(JTA) — When I asked Rabbi Diana Fersko why she decided to add to the growing list of recent books written about antisemitism, she referred to Passover.
On the holiday, Jews tell and retell the familiar story of the Exodus, she explained, and often add to it. The reasons for and solutions to antisemitism must also be told again and again, in ways, she said, that “connect to the past, and talk about what’s happening now.”
Her new book, “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism,” also has a Passover motif. So much of contemporary antisemitism, she writes, is about “narrowing” – the same way that the Israelites’ identity in Egypt (Mitzrayim, or “The Narrows,” in Hebrew) was restricted to a “specific, inflexible, and incomplete Jewish stereotype.” She sees such narrowing in the way even well-meaning people expect Jews to look or behave. “Narrowing” is what leads the far right to assign Jews to a conspiracy to undermine the West. And the left “narrows” Jews when they slot members of a diverse, complex community as white people who are leveraging their privilege to oppress others, especially Palestinians, and who themselves have no claim on victimhood.
Fersko is the senior rabbi, since 2020, at the Village Temple, a Reform congregation in Manhattan. She began at the start of the coronavirus epidemic, and her efforts to engage congregants despite the lockdown were the subject of a piece in The New Yorker.
Her 10 years in the rabbinate have also coincided with a rise in reports of antisemitic incidents, from vile social media campaigns to the killing of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. She wrote the book in part as a response to the questions she has gotten from members of her congregation.
“I’ve been having to preach about antisemitism for the decade or so that I’ve been a rabbi,” she told me. “Congregants started telling me their stories, and asking me their everyday questions. I felt like my congregants were asking amazing questions that I couldn’t answer on the fly. They deserved more serious answers, longer answers, and they deserve a book that hopefully helps them with the everyday antisemitism that they faced.”
In a conversation last Monday, we spoke about the climate for Jews on American college campuses, why one editor turned down the book and why physical violence from the right is the greatest threat facing Jews.
The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You catalog a lot of recent incidents of antisemitism in your book, but I want to compare what is happening now in America to, say, the middle of the 20th century. My parents and their generation remember having to change their last names to get a better job, there were certain clubs you couldn’t belong to, there were schools that wouldn’t allow you in. What are the main ways people are feeling antisemitism today, in your experience?
The answer depends on your life stage. If you are a teen, the answer is what is happening on social media, or at school. What I’ve seen is that there is almost no teen who has not experienced or witnessed some level of direct and personal antisemitism. So for them, I think it’s meteorological, it’s atmospheric, it’s just out there. And it’s something they encounter all the time on TikTok, on Snapchat, in the hallways, etc.
I’ve also seen it come up in the workplace, as our society is more and more reliant upon identity, and having a focus on that in our professional setting. It comes up when Jews are asked to sort themselves in a category that they’re not fully comfortable with, or being denied the chance to organize and gather as Jews where you see other groups organizing and gathering and having a desire to share with people that have similar experiences.
And yes, I have heard from some of my older congregants kind of, “You know, it’s not so bad.” I hope that’s true, but this could get quickly worse. And I think we really need to be quite active to make sure it doesn’t.
When you talk about people being denied the chance to organize, you tell that story about the parents in a New York City private school who wanted to form a Jewish affinity group, but the administration told them, “Now’s not the time.” What was in the mind of the administration? What were they so nervous about?
I’ve heard this story many times, from multiple people and different versions. The Jewish parents wanted to gather, like the other affinity groups in school, where their identity would be honored and celebrated. The administration, in many of these cases, has pushed back and said, “The optics don’t look good.” I think the idea there is the false idea that Jews are privileged, Jews have proximity to power, and that Jewish gatherings somehow take away from other types of justice — which I just find very upsetting because of course Jews have always been so closely tied to the idea of justice.
That reminds me of another point in your book, when you write that a book editor rejected the manuscript because it “centered Jews.” What do you think they meant?
