Want to Fight Antisemitism? Embrace Jewish Traditions.

A few years ago, while teaching at Emory University, I noticed one of my students was wearing a kipa, or skullcap, something he had not done previously. Before I could consider whether to comment on his new attire, he pointed at his kipa and proudly — if not gleefully — proclaimed that, with antisemitism rising, he was intent on showing haters they could not frighten him. Rather than hiding, he told me, he would tell the world that he was a Jew.

I appreciated his moxie, but my heart broke a little bit. He had handed our oppressors power over his identity. He had been pushed, not pulled, closer to his tradition.

For those of us who fight antisemitism in our personal and professional capacities, that reactive stance cannot be the sole response. Our job should be to flip that equation on its head — to encourage students, and their parents and grandparents and siblings and peers, toward a proactive embrace of all Judaism has to offer: its values, its moral teachings, its pursuit of justice. And the same is true for all who are the subjects of prejudice and hatred.

Indeed, this is not a challenge only for younger generations. Last year, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in my role as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, I joined President Biden on a call with over 1,000 American rabbis. They were particularly interested in knowing how, given the recent spike in antisemitism, I avoid being overcome by pessimism. Though they were asking about me, I suspected that they were also thinking about themselves.

Combating antisemitism requires a shift in perspective, I explained. It must sprout from a positive place. We must know what we are protecting from assault. We must be motivated far more by our love for the insights, wisdom and joy embedded in Jewish culture than by the fight against those who harbor an insane hatred of it.

We have a chance to renew that spirit in the weeks ahead, as the Jewish New Year presents its annual moment for deeply personal introspection and intensely communal reflection. In this stretch of the calendar, tradition tells us to engage in a heshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of the soul” — an evaluation of what one has and has not accomplished, what a person has and has not learned. The idea is that moving forward is only possible if one knows whence they have come.

For me, such an accounting includes taking stock of what I have witnessed as special envoy of the noxious effects of antisemitism during the past 16 months on the job.

Two stark moments, in two very different places, illustrate what I’ve seen — and the challenge to hold both the celebration and the fight simultaneously. The first was a trip this past spring to a centuries-old festival held in the weeks following Passover at the El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The synagogue, believed to be the oldest in Africa, is the spiritual center of a Jewish community that dates its roots back more than 2,000 years, to the time of Babylonian exile. Jews and non-Jews from throughout the world were present to witness this ancient festivity. I was accompanied by the American ambassador and a group of colleagues from the embassy. For all of us, irrespective of our faith traditions, the celebration was infectious. Our collective joy was heightened by our knowledge that we were participating in something ancient, that our contemporary happiness evoked centuries of history.

Yet just 24 hours later, in the exact spot where we had rejoiced, an attacker fatally shot two visitors and two security guards, and killed another guard at a naval base. Though the Tunisian government was reluctant to label this an antisemitic event, we had no doubt. This was designed to scare Jews, to keep them from coming to the celebration, to force them underground.

The second moment was a visit closer to home, to Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the site of the deadliest single massacre of Jews in American history. Five years had passed, but I saw the bullet holes had not been erased. The building has been slated for a memorial-minded overhaul helmed by the architect Daniel Libeskind, and the congregations that met there have not disbanded. They continue to gather, worship, celebrate and mourn together. Some among the survivors believe they have emerged stronger than before.

Rose Mallinger, at age 97, was the oldest of the victims. Her granddaughter Amy told me that every Shabbat Rose would recite the prayer for peace. In the spirit of the Jewish concept of m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation, and as a tribute to her grandmother’s memory — and not as a response to her killer — Amy has taken on that custom.

The horrors at these sites remind us of the terror one person can inflict on a group of people on account of their identity. And so the challenge endures: As the gates of judgment open on these High Holy Days, what can we do to reverse the malice in our midst against so many ethnic, racial and religious groups?

Part of the response stems from the work my team is doing at the State Department. We will keep calling out, condemning and thwarting purveyors of antisemitism. We will continue to meet with foreign officials to get them to do the same. We will stress the ubiquity of antisemitism and its threat not just to the well-being of Jews but also to democracies and stability worldwide.

We will relentlessly expose antisemites because we know that is one way to limit their ability to infect others. The roots of the world’s oldest hatred run deep, and I recognize the fight against it will not be finished by me — it is an unending project, requiring a sustained, society-wide effort.

If such an idea can sound exhausting, that’s because it is. That speaks to why we, in the halls of policymaking, can only address a portion of the problem of ethnic and religious hatred in all its forms. We need to see where the communities under attack have thrived and celebrate them for their success, even as we protect them from further assault.

But every one of us, inside and outside government, must do more. We need, to borrow an old phrase, to accentuate the positive among our diverse cultures, and shine a light on how Jews, and anyone confronting persecution, live rather than how they suffer. We need to embrace approaches that are Jewish by tradition yet universal in their application: greeting each new moment with a prayer, gathering for each meal with a note of gratitude, reveling in the dynamic facets of our faiths not out of fear, but joy — whether it’s a festival in Djerba or a weekly worship service or an apple dipped in honey at the Jewish New Year.

This shapes my ultimate wish on this Rosh Hashana: that Jews will respond to antisemitism by combining a relentless push against antisemites with an even more energetic pull toward their tradition in all its manifestations. That they will respond by demonstrating pride in who they are and solidarity with others facing persecution for who they are. That it will be shaped by a sincere accounting of the beauty and power and wisdom of Judaism and its values. That this can serve as a model to other groups who face relentless hatred.

It is a wish I share with rabbis, congregants, Jews worldwide and all who suffer prejudice — and with my kipa-wearing student.

Deborah Lipstadt serves as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism abroad and is on leave from Emory University, where she is a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies.

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