Antisemitism[1] is surging around the world, including in America. In this essay, I offer a frame for understanding this rise and a set of responses to it, and to spark constructive conversations and actions. My goal is to empower and provide resources to Jews and the people who love us so that we remember that we are potent actors in how we respond and lead in this moment.

This essay lays out a Reconstructionist take on antisemitism in order to generate a shared understanding of the moment and to lay out a path forward out of that understanding. In brief, I assert that the most important choice we have is how we orient ourselves — in how we identify and act as Jews, how we respond proactively, how we ally ourselves and how we mobilize those alliances. I argue that we must preserve our differences and celebrate our shared humanity. What follows are suggestions on how to foster ways of preserving, growing, acting and flourishing, so that we are nourished at this challenging moment.

A Reconstructionist Take on Antisemitism

Antisemitism is an ancient tactic of division and fear — an extraordinarily persistent and malleable hatred deployed by bad actors in multiple malicious ways. The machinery of antisemitism tends to be activated especially during periods of social disruption, and is most intensely invoked when there is economic disruption and when income inequality is acute; it wells up from populist crowds and is used unscrupulously by politicians and leaders. All of these factors have been growing over the last two decades, and social media has amplified the reach of hate groups and conspiracy theories, which draw heavily on antisemitic theories and rhetoric. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified all of these dynamics and so has helped to fuel a further rise in the machinery of antisemitism.

Antisemitism takes many forms, from opposition to or even slanderous lies about Jewish religious practice to racialized hatred to demonizing rhetoric about Israel that goes far beyond a sincere values-based political critique. It can and has been weaponized by people using it to pursue political power and by those with no political ideology. Antisemitism can be casual and unthinking, and it can be deadly violent. In all its expressions, it must be combated as vigorously as possible by Jews and by others.

At the same time, antisemitism is most frequently an expression of totalizing ideologies that efface difference or diversity. Most powerfully over the last several years, we have seen devastating expressions of this from the right, especially white supremacists, who also target people of color and who are sometimes fueled by certain right-wing Christian tropes that also assail Muslims and other non-Christians along with Jews. As the activist and social-justice leader Eric Ward so powerfully teaches, for the right-wing, antisemitism is a branch from the same tree as white supremacy; replacing or eliminating Jews and other non-white minorities is at the base of their analysis of what needs to be changed in America.[2] When we call for Jewish safety, we cannot do so at the expense of other minority populations. When other minorities are at risk, it is extremely likely that Jews are as well or will be soon.

On the other hand, the left too often conflates any affirmative expression of Judaism with support for Israel and presumes that such support necessarily erases or oppresses Palestinians. This misdirection often crosses into antisemitic attacks. As Rabbi Mordechai Liebling observes, “left-wing antisemitism in the United States … is not central to a left-wing analysis of the problems of and cures for contemporary American society. … [Nonetheless], it is still important to confront antisemitism on the left.”[3] We must distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies that may violate international human rights laws and would be condemnable in any country, and critique that veers — obliquely or explicitly — into antisemitism. Liebling’s important article, posted on our website Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, spells out many markers that help to make these distinctions, and there are many additional resources as well in the Antisemitism section of Evolve.[4]

There is also the disturbing phenomenon of antisemitism from the middle, expressed as a form of polite liberalism that silences or marginalizes any serious expression of Jewish identity or practice. Enactors of this quiet antisemitism are comfortable only with the most superficial and socially acceptable expressions of Jewishness — a love of bagels, say, or expressions of Jewish humor. It leads to the effacement of Jewish identity from the study or biographies of major Jewish figures even when their Jewishness shaped their art, scholarship or activism, and denigrates any significant religious, ethical or cultural claims put forward by Jews. This type of antisemitism erodes Jewish identity and insidiously seeds shame and silence that feed internalized antisemitism.[5]

Choosing Generativity Over Fear

The most consequential choice we have is how we respond to rising antisemitism, how we orient ourselves, how we ally ourselves and mobilize our alliances. Retreating inward or asserting superiority are, I believe, defensive postures that point us backward, in ways that are either not sustainable or are not tolerable. In our Jewishness, we must look outward and work for justice for all peoples. We must preserve our differences and also celebrate our shared humanity. We must create and build — both the Jewish community we want to live in as well as relationships with other communities — in the service of fostering democratic institutions and vibrant pluralism.

Reconstructing Judaism pro-actively seeks to open and expand avenues for people to draw deeply from Jewish wisdom and practice so that they (we) can be the best possible human beings and community members. Our mission is to cultivate, provoke and inspire a deeply rooted, boldly relevant and co-created Judaism that provides individuals and communities with tools to lead lives of meaning and joy. We pursue this mission in the service of our vision: fostering a diverse, connected and engaged Judaism that meaningfully contributes to a just and compassionate world. The faculty, staff and board of Reconstructing Judaism spend our time fostering positive and engaged Jewish living and learning — not only for their own sake but also as a defense against antisemitism.

