Nature Abhors a Vacuum. But Antisemitism Loves One.

Sermon from Yom Kippur — October 9, 2019

In late April of 1913, a night watchman at an Atlanta pencil factory discovered the bruised and bloody corpse of a 13 year-old employee named Mary Phagan in the factory’s cellar. As news spread through the city that a little white girl was raped and murdered, the public demanded quick action and swift justice. 

Bowing to public pressure, the state accused the northern-born manager of the pencil factory named Leo Frank, who was a prominent member of the Atlanta Jewish community. 

Two days after the grand jury returned the  indictment against Frank, one of the men who would eventually be selected as a juror for the trial was quoted as saying, “I’m glad they indicted the goddamn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him, and if I get on that jury I’ll hang that Jew for sure.” 

The trial began swiftly, and the proceedings, predictably, were a circus: White Atlantans surrounded the courthouse each day, cheering the prosecutor, jeering Frank’s lawyer, railing against northerners and Jews, and intimidating the judge and jury. The prosecution presented contradictory and fabricated testimony from so-called witnesses. The judge permitted Frank to be portrayed, without evidence, as a sexual pervert who preyed on young girls and young boys. The mob outside the courthouse celebrated wildly when the jurors, after twenty-five days of trial, found Frank guilty. The judge sentenced Frank to death by hanging. 

As the case made its way through the appeals process — which ultimately took the case to the United States Supreme Court — antisemitic sentiment was unleashed throughout Georgia, led in large part by a populist newspaper publisher named Tom Watson. Ultimately, Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, convinced that Frank was wrongly convicted, commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. Protesters burned Slaton in effigy, calling him “King of the Jews and Georgia’s Traitor Forever.” 

Two months after Frank’s sentence was commuted, in August, 1915, a mob of twenty-five men, which called itself the “Knights of Mary Phagan” and which included many prominent Atlanta-area citizens, stormed the prison where Frank was incarcerated and kidnapped him. They drove several hours through the night to a grove near Marietta, now an Atlanta-area suburb. After failing to extract a confession from Frank, the mob lynched him. Later, hundreds of people would come to see Frank’s suspended body, taking smiling photographs with the hanged Jew and even tearing pieces of his nightshirt for souvenirs. 

Not long after, the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on the top of Stone Mountain, a large granite formation just outside Atlanta, and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia. Slaton lost his job, and his career in politics ended. Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor who originally secured Frank’s conviction, was elected Governor of Georgia the following year. And Tom Watson, the antisemitic newspaper publisher, was eventually elected to the United States Senate. After his death, he was memorialized with a bronze statue outside the Georgia state capitol.

Attending Jewish day school in Atlanta during the 1980’s and 90’s, I remember spending a lot of time learning about the Leo Frank case, widely regarded as the only instance in American history where a Jewish person was lynched. In fact, we spent a lot of time learning about antisemitism, up to and including the Holocaust. It sometimes seemed like a subtext of our Jewish education was that we ought to cherish our faith because, or in spite, of the fact that there were those who hated and wished to destroy us. 

And yet when we studied these topics, it always felt to me like we might as well have been studying ancient history, recalling a time of violence and anti-Jewish vitriol that was unrecognizable to the world I knew. 

Sure, vestiges of that era would appear here and there. A comment about eternal damnation, jokes about picking up pennies, and remarks about getting “Jewed down.” 

But these incidents were by far the outliers, the exceptions that proved the rule. The Atlanta Jewish community in which I grew up, like much of American Jewry in the last half of the 20th century, was by and large affluent, prominent, and well-respected. Antisemitism in America, it seemed to me, was mostly a thing of the past. 

So, when I became a rabbi, I vowed to overcome what I saw as a failed strategy in my own Jewish upbringing, namely evoking antisemitism as a rationale for Jewish identity, pride, and passion. I didn’t want to inspire Jewish commitment out of what seemed to me to be an irrational fear. Instead, I wanted to encourage people to cherish Judaism out of love — love of our history, love of our people, love of our Torah and our tradition, love of the possibility that embracing Judaism might help us flourish and lead us toward building a better world.

Nearly two decades later, that illusion has been shattered. In August of 2017, I watched in horror as hundreds of white nationalists marched in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us.” Just over a year later, in October 2018, a white nationalist terrorist murdered eleven Jews as they gathered for Shabbat prayer at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, screaming “all these Jews need to die.” The deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. 

Then, six months later, last April, as Passover concluded, yet another white nationalist stormed a synagogue, this time in Poway, California, opening fire on congregants as they worshipped. 

