The Deadliest Poison: When Anti-Semitism Infects Liberalism

Publicly gay Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Washington’s Adas Israel, used the stage at Yom Kippur to talk about the rise of anti-Semitism on the left. In his sermon, Rabbi Steinlauf mentioned the incident at the A Wider Bridge Creating Change event in Chicago in January.


This past summer, the national Black Lives Matter movement released an official platform outlining several of its policy proposals in its efforts to end the war on black people in this country. Among its proposals, it used the platform as an opportunity to attack Israel, calling it an “apartheid state.” The platform also stated “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” Last January, at the annual National Gay and Lesbian Creating Change Conference in Chicago, a pro-Israel reception was initially shut down by the conference organizers, bowing to pressure from anti-Israel groups. When the reception eventually got the green light, their event was stormed by an angry mob trying to shut down the Jewish and Israeli event following their Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of the LGBT congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NY, and an outspoken left-wing activist on Israel’s issues, had to acknowledge “To my deep sadness, while I am not one to lightly use the anti-Semitism charge, I have to say that I personally felt attacked as a Jew.”

Time and again, at college campuses, and now across the country at so many radical progressive events and gatherings, it is Israel and Jews who are being vilified, silenced, erased and attacked. In our cultural climate these days of polarized thinking and extremism, it is not just on the alt-right that blatant, vicious white-supremacist anti-Semitism is becoming more acceptable. It is equally, if not even more frighteningly on the rise on the political left in this country, and around the world.

Today, I will talk about the rise of anti-Semitism on the left for several reasons. First, I am compelled to speak of it out because it’s personal. As many of you know, I am very much on the left on many political and international issues. I have, and will continue, to speak out against many of the practices of the current Israeli government with regard to the on-going building of settlements, and against the human rights abuses of Palestinians. I believe the current Israeli government is guilty of some moral failures, and as Jews, we have a responsibility to stand up for justice and call out our Jewish leaders when they can and ought to be doing better. As someone who has long taught that progressive values are quintessentially Jewish values, however, the rejection of the Jews (often by radicalized Jews themselves) is particularly frightening, and it is a dangerous distortion that must be addressed. Second, the vilification of Israel and the Jews is only getting worse on the left as time goes by. For too long, too many of us have believed that radical-left anti-Semitism was only a thing of college campuses. But now as these ideas are going out online and influencing ever widening groups in this world, we must pay attention. The third and most important reason I am speaking on this topic today is for the sake of future generations. We want to raise our children with a deep commitment to Tikkun Olam, to creating a world of justice for all human beings. We must, as a Jewish community, acquire for ourselves and then give our kids the proper tools to fully understand the unique nature of the anti-Semitism that has crept into and infected so many of the great movements of social justice that our kids so desperately want to fight for.

My ultimate goal in speaking today is to assert that, for the sake of our children, we must reframe how we think about anti-Semitism, how we talk about anti-Semitism among ourselves, and how we teach our kids to fight anti-Semitism in their lives. This reframing of anti-Semitism might make some of us uncomfortable because it involves speaking of anti-Semitism in the language of Millennials, and not in the ways it has been discussed in the past. But we must face our discomfort and act, for the sake of our future.

In the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, we read the famous account of the scapegoat. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would lay his hands on the scapegoat and place all the sins of Israel onto the goat, and then that goat would be sent off into the desert–”El Eretz G’zeirah,” to an inaccessible region. The Midrash, the rabbinic legends, teach that the purpose of the scapegoat was to serve as a bribe against Satan. Satan, in Jewish lore is not the devil. Satan is an angel of God who is always tripping up the Jewish people and calling out their shortcomings before God. According to the Tzena Ur’ena, a traditional collection of midrashic teachings, one of the names of Satan is Sama’el. The name Sama’el refers to the Sam HaMavet, the deadly poison that lives in humankind. When the scapegoat was sent out, the sight of this goat bearing all the sins of a repentant nation would temporarily blind this poisonous angel of God, and the Jewish people could live another year.

Continue reading on Dover Emet, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf’s blog