Who Will Be for Us?

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, December 31, 2023

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
Im ein ani li, mi li? Uch-sheh-ani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’im lo achshav eimatai?
— Rabbi Hillel, the great rabbinic sage, asks three questions in our Mishna,
Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors)1:14.


If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself only, what am I?
And if not now, when?

We are living through a very unsettling time in Jewish history. Daily reports of antisemitic incidents, or what I now refer to as “Jew hatred” are exploding in Canada, North America, Europe, and across the globe. Many Jews are questioning “Is it ok to wear my Jewish star?” “Is it ok to hang my mezuzah?” “Is it ok to wave an Israeli flag?”

We are also grappling with the pain of wondering how to answer part two of the first question that Hillel asks: “who will be for me”? As a Jewish community we have always worked hard on the second and third questions. “If I am for myself only, what am I?”: Jews have stood up for others, marching for civil rights, supporting LGBTQ rights, gender equality, supporting and welcoming refugees, raising funds for those in need of food and shelter, lobbying for fair wages, and for providing homes for the unhoused. More than 36 times in the Torah we are commanded to welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The most marginalized among us, because we know what it is like to be the stranger. To be the other. And the third question: If not now, when? We have not hung back waiting for someone else to take the first step. We stand up, speak out, break barriers, and create opportunities for others. We have committed ourselves to stand up for others and to speak out, because of the teachings of Jewish tradition.

And in this unsettling time, with the rise of unprecedented levels of incidents of Jew hatred, we find ourselves feeling marginalized and alone. “Who will be for us?” It is a stark reminder that we must stand up for our people, our Jewish family. Now, more than ever, we recognize the importance of standing up for ourselves, not to be afraid to be proud to be Jewish, even in a time where many individuals, groups, and institutions are condemning our very existence.

On far too many university and college campuses, in our city government, on our children’s school grounds, and on our city streets, protests and rallies call for the destruction of Israel (“from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”) and for widespread violence against Jews (“globalize the intifada”). Our government must be reminded that free speech does not include hate speech.

Record numbers of synagogues and community centers across the world are receiving bomb threats. Buildings have been tagged with antisemitic graffiti, Jews are being physically assaulted in public places in Europe and North America, simply because they can be identified as Jews by what they are wearing. And organizations that monitor antisemitic activity have arrested individuals and terror cells for allegedly planning attacks on Jewish institutions. The incidents are part of a growing pattern of antisemitic activity that is alarming officials, who are referring to the rise of antisemitism as a Tsunami.

In 2010, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks pointed out that anti-Zionism has emerged as the most recent incarnation of antisemitism. Instead of speaking and acting outwardly and explicitly in ways that were antisemitic, one could simply substitute the word “Zionist” for “Jew,” and then one could say virtually anything about the Jewish people freely. (Click here to hear him explain).

The words Zionist and Zionism provoke strong reactions. As Rabbi Sacks explains, in this new incarnation, “pro-Zionist” and “pro-Israel” are new code words for “Jew.” Let me be clear, just as one can be critical of the Canadian government, Canadian politicians, and Canadian culture; one can be critical of Israeli policies, Israeli politicians, and Israeli culture. That is not anti-Zionism. If that were the case, then most Israelis themselves would be anti-Zionists. Prior to October 7th, many Israelis marched in protest for almost a year every Saturday night against the current government. One can be pro-Zionist and pro-Israel while at the same time being critical of Israeli policies, and politicians.

The definition of Anti-Zionism is the belief that Israel has no right to exist. It is the belief that, unlike any other people, the Jewish people have no right to a state in their ancestral homeland. It is the belief that the existence of the State of Israel is a historical error. And most Jews believe that Israel has a right to exist. Criticism of Israel’s government is fair and often appropriate. It becomes antisemitism when that criticism is used as a justification for dismantling the one and only Jewish state in the world. We can criticize Israel without calling for its demise.

Judaism and Zionism are linked. Judaism is not only a religion, it is a culture, a peoplehood, a nation. Unfortunately, many people do not understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that encompasses two indigenous peoples, both greatly harmed by colonialism and oppression, with competing claims to the same small piece of land.

If Judaism and Zionism are distinct, why are anti-Israel activists attacking synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses outside of Israel? Anti-Zionism has become a code word for antisemitism, for Jew hatred. One cannot separate Judaism and Zionism because the people who hate Jews make no such distinction.

Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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