Anti-Semitism in 2004

Sermon given February 13, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Two years ago, almost to the day, I offered a sermon from this pulpit, entitled, “Anti-Semitism in the San Antonio Express-News.” The issue then was a particular columnist, Julio Noboa, who consistently used anti-Semitic rhetoric. At the time, I called upon the Express-News to discontinue Mr. Noboa’s column. Instead, the editors realized that Mr. Noboa had no real expertise in discussing the Middle East, so they turned him to other topics and edited his columns more carefully. Ultimately, Mr. Noboa brought the demise of his own column, when he failed to attribute material copied from another source.

When I planned to offer a sermon on anti-Semitism tonight, I did not anticipate even mentioning the Express-News. Yes, the Express-News has two new columnists, Susan Ives and Dr. Mansour O. El-Kikhia, both of whom criticize Israel and American policy toward the Jewish State. To be sure, I have sometimes found their writing to be biased and unbalanced. However, even when Susan Ives has been sharpest in her denunciation of Israeli politics, she has never approached anti-Semitism. Until two weeks ago, I had not found Dr. Mansour O. El-Kikhia’s words to be anti-Semitic either.

Then, on that Friday, I was stunned by what I saw in our local paper. What shocked me was not so much that a columnist would write such things, but that Express-News editors, who have been sensitized to these issues, would actually print anti-Semitic lies. Into the homes of hundreds of thousands of San Antonio citizens came words suggesting that Jews control America, and therefore, the world. Indeed, the conclusion of Dr. El-Kikhia’s article was that the United States had made war in Iraq, and before that, in Afghanistan, not on behalf of American interests in the aftermath of 9-11, but as a favor to the Jewish State. Along the way, Dr. El-Kikhia further offended, by including Schindler’s List among a group of films that have allegedly turned American minds away from Arabs and toward sympathy with Jews. Surely, Express-News editors should have known better than to publish such hurtful words.

I wrote about these concerns in a letter to the editor, which was published almost a week after the original column. The response has been laughably predictable, as we have read quite a few letters to the editor charging that my column bares out the charges of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, namely that I am controlling the world, or at least Express-News editors, by asking them to “censor” Dr. El-Kikhia’s columns. Well, if I have that kind of power over the newspaper, I’m doing a terrible job.

Of course, nobody in the Jewish community should desire censorship. The Express-News would not be worth reading, if it did not present opinions with which I disagree. If columns critical of Israel did not appear, the paper would not be credible. In addition, we can learn from opposing columns, even when they are biased and unbalanced, for we come to see what others believe, permitting us to sharpen our own arguments. I have not called for Dr. El-Kikhia’s dismissal, and I will not do so tonight.

Nevertheless newspapers do employ editors for a reason. One of their most sacred duties is to refuse to publish hateful words and libelous lies, even in an opinion column. To do so is not to censor, but to edit. I have come to know Lynnell Burkett and her colleagues on the Express-News Editorial Board reasonably well in the last couple of years. I respect them. While they may not have sufficiently internalized certain sensitivities, none of those editors has an anti-Semitic bone in his or her body. My admiration of them added significantly to my disappointment at their failure with this particular column.

Columns like this particular one by Dr. El-Kikhia two weeks ago do bother us, because we Jews are naturally sensitive to anti-Semitism. Our history has taught us to be that way. We know that calumnies like El-Kikhia’s have been used throughout history to build up suspicion of the Jewish people. The Nazis taught that lies, repeated often enough, and loudly enough, will be believed. Propaganda about our alleged power has too often led to violence, to the destruction of our communities, to the deaths of our people. The Holocaust is not ancient history for us, nor was it an isolated incident. Our people have traveled painful paths through the centuries, hatred heaped upon us like so much mud.

That history explains the wide-spread Jewish concern about The Passion of the Christ, the Mel Gibson film that is set to open in just ten days, on February 25, Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. I have not seen the film, and I frankly don’t plan to do so at this time. Therefore, I can’t say whether the film itself is anti-Semitic. I can, however, explain the reason for concern.

