Embracing 5781 as The Year to Eradicate Hate
The Jewish New Year is a time for reflection and renewal, a chance to pause and take a moment to put things into perspective and to look forward with hope to the future. Almost by rote, on Rosh Hashanah we wish our friends and family a Shanah Tovah u’metukah — a good and sweet year. But for most of us this year, those words and the sentiments will feel somehow different, more bittersweet than sweet.
Who would have thought a year ago that we would be in such a surreal, confusing and terrifying moment in our history as a people and a country? The challenges we have faced this past year are themselves almost biblical in proportion: a still-spreading global pandemic; devastating meteorological disasters including lightning strikes, wildfires and hurricanes; deepening economic disparity and record unemployment; heightened racial divisions; rising antisemitism around the world; fear for the well-being of our friends and family, and the list goes on and on.
Even the holidays themselves will be radically different. Most people will not gather in-person to pray or partake. In most places, services will be held virtually to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Most of us will be improvising rituals in ways that we couldn’t possibly have imagined just a year ago: covering the Shofar with a fabric barrier to prevent the spread of the virus, wearing masks and praying in small groups, attending synagogue via Zoom. This is the new, unsettling reality of the American Jewish experience, indeed the American experience writ large.
This truly is a moment to reset ourselves spiritually and to think about what we can do differently in the year ahead. From where I sit, as the leader of an American Jewish organization that was founded on a simple idea — that you can’t fight antisemitism without fighting hatred in all forms — I believe that we have not just a mandate, but an imperative to act.
First of all, it cannot be said enough: antisemitism is the blight of our times. Yes, Jews certainly have excelled in America in so many ways. However even as other prejudices have dissipated, anti-Jewish hate has persisted throughout the generations. It has changed in some regards, but it somehow still remains constant.
We saw it in the Leo Frank lynching that catalyzed ADL more than a century ago and we saw it in the massacre in Pittsburgh just two years back.
We felt it with the wave of assaults against Orthodox Jews in the New York metro area last year and we see it in the hateful conspiracies spread on social media every day.
We knew it back in the 20th century from the restrictive housing covenants and public places that said “No Jews” and we see now it in the 21st century in the memes online and the public rallies that say, “No Zionists.”
And the data does not lie. The year 5780 was one of the worst years in record for antisemitism in America. ADL recorded more than 2,100 anti-Jewish incidents across the country, a 40-year high. And it’s more than the acts themselves — the sheer ignorance among students about the Holocaust is no less shocking.
This is the fight of our time, the fight for our children’s futures. We no longer have the luxury to tolerate its presence anywhere in our society — not on social media, not in the public square, not on the college campus, not from the mouths of elected officials, and certainly not in metastasizing conspiracy theories like QAnon. At ADL, we will remain devoted to tackling this issue from every possible angle and using every possible resource and method at our disposal. We will not rest until we solve this problem. On that, you have my word.
Second, this fight cannot be fought unless we also fight the other “isms” in society — racism, first and foremost. The unconscionable murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others at the hands of law enforcement, were horrifying moments, but all too common. It is long overdue for people of good faith to work together to root out the systemic racism that is so pervasive in our society and its institutions.
It means we must stand with people of color against racism in all forms. And make no mistake, this also applies to my first resolution of fighting antisemitism. Such hatreds go hand-in-hand. We know this from our common histories. So, we must battle all types of bigotry in our country, whether it is bias directed at Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, Latinx, or Asian Americans, with equal fervor and determination.
Third, we will not let internecine disputes and divisions sidetrack us as we pursue this work.
I’m tired of the petty recriminations and false outrage that seems so prevalent inside our own community, the spurious claims about who is or isn’t doing enough to fight antisemitism.
I’m exhausted by the endless sermons from self-appointed leaders who claim the moral high ground even as they debase our community with ad hominem attacks on others.
I’m offended by the fanaticism of the fringe who seem intent on doing little more than imposing their narrow ideological agenda on the rest of us.
And I’ve had enough of elected officials from all parties who claim to love the Jewish people but then demean us with stereotypes and refuse to admit their own missteps.
In these volatile times, the only viable path forward must be based on collaboration rather than conflict. We need to resist the temptation to see the world strictly through the lens of partisan politics that inevitably skew the community to the left or the right. We lose when our legitimate concerns are converted into political weapons for either side.
As we head into a new year, let’s reassert the value of leadership that’s principled but also pragmatic. We can be unapologetic about embracing good ideas from both sides of the spectrum and engaging constructively even with those people with whom we might disagree. Democracy is not a zero-sum game. As exemplified by our constitution, it’s a series of sustained interactions that acknowledge imperfection and still aim toward a more perfect union.
And this precisely parallels the Jewish imperative of commentary and dissent. Our tradition never was rooted in absolutism but in adaptation and improvement. This has been the secret to our survival across the millennia.
So 5781 doesn’t need to be a reboot, but a renewal, when we draw on our sources of strength. It should be a time to push back on the toxic racism of one extreme as well as the dogmatic radicalism on the other. We should reject wholeheartedly those who would deny history even as we equally refuse those who demand that we destroy our institutions. More than ever, I think our community and the country can benefit from a measure of moderation even as we strive for a more just and inclusive society.
Despite all of the difficulties we faced this year, there were some bright spots. The reckoning around racial justice is creating momentum not just for constructive conversation but also real reform. At ADL, we saw firsthand the power of diverse coalitions on our issues like Stop Hate for Profit, which secured concessions from Facebook. And our state-level pushes to pass hate crimes laws in