These incidents were not aberrations. They are part of a frightening growing trend. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that was created in response to the antisemitic fervor surrounding Leo Frank’s trial and lynching, the number of reported antisemitic incidents in the United States has increased dramatically over the past three years. Since the ADL started tracking this data about forty years ago, 2017 and 2018 were two of the worst years on record when it came to antisemitic incidents in America, and there is every indication that 2019 will be no different. 

In recent years, some critics of Israel have increasingly normalized the use of long-standing antisemitic stereotypes and tropes. And on the other side of the spectrum, an ethno-nationalism that traffics heavily in antisemitic themes and outright racist language has become more and more mainstream, inspiring the most devastating of recent antisemitic attacks. 

And that’s just here in America. In Europe, antisemitism has been on the rise since the beginning of the millennium. In her excellent recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt outlines much of what European Jews have endured over these last two decades, and describes some of the steps European Jews have taken in response: hiding outward expressions of Jewish identity, stationing heavily armed guards at the entrance of every synagogue and Jewish institution, and, increasingly, emigrating to Israel. 

Lipstadt is careful not to call rising European antisemitism a full-blown crisis, and acknowledges the incredible resurgence of Jewish life in Europe since the Holocaust. Yet she insists that this troubling trend calls for our attention and concern. There is, after all, no reason why European history could not repeat itself. 

Similarly, while there is good reason to believe more widespread antisemitic violence or even, God-forbid, genocide, won’t happen here in America, the questions of “could it happen here?” “will it happen here?” or even “is it happening here?” are thrumming, in the words of my friend Bari Weiss in her new book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, “with increasing urgency.” 

What is going on? 

Before we can answer that question, it is important to answer a more fundamental one: what is antisemitism, anyway? 

In her book, Lipstadt offers the definition of a historical sociologist named Helen Fein, who says that antisemitism is a set of “hostile beliefs towards Jews” as a whole that can manifest in different ways: in individuals as attitudes, in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions — social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against Jews, and collective or state violence — which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews. 

Lipstadt identifies the core of these hostile beliefs as, essentially, a conspiracy theory: the Jewish people have forged an international “cosmopolitan alliance” which compels far more powerful entities to do their nefarious bidding. That bidding invariably involves aiding Jews or Jewish interests at the expense of non-Jews or their interests. And since Jewish interests are often aligned with those of other marginalized groups like immigrants or racial minorities, antisemitism often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry. Last year’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue is a painful illustration of this: the shooter believed that there was a vast, global Jewish plot to replace white civilization with black and brown refugees and immigrants. His racism and xenophobia fueled his antisemitism, which in turn propelled him to murder innocent Jews.

The conspiracy theory at the heart of antisemitism, Lipstadt argues, has been remarkably consistent throughout history, even as it is fundamentally irrational. While its “outer form may evolve over time,” while it may manifest in different ways in different contexts, while its power and prevalence may wax and wane, and while it even may at times lay dormant, the essence of antisemitism always remains the same. And, moreover, antisemitism is persistent. It never goes away. 

The thing about conspiracy theories like antisemitism is that they are elastic. Because antisemitism may be expressed differently in different contexts, it is sometimes difficult to identify and easy for the person invoking it to deny. 

Additionally, conspiracy theories by their very nature can be stretched to encompass many data points, even when those data points contradict each other. They are also often stretched to incorporate or accommodate other irrational conspiracy theories. In these ways, conspiratorial beliefs can offer comfortably and attractively simple explanations for extremely complex phenomena. 

That helps explain why antisemitism tends to rise during periods of great uncertainty and upheaval. Moments of social crisis make a straightforward explanation quite attractive, even if that explanation is fundamentally nonsensical and thoroughly dangerous. 

The most obvious example of this is Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, which increasingly turned to antisemitism in response to political upheaval and economic depression. It is also true of Atlanta in the 1910’s, when the Knights of Mary Phagan lynched Leo Frank: During that era, a campaign of terror and intimidation against African-Americans in the South had reached a horrific crescendo. White political leaders ignored or, more often, encouraged the violence. Atlanta at the time was a city on fire — reeling from crime, violence, desperate working conditions, and race riots. Frank was lynched about a year after the outbreak of World War I, a time of unprecedented unrest and anxiety that brought nativist sentiment to a fever pitch. 

Aristotle once said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This may be true, but it is also true that antisemitism loves one. In a time of chaos, the world’s oldest hatred is always there, eager to fill the void. 

But antisemitism doesn’t simply emerge to fill the void in times of unrest. Rather, it grows and flourishes when cynics and opportunists nurture and cultivate it for their own strategic purposes. 