Reconstructing Judaism works to build what we might call a Jew’s core strength — that inner security, pride and resilience that comes from joyful and loving diverse Jewish communities, from Jewish ritual and spiritual practice, and from the depth and wisdom of Jewish texts and traditions. This is the main way our movement supports Jews to defend ourselves and our rights in a world in which antisemitism is increasing in its frequency and intensity. With a strong inner core, and with the support of others — Jewish and not — we can face hate with self-knowledge, determination and faith in the enduring meaning and beauty of Judaism. Jewish learning and community nourish and challenge us, and our Jewish connections shape and sustain our identities, in all their complexities.

We may ask again and again: Are we safe? Each of us lives on multiple axes of safety and the lack thereof, depending on the color of our skin, our gender identity and sexual orientations, our social location and other factors. Reconstructing Judaism aims to help people cultivate both inner resources and orientations that bolster resilience; learn strategies from our ancestors and our contemporaries for cultivating joy and interdependence in the face of hardship; forge sustained connections with others in the context of covenantal community; cultivate both empathy and genuine relationships with diverse communities and activists for diverse causes; and be boldly and proudly and loudly Jewish. We believe that all of these actions will help to increase a sense of personal groundedness, foster community and bring about a more just and connected world that will prioritize mutuality and individual and collective well-being over hate and discord.

What follows is a call to action around antisemitism that is based on our values.[6] The first part addresses concrete steps and the second lays out a series of principles that can foster generativity.

Concrete Steps — Individual and Organizational

At Reconstructing Judaism, we believe there are several steps toward a vigorous fight against rising antisemitism.

Effective coalition-building and public representation. The fight against antisemitism is not a fight that Jews can win on our own. We must build up effective coalitions, both within and beyond the Jewish community. Internally, we must work on the broadest coalitions that presume that all Jews vehemently oppose antisemitism and seek conditions for Jews to flourish, and that do not draw red lines legitimating particular expressions of Jewish peoplehood. Externally, we must see and act on the concerns of allies and potential allies so that we can ask them to see and act on our concerns as well. From a pragmatic minimum, we must show up for others. From an ethical maximum, these relationships must not be transactional: They should be expressions of shared commitments and real relationships. Only then can we call them out if and when they do not show up for us.

Part of the advantage of membership in an organization like Reconstructing Judaism is that individuals and congregations have seats at tables where they otherwise would not have access. On behalf of Reconstructionists across North America and around the world, we participate in high-level strategy conversations, and we represent the Reconstructionist movement in the wider world. We advocate vigorously for effective action to combat antisemitism in all these forums.

Dismantling systemic racism — in the Jewish community and in the broader society. America is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world and is in the midst of a powerful racial reckoning, with the possibility of atoning for centuries of Black oppression. In Christian and Muslim lands throughout much of the last millennium, Jews were the primary “other” — and we suffered mightily for it. In America, even as antisemitism has persisted and is growing, the primary axis of difference has been race, not religion. Jews, especially the overwhelming waves of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have benefited tremendously from the promises embedded in America’s founding documents — and from the fact that most Ashkenazi Jews were labeled “white” as the color line hardened in the 20th century. We vehemently reject the premise that battling antisemitism supersedes fighting against racism. They are intertwined, and no one is well-served by efforts to pit them against each other. Pursuing racial justice work is critically important in fighting antisemitism. It enables white Jews to untangle the ways in which we have been aided by white privilege and structural racism so that we can undo its harm to Black people — Jewish and non-Jewish — and to ourselves. Doing this work can enable us to stop ignoring or injuring Jews of color in our communities and instead to see them more clearly, to embrace them as family, to be led by them. It can empower white Jews to be potent allies for Jews of color — and for other minority groups.

Bolstering democratic institutions. Fundamentally, we believe the best possible path to combat antisemitism and foster the flourishing of Jews and Jewish community is robust democracy, where pluralism is celebrated and minorities protected. America’s founding documents that predicate individual freedoms and separation of church and state have offered much hope for minority populations like Jews, even as they initially denied the very humanity of Blacks and most other people of color. Efforts to correct and expand these initial promises and to bring them fully to life have been imperfect at best. Too often, a vision of civic nationalism, which advances full and robust citizenship for every member of society, has been overtaken by racial nationalism, which calls for restrictions based on race and sometimes religion and ethnicity.[7] We must defend democratic institutions currently under attack. We must protect and use the franchise to support a free press. We must seek to expand the promises and protections in our founding documents to all citizens, with an eye toward repairing old wounds. We must reinvigorate pluralism, seeking out and learning about individuals and communities who are different from us and building community together.

Analyzing criticism of Israel with careful scrutiny. There will always be disagreements within the Jewish community about when criticisms of Israel cross the line into antisemitism. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism helpfully suggests this line: “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.”[8] When there are obvious cases — including but not limited to the depiction of Jews as greedy, demonic or world-manipulating, calling for Israel’s destruction or refusing to participate in social justice coalitions with Zionist organizations — we and our allies must name and condemn these expressions as antisemitic. However, criticism of Israel that does not include plainly antisemitic tropes yet causes us discomfort deserves our scrutiny and careful thought. Any response must be thoughtful, honest and assertive, rather than an expression of our initial visceral reactions. This is difficult yet critical work. If we fail, we run the risk of allowing distorted and reactive all-or-nothing rhetoric to sabotage important work that needs to be done.

