Whenever I hear antisemitism mentioned in the news, I immediately perk up. I want to know the details and who’s done what. Where did it happen? Is it violent? It is classical Jew-hatred – you know, with the swastikas and the obsessional charges of Jewish domination of the media or banking or whatever else is popular to blame Jews for…? Is it about conspiracies: Q-Anon nonsense, George Soros, or plain old white supremacist obscene ignorance? Or is it classical anti-Israel, anti-Zionist rhetoric? Is it the far left’s classical dismissal of Jews as having a unique voice rather than just another group of white people who have ‘made it’ in capitalist America?
I want to know what they’re saying. I want to get into the dynamic process of antisemitism and where it’s originating. The more knowledge I gather, the better I feel about how to respond. And this is, parenthetically, why I’ve come away so unsatisfied after a few antisemitic incidents in the Newton public school system. We never really hear about the investigation or what the schools are doing to avoid future acts of antisemitic vandalism.
A recent incident has me confused. Many are calling it antisemitism, but… is it? The city (town?) of Medford sponsored a Holiday Extravaganza last Wednesday and posted pictures from the event. Along with photos with Santa, a wreath sale, and the lighting of the town Christmas tree, the holiday event featured a table inside City Hall with framed descriptions of holiday symbols.
One set of pictures showcased the history of Christmas trees. Another featured the kinara, the candelabra used during the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa. And a third showcased the menorah used by Jews during the holiday of Hanukkah.
Although the table held an electric menorah with nine candles, the menorah in a photo placed on the table wasn’t the one used by Jews during Hanukkah. Instead, it was a picture of a seven-branched menorah labeled with Christian terms. For example, one branch was labeled “cross,” while another was labeled “resurrection.”
The image is widely available online as an illustration of how Jews for Jesus misappropriate the symbolism of the menorah and redirect it to Christian images.
Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn responded with a highly apologetic message from City (Town?) Hall. It was, she said, utterly unintentional. Furthermore, she promised to do better. A leader in the Medford Jewish community told the press, “We were incredibly disappointed to see an antisemitic display at a city celebration, though heartened to learn it was not intentional.”
I don’t think so. It was a well-meaning Medford staffer being diligent in fair representation and utterly ignorant of the difference between Judaism and Jews for Jesus. It’s not unusual for people of other faiths to be clueless about our religion and culture. After all, how much do we know about Sikhism? In fact, can you explain the difference between Lutheranism and Catholicism? Is it conceivable that if called upon to decorate a world’s holiday table that you might unintentionally stumble on the wrong symbols?
I intensely dislike the Jews for Jesus organization and how they make a mockery of Judaism and Jewish history. I still remember thirty-five years ago, trying to explain to a Lutheran minister in Arlington, Texas, why it was offensive that his church was hosting a Jews for Jesus “Texas Tour.” It took him about half an hour before he realized that you could be a Jew who admired Jesus or respected Jesus, but not a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. There aren’t many boundaries in the practice of post-modern Judaism. But that’s a boundary that not everyone knows in Medford – or anywhere else in the world.
We need to be prudent concerning what we label ‘antisemitic’ or ‘racist.’ The tendency to self-righteously smear people with a bristly brush of condemnation is an increasingly common act on the left and the right. In a rush to judgment, people are taken down. Sometimes they utterly deserve it. And other times, innocent people are destroyed. The use of pejorative labels says more about the intolerance of the brush wielder than the ignorant actions of an otherwise well-meaning human being.
About placing that Jews for Jesus photocopy on the Medford Holiday Extravaganza table. Antisemitic? No. Ignorant? Definitely. Forgivable? Without a doubt.