It was true of politicians like Tom Watson who was rewarded with a Senate seat after inciting the Knights of Mary Phagan to lynch Leo Frank. And it remains true today, when we see leaders evoke antisemitic language and themes to advance their own agendas, which both history and current events remind us invariably results in more dead Jews. 

There is a symbiotic relationship between the underlying conditions that make antisemitism alluring and the leaders who, irrespective of their personal beliefs and attitudes, capitalize upon and amplify those hateful sentiments. In a healthy society, such dangerous demagoguery generally fails to gain traction. But instability creates the fertile ground necessary for leaders, whether they are calculating or merely careless, to exploit antisemitic sentiment for their own ends.

This explanation of the nature and persistence of antisemitism in no way excuses antisemitism or antisemites. There is no valid justification for opening fire on Jewish worshippers gathered for Shabbat prayers. It is simply abhorrent, no matter how much financial or cultural dislocation the perpetrator has endured, and no matter who incited the violence. Nevertheless, these observations about antisemitism do help us understand the conditions that tend to breed, embolden, and unleash antisemitic rhetoric and violence. 

No wonder, then, that  antisemitism has been on the rise over the past two decades, and in particular in the US over the past three years. I know I’m not alone in feeling our society at the moment is profoundly unwell. Increasingly, our country’s social fabric seems as though it’s being torn apart. Ours is a time of extraordinary flux: a rapidly evolving economic order, dizzying and disorienting technological progress, mass political instability, rampant terror, forever war, and the largest refugee crisis in human history. 

But rather than confront these intersecting challenges in all their complexity, many of us are seduced by comfortable, simple solutions that too often involve identifying, marginalizing, attacking, and indeed destroying the enemies we claim are responsible for the tumult. 

Worse, many of our leaders have proven themselves masters of seducing us into this us-versus-them mentality. We have seen leaders who are all too eager to exploit our divisions and play on our insecurities, stoking the burning embers of bigotry and racial resentment, cynically forcing us to choose sides, tribes, and loyalties, all for their own opportunistic ends. 

There is a rising atmosphere in our country, nurtured by too many of our leaders, that what is good is whatever satisfies our urges or enriches us; and that what is right is whatever we can get away with. We have been conditioned to confuse disinformation for fact and truth for propaganda. 

And, worse, we excuse attitudes, statements, and behaviors when they come from our own political side, even when we would consider those same deeds unforgivable if they were committed by our political opponents. In the chaos of this lawless and amoral environment, which has been cultivated and nurtured by our leaders at times unwittingly but more often deliberately, the ground becomes increasingly fertile for antisemitism to flourish. 

In the confessional prayer that we recite numerous times during Yom Kippur, there is one line that stands out to me as a haunting description of this moment: על חטא שחטאנו בפריקת על, for the sin which we have committed by casting off the yoke. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a yoke is a mechanism used to control and direct animals, usually oxen. An ox with a yoke can be relied upon to engage in purposeful labor like preparing a field for planting. An ox without a yoke is wild, and will more than likely trample upon and destroy everything in its path. Our tradition invokes the yoke as a metaphor for our sense of responsibility for abiding by the covenant, with concepts like ol mitzvot, the yoke of the commandments, and ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the sovereignty of heaven.

To cast off the yoke means to abdicate responsibility, to lose all restraint, to be driven not by divine purpose but by our base desires. When we take on the metaphorical yoke, we can be relied upon to advance God’s agenda in the world, preparing the earth for divine justice and peace. But when we cast off that metaphorical yoke, we give in to the sovereignty of the self, trampling, devouring, and destroying everything in our path, so that the land is a waste. And in the wasteland we create when we cast off the yoke, nourishing crops cannot grow, while the invasive weeds have plenty of space to blossom.

The Yom Kippur liturgy implicates all of us in the sin of casting off the yoke. That doesn’t mean we are to blame for the presence or proliferation of antisemitism in our time. The crime can never be blamed on the victim. Antisemitism is and has always been based on a twisted lie about the Jewish people. As such there is nothing we did to justify its existence, nothing we do to excuse its enduring presence, and, in some respects, nothing we can do to eradicate it entirely. 

However, it is also true, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that in a world such as ours, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Or, as the rabbis of the Talmud put it: כל דור שאינו נבנה בימיו מעלין עליו כאילו הוא החריבו, any generation in which the world’s ultimate redemption is not realized in its time is considered as though it had destroyed the world (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 5a). 