Deepening Jewish identity. It is ironic that when Jewish acceptance in the greater society is greatest, more Jews drift away from Jewishness and Judaism. Regardless of the tenor of the world, Reconstructing Judaism exists on the principle that Jewish wisdom and practice enrich individuals on their journeys and foster diverse pathways into life lived in community that is at once sustaining and transformative. Our mission is the same in pacific periods and in times full of challenge. The bulk of Reconstructing Judaism’s resources are and will continue to be directed to expanding entryways into Jewish life and deepening identity and connection, without watering down our conception of what it means to be Jewish. This is especially important with regard to the next generation. We must invest in creating robust Jewish identities for our children, biological or chosen. The more they hold knowledge, skills and experiences about what it means to be boldly and deeply Jewish, the more capacity and confidence they will have in general and in the event that they unfortunately encounter antisemitism.

Toward Generativity

In light of all this, here are some proposed principles for moving forward in a generative fashion.

Let us presume that Judaism in the 21st century urges us to know that we all have the potential to be seekers of the sacred, and to be bearers of a larger vision, one of humanity and holiness and hopefulness. Let us make manifest — in our words and in our actions — a vision of the Divine that nurtures human lives attuned to justice and caring and joy.

Let us commit ourselves once again to building a Jewish civilization that offers multiple pathways into engaging issues of meaning and of deep concern. Reconstructionist Judaism was founded on the principle that we must accommodate individual interests and aspirations across Jewish life. We must build structures that embrace and encourage diversity — in practice, in belief—and that are nonetheless substantive and even demanding. The demand is that we are particularistic, we identify as Jews and act in ways that are Jewish not for the sake of being Jewish, but for the sake of being truly human. We may no longer believe in a supernatural God who revealed the Torah at Sinai, but we do believe that being Jewish obligates us to behave in ways that are moral and ethical, as individuals and on a collective level. We must articulate those obligations in ongoing conversations across a diverse community, and we must be willing to follow them. In this way, we can create covenantal community.

Let us act on the principle that community is essential. Let us make explicit our understanding that we are more than atomized individuals, that we live in a web of humanity, and that we are enriched by these interconnections. Joining our lives with others can support us in our convictions and give us company on our journeys through life. Joining with others also can transform us, when we are changed by our encounters with people who are different from us.

Let us assert that being Jewish in the 21st century is about preserving and celebrating Jewish distinctiveness and also about opening ourselves to transformation. We engage with traditional Jewish sources and also actively generate new ones. Judaism should not be about affirming what we already know; Judaism should be about opening ourselves up to new ways of being — to being the best possible Jews and the best possible human beings.

In the service of openness, the classic Reconstructionist position rejecting chosenness is an important path to fostering engaged Jewish communities and identities.[9] In the postmodern world, where boundaries are fluid and Jewish identities are multiple and multiply defined, where we seek at once to preserve Jewish distinctiveness and to participate fully in the broader society, setting aside the concept of the Jews as the chosen people is not a concession or a loss, but a positive course of action. Rejecting chosenness is an explicit embrace of modern principles that point towards universal truths. Rejecting chosenness is about getting down to the hard work of being one of the many peoples of the world, jostling with one another on the path toward the Divine, rather than holding ourselves separate and nurturing a belief in God-given superiority.

Conclusion

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founding thinker of Reconstructionism, taught that Torah is much more than five books, Torah is any teaching or practice that helps us to be the best possible Jews, the best possible Americans and the best possible citizens of the world. We are convinced and energized by this approach to living out our rich heritage. And we understand that our work is to help others to value this inheritance, to take hold of it and change it, and in that way keep it living. Out of our Reconstructionist commitments and with our awareness that every generation has the obligation to reconstruct Judaism, we have an opportunity to model a path towards connection and hope in spite of those who hate us. Indeed, living fully and beautifully and in a deeply interconnected fashion is the richest possible repudiation. The Jewish people lives. The Jewish civilization lives and evolves. How are we, together, going to shape our future?

I thank the following people for reviewing and contributing to this essay: Seth Rosen, Tresa Grauer, Amanda Mbuvi, Sandra Lawson, Micah Weiss, Maurice Harris, Bryan Schwartzman, Rena Blumenthal and Jacob Staub.


[1] For an explanation of why we do not hyphenate this word, please see: https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/antisemitism-hyphen/.

[2] https://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism

[3] https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/history-and-update-antisemitism/

[4] https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/category/antisemitism/

[5] I thank Rabbi Rena Blumenthal for this insight and analysis.

[6] https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/mission-vision-and-values

[7] This is a major argument of Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press).

[8] https://jerusalemdeclaration.org/

[9] https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/article/rejecting-chosenness-favor-distinctiveness