History Lesson

For some reason, the phrase, “History repeats itself,” is upheld as a wise aphorism. Which drives me crazy, because the simple truth is that history cannot repeat itself. Time does not double back on itself; it just keeps slipping into the future.

This current period in America is not pre-Holocaust Germany. Rising antisemitism today in America is not the antisemitism of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin. History does not repeat itself.

However, it would be foolish of us not to pay close attention to recent incidents of antisemitism. Incidents in Newton, whether swastikas in a school or bomb threats to our own Leventhal-Sidman JCC, cemetery desecrations in St Louis and Philadelphia or other crimes, must be taken seriously.

These demeaning, regressive, transgressive acts are all part of a larger movement of frustrated men and women who feel cut off and misunderstood and need to blame someone.  What happens when these folks see people succeeding in a world in which they cannot keep up? What do people do when they believe the world owes them a living? How do they achieve revenge?  They seek to define the “other”: the foreigner, the non-Christian, and the true cause of their dilemma, the real reason they cannot get ahead.

It is a familiar toxic response of the disenfranchised that is tangled in the roots of Western civilization. It is a noxious weed that appears whenever there is a rise in diverse populations mixing and working and playing and living and loving together. It is Jim Crow. It is the Nuremberg Laws. It is anti-immigrant legislation.

But this is not history repeating itself. Because we are not who our ancestors were. We learn from the past. We see what happened and how things succeeded and how they failed. We take note and we analyze options. We know that wishing it away is foolish. We know that trusting the fact that things have been worse but we weathered the storm is frighteningly short-sighted.

History is not some quantifiable thing that moves like a glacier or a missile or an asteroid. It is a dark, inchoate mass that sits there in the rearview mirror as we drive forward. We learn from the past by sifting through the mess and finding relevant bits and pieces that may explain how we got to where we are. We may find pathways that can lead us back to stories of those who have come before. The lives of others can help us in our choices. The experiences of others can guide us to live more thoughtfully.

We are not a helpless community living at the whim of others. The American Jewish community today is profoundly strong. We are leaders in every major arena of American life (except maybe hockey…). Very importantly, there are 30 Jews in Congress, 28 Democrats and two Republicans. They make up 8% of the Senate versus 5% of the House. And don’t forget, Jews are less than 2% of the American population.

We have options. We have a voice. We want to know: Why don’t we know yet who’s responsible for the cemetery desecrations? Why haven’t we gotten anywhere discovering who these hateful callers to JCCs are?

I’m not sure when the term, “Never again”, was connected to the Holocaust and Jewish life. It’s always meant to me that never will we make the same choices. Never again will we wait. Every JCC in America is connected to us. Every synagogue is a part of us. Our dead are buried in every Jewish cemetery. There is no them here.

And, as if I have to write this, there is no “us” and “them”. We are the Indian engineers who were shot and killed. We are the people who cannot find safety in America because of their faith or their nation of origin. We are the undocumented workers who keep this nation on the tracks, who live in fear of being run out of this country. Jews know better than most that there is no “other”. There are only us. It’s up to us to stand tall and remain vigilant and vocal. It’s up to us to take the lessons of history and teach the world what it means to oppose hatred and ignorance.

Shabbat Shalom,








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