We Jews did not create or spread antisemitism. But the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur are written in the plural because even if each of us is not personally guilty of a given sin, each of us individually, and all of us collectively, are understood by our tradition as bearing some responsibility for creating, tolerating, or perpetuating the conditions that allow for the existence of that sinful behavior. Because unless we are actively making the world better, we are held accountable for its brokenness. Either we are part of the solution, or we are complicit in the problem.

Heschel himself made this argument in 1938, in a speech he gave to a conference of Quakers in Frankfort, Germany called “The Meaning of this Hour.” I happened upon this speech in the weeks following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, and I haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since. 

By 1938, the threat posed by Nazi Germany was clear to many. The German takeover of Austria, like Heschel’s talk, took place in March of that year. That fall, Heschel was arrested and deported to Poland. Fortunately, he was able to escape Poland before the Nazis invaded, and he eventually emigrated to the United States, where he lived the rest of his life.

In “The Meaning of this Hour,” Heschel argued that the rise of the Nazis was the inevitable outcome of, in his words, a “spiritual disaster,” the result of a culture that “worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite.” In this sense, Heschel said, we were responsible for bringing the world to the edge of the abyss because we abandoned our sacred responsibility to fight relentlessly for “right, for justice, for goodness.” 

Heschel obviously did not believe that Jews and other people of conscience in Europe created antisemitism or supported the Nazis. God-forbid. Rather, Heschel was arguing that, because we did not do enough to advance a world utterly inhospitable to Nazism, a world in which “God’s dream of salvation” had been fulfilled, we are partially responsible for its emergence and metastasization. “Either we make [the world] an altar for God,” Heschel insisted, “or it is invaded by demons.” Nature abhors a vacuum, but antisemitism loves one. In the absence of God, in the absence of active, persistent, good, evil rises, spreading to fill the empty space. Unless, as Heschel said, we let godly goodness, compassion, and justice “into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our courts and investigating committees, into our homes and theaters,” evil will emerge in all those places, as it flourishes in every inch of real estate it is given. 

This message lies at the heart of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur offers us reminder after reminder and challenge after challenge that our world can either be, in the words of today’s Torah reading, “for the Infinite,” or “for Azazel,” a home for God or for demons, a dwelling place for the Divine or a pit of evil. There is no place in between, no room for neutrality, for God cannot abide in a world of cruelty and corruption. Where we allow evil in, we cast God out. And conversely, where we let God in, evil cannot stand. 

Thus Yom Kippur reminds us of our tradition’s insistence that we face a fundamental choice: We can either persistently pursue the good, or we allow for the proliferation of evil. We either advance a world fit for God’s presence, or we permit ourselves to be overrun by the demonic. 

So, yes, we must speak out against antisemitism wherever it manifests — whether on the political right or on the political left, whether it emanates from leaders with whom we typically disagree or with whom we are generally aligned. 

Yes, we must be vigilant in defending ourselves against acts of violence too often inspired by words of hate. 

And yes, we must wholeheartedly embrace our Judaism lest, in Heschel’s words, we be guilty of failing “to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years,” lest we, and not our enemies, be the ones who are responsible for the disappearance of our glittering civilization.

But none of this will be enough if we Jews don’t do something more fundamental and systemic. We will always ever be waiting around for the next Pittsburgh or Poway if we don’t diminish the conditions that allow antisemitism to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place. As Bari Weiss put it to me in a recent conversation, the Jewish people “were not put on this earth to be anti-antisemites.” Rather, our tradition insists that we were created to make of this world the place in which God truly intended for us to live, in which even God would be at home, a world of love, a world of inclusion, a world of justice, a world of peace. 

Only by doing our part to create that world through upholding the sacred wisdom and moral demands of our tradition, only by affirming and advancing the infinite and equal worth of all people — including and especially the vulnerable and the oppressed, who our tradition singles out for unique protection, and who too often end up alongside us as the targets of hate — and only by demanding our leaders relentlessly pursue and fulfill our tradition’s vision of a redeemed and perfected world, will we keep antisemitism at bay. Because antisemitism loves a vacuum; and our task is to make sure that there is no space for it to enter by filling our world with the presence of the Divine.

Yom Kippur reminds us that God cannot dwell where there is suffering and evil, lawlessness and brokenness. But God, as Heschel taught, “will return to us when we shall be willing to let [God] in.” 

The challenge and the task before us, on this day, and every day, is to let God in. 

For our ancestors, for our martyrs, for ourselves, for our children, and for our children’s children, let us recommit ourselves this day to that sacred and crucial task. 

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

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