Throughout the history of the Jewish Diaspora in Christian lands, Lent has been a particularly difficult season for us, as Christian leaders of the past charged that all Jewish people are guilty of Jesus’ crucifixion. Too often, pogroms, mass murderous destructions of Jewish communities, took place at that season, in response to this bogus claim. The fear is that violent anti-Semitism could arise again in response, if a Hollywood film should focus on Jewish complicity in Jesus’ death.

We are particularly concerned, because we live in dangerous times. In the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of our Union for Reform Judaism: “A mere ten years ago, we felt confident that anti-Semitism was no longer a significant threat. But we were wrong. Most of us have been exposed to more anti-Semitic discourse in the last two years than we have seen in our entire lives… [ I]n Europe, which bears the mark of Cain for its complicity in the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict has become the means of removing it. In turning Israelis from victims into Nazis, they seek to cleanse their consciences by casting their sins upon us.”

Rabbi Yoffie is right: we have reason for worry when The Passion of the Christ is released in Euorpe. Here in the United States, though, the likelihood of violence is low. The Jewish community is well-known to our Christian neighbors. We live in an age and in a place where Christian clergy can and do trumpet national and international church teachings against anti-Semitism, and specifically against collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion. Ever since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has held and enforced strict standards about passion plays, intended to prevent anti-Semitism. Positive positions have been taken by such groups as the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the Episcopal Church of America, and others.

Indeed, as much as we must be concerned about our enemies, and specifically about anti-Semitism, we may also rejoice that we are embraced by many friends. Only weeks ago, Rev. Charles Johnson, of Trinity Baptist Church, was here to share his support for Israel with us. On March 5, about ten days after the opening of The Passion of the Christ, Most Reverend Patrick J. Zurek, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, will be with us, to teach us about the Catholic position on passion plays, such as The Passion of the Christ.

After his own urgent words about today’s rising anti-Semitism, Rabbi Yoffie continues with a warning: “Yes, we must march, donate and protest, and we ignore anti-Semitism at our peril. But some of our communal leaders have lost their way… [C]onvinced that anti-Semites lurk everywhere, they urge us to forget about others and take care only of ourselves.”

We must not throw the term “anti-Semitism” around, directing it at every opinion or action we dislike. Still more importantly, while we must speak out clearly and forcefully, whenever anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, let us ever recall that the most effective way to combat anti-Semitism is to reach out to others. Let us teach about Judaism and learn about other faiths. Let us do good work in our community, living as patriotic Americans and loyal Jews. Let us struggle for a better life for those in need, recalling that we were once slaves, not just in Egypt, but in Haman’s Persia, Antiochus’ Judea, Torquemada’s Spain, and yes, in Hitler’s Germany, and in countless other places, too. Let history’s lessons not only sharpen our sensitivity to anti-Semitism, but to the suffering of any human being.

A profound lesson is found in this week’s Torah portion, which includes the Ten Commandments, as Spencer will read tomorrow. This portion is called Yitro, or Jethro, named for Moses’ father-in-law, not an Israelite, but a Priest of Midian, a religious leader of another people. Jethro extols the greatness of God, offering sacrifices to the Lord. He offers Moses advice about how best to minister to the mixed multitudes in the desert. He suggests a court system, with appeals, that remains a model to this day. The very Torah portion that contains the Ten Commandments bears the name of this man, to remind us that we, the Jewish people, are blessed many friends. Even in the harshest days of our history, in the era of Egyptian bondage, we treasured a partner like Jethro, and learned from him. How much the more, today, in America, even in a difficult time, do we rejoice in the friendship of Christians and Muslims, men and women of every faith and of no faith, whom we trust, and who trust us, whom we love, and who love us.

In the weeks ahead, we shall rely on our Christian friends, in particular, in response to Mel Gibson’s movie. As concerned as I may be about what may arise in Europe, I know that I don’t have to go see that movie in San Antonio, for if it is rife with anti-Semitism, I won’t have to be the one to speak out about it. My friends in the Christian clergy have already told me they are ready. Like Jethro, they can be admired and trusted, and we have much to learn from them. Like Moses and Jethro, we worship the same God, with love.