I took this to mean that Jews don’t have the right to tell our stories. Or by telling our stories, it diminishes the pathway to justice for other groups, which I don’t believe is true. I certainly believe in the growing fight towards justice [for all groups], and a growing awareness of injustice that we’re struggling with in all our communities. But I think antisemitism is a part of that awakening. We need to acknowledge that antisemitism is real, that it’s back and in many troubling and tricky forms. And I think Jews have a right and an urgency and a need to tell our stories.
Or as you write in the book, “The liberal world has not embraced the notion that Jews have a meaningful history to tell. They are surprised that instead of being associated with victimhood, Jews are becoming increasingly associated with words like ‘privilege.’”
Yes. It seems shocking, because we don’t follow the same patterns as other minorities in our culture, right? It’s not necessarily that we’re a racial minority. We’re not a religion only. We are also an ethnicity and a history and a people and culture. We don’t fall into the kind of sorting that the wider culture likes to do. And so we’re misunderstood. I think there needs to be a fair amount of education about how Jews are a people, and just demonstrating to people that actually Jews today in the U.S. are less safe than we’ve ever been here.
You feel that? That American Jews have never been less safe in America?
I recently went to a briefing with different organizations and backgrounds in New York City where we spoke with the commissioner of police. And every Jew there had a story about a concern of physical violence — like me. I’ve received threatening postcards in the mail on multiple occasions over multiple years. Or someone in Brooklyn who was talking about the change of tone in his neighborhood and feeling concerned about doing everyday tasks like walking down the street. I think there is a lot of anxiety and tension over the freedom to be Jewish in public ways. And I think that’s scary.
I want to get back to the older congregant who says, “Things are not so bad compared to when I was a kid.” And certainly Jews have, in general, freedoms and material comfort in this country that they never had before.
When I first started talking about antisemitism from the bimah, that was the main piece of pushback that I got. I completely agree: What’s happened to us has been remarkably successful. And I think that’s wonderful. And I want it to stay that way. I want Jews to be able to be Jewish, in public and in private, and I want Jews to be able to be represented in cultural institutions, in academia, in medicine, in media and in any field you can think of.
And I think that we need to be aware that this has happened before. Jews have been successful before — not just in Germany, but in the Golden Age in the medieval period, when Jews were thriving and living with Christians and Muslims in the same area. But guess what? It didn’t last and it ended horribly on the Iberian Peninsula. So I don’t think we can fool ourselves and say, “Oh, look, you know, we’re over represented in a certain field, and therefore, we have nothing to worry about.” But it’s a wonderful fantasy.
You write at length and powerfully about right-wing extremism and the violent threat it poses, from the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh to the “Jews will not replace us” march in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a big part of the book and I don’t want to diminish that in any way. But I detect – and if I am wrong, tell me so – that the antisemitism of the moment that you find particularly confounding is on the left, perhaps because it comes from a world that includes your political allies on so many other issues.
First of all, I want to say I’m not trying to make an equivalence. Physical violence is the worst thing. Physical violence is the greatest threat and the greatest harm, and I see that from the neo-Nazi consortium more than any other group in the United States. So I just want to be clear about that.
When I write about the liberal world — and I don’t even mean politically liberal, I just mean broadly — that’s what I know. That’s who I am. And frankly, that’s what I love. Those are the values, ideas and people that I really want to be at home in. And I want the Jewish community to feel at home and welcomed and understood in those circles. And when I see an expansion of antisemitism in that world, it causes me grave concern, and I feel obligated to speak out as a liberal leader.
What Jewish groups might call antisemitic, left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups might defend as harsh but justified criticism of Israel’s human rights record. How do you tell the difference?
There’s no perfect answer, but what I tell people is to focus on the outcome of the conversation. If there’s a real outcome that would affect either Israelis or Palestinians, then I tend to be interested in it. Maybe this is a real conversation, if we want to learn from each other. If the outcome is only to create antisemitism on a college campus, then I do not think that conversation is worth having.
I hear a growing number of people that are just very uncomfortable being publicly Jewish on college campuses. And that’s wildly unacceptable.
How do you suggest they respond?
I tell kids and their parents, find a Jewish community when you get to campus. The first week, march yourself into Hillel or some other Jewish body and plant yourself there and make yourself known, because these conversations are not easy. And you will need the support and feedback of your community in order to know where you stand, to figure out your ideas.
You write about the dual loyalty charge, that Jews are suspect because of their attachment to Israel. Similarly, you cite cases in which liberal Jewish students are blocked from progressive coalitions on the assumption that as Zionists they can’t be “objective” not just on Israel but other things of concern to progressives. How do you explain, let’s say to a non-Jewish audience, that many Jews want their kids to identify very closely with Israel but that closeness does not imply dual loyalty?
You know, you can love a family member and still think about other things at the same time. It’s not a hard concept. When somebody comes to you, and accuses you of not being able to be objective because you’re a Jew, then that’s your opportunity to say “actually, what you’re accusing me of, it’s dual loyalties, here’s the history of dual loyalties, and here’s how you’re diminishing my role as a civic participant in student government, climate change, whatever sort of organization it is, based on the fact that I’m Jewish.” I don’t see a conflict at all in being a Zionist and being objective.
You talk about a certain kind of Christian antisemitism in the book, which could be described as appropriation — it’s not about killing Jesus, but almost the opposite: “You’re just like us,” which can be its own sort of denial of Jewish legitimacy.
Christian antisemitism historically has been about polarization: You are nothing like us, we are good, you are bad. But the Christian antisemitism of today is much different. And it often says that we’re the same as Christians. Growing up in Connecticut, I got so much of this: “What are you doing for Jewish Christmas?” There was a sort of pervasive identity denial, where there was a disbelief that I actually didn’t participate in any Christian rituals.
That’s so much better than the Christian antisemitism of the past, but I also think it needs to be talked about because it is reducing who we are as a people and eliminating our voices from public discourse.
The resurgence in antisemitism and intolerance in general of the past few years has coincided with the rise and presidency of Donald Trump, although a lot of people disagree whether he is the cause or the symptom. Trump’s name barely appears in your book. What do you think has changed in the past few years that has led to antisemitism’s comeback?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, but what I’ll say is that in my book, I interviewed third generation survivors. And one of them answered that question, and what she said was that all hate has basically risen as part of social media expression, where it has become normal to say horrible, hateful things online or see them said about you. I don’t think that’s the best answer to your question, because I really don’t know. But the truth is, I also am fighting what I see every day.
You are in New York City, which has a huge and growing haredi Orthodox community and the largest Jewish population in general outside of Israel. Do you see common ground among Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in combating antisemitism, or are they fighting this on two different tracks?
I think we need to fight antisemitism on all levels. There are a lot more levels than just liberal Jews and haredi Jews. Liberal Jews too can be divided and subdivided. I would love to see more coming together of the Jewish people, but I actually think that we’re on our way. And I see signs of hope, and community and positivity from many of my rabbinic colleagues across the denominational spectrums, that we understand that this is a serious threat. And we’re willing and eager to organize with each other to fight it.
You’re book is titled “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism.” I sometimes feel there is already a lot of talk about antisemitism – admittedly, Jewish conversation is my fulltime job — and I have heard others say that by concentrating on the threats against them Jews are ignoring, and failing to educate young people about, the ways Jewishness is flourishing or could flourish on its own diverse, creative terms.
I do very much appreciate the Dara Horn argument [in “People Love Dead Jews,” her 2021 book about antisemitism], which is basically, we need to celebrate Jewish life. And I think that is one of the best ways to fight antisemitism. I’m very interested in Jews doing Jewish things in a very assertive, active way. And I think that will only serve to strengthen our community, which will help us to stand up as Jews when we need to.