitism and anti-Israel bias compounds the trauma of Oct. 7. I belong to several WhatsApp groups that sprang up in response to antisemitism and anti-Zionism resolutions in local schools, including calls for cease-fire that deny Israel’s right to defend itself. These groups are organizing tools as well as places for support and solidarity. On the political side, there are regularly urgent requests asking members to email local councilmembers or school administrators.

Group members share screenshots of social media posts by local educators or politicians, emails from schools and other organizations, and even screenshots of text from friends expressing antisemitic or anti-Israel bias, asking for advice about how to respond. Some describe encounters with antisemitism in their ordinary lives, shopping at the grocery store or walking down the street. In some groups, hundreds of messages are posted daily.

But I worry that we are entrenching ourselves in a sense of victimization. Little wonder that many of us in the Jewish community feel unable to move beyond our anger and sadness from Oct. 7. How do we heal if our scabs can be ripped off at any moment?

I worry that we are entrenching ourselves in a sense of victimization.

We are also not the only victims in this terrible ordeal. The suffering of Palestinians is very real. In our sense of victimhood, we become closed off to the pain of our perpetrators even though vulnerability is not a zero-sum game.

“Suffering and viewing oneself as a victim,” the late Rabbi David Hartman wrote in his 1982 essay “Auschwitz or Sinai,” can lead to a “moral narcissism.” Hartman wanted us to move beyond what he termed the Auschwitz narrative, of seeing our existence through the lens of antisemitism.

Moreover, we live in a world that London School of Economics professor Lilie Chouliaraki characterizes as the “platformization of pain.” Expressing victimhood has become political capital that confers legitimacy.

The reality is that we cannot win the victim war, not just because the Palestinians have legitimate claims but because the search for recognition through stories of suffering is now the preeminent form of social-media communication. Any attempt to digitize our vulnerability further entrenches a system fueled by emotional imagery of suffering with little investigation into the historical and structural contexts that led to such suffering.

Hartman’s response to a victim narrative was to advocate the Sinai narrative — the moment of revelation when the Israelites entered into covenant with the Divine. This narrative, he explained, “calls us to action, to moral awakening, to living constantly with challenges of building a moral and just society which mirrors the kingdom of God in history. Sinai creates humility and openness to the demands of self-transcendence.”

For Hartman, Sinai is not about rote behavioralism but about the possibility and creativity of the Jewish tradition to inspire us to work toward a world as it could be, to not accept it as it is.

What gives me hope is when this organizing focuses on vibrant Jewish life beyond only fighting antisemitism. During Hanukkah, for example, my friend and neighbor Elana Naftalin-Kelman organized a candlelighting in a local park supported by several synagogues, Urban Adamah and the JCC East Bay to literally and figuratively bring more light into the world.

I am not suggesting that we drop our concern with antisemitism but that we also build on the resurgence of communal interest to define ourselves by a set of values and not by a sense of fear.

Rabbi Joshua Ladon
Rabbi Joshua Ladon

Rabbi Joshua Ladon is the director of education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He lives in Berkeley with his wife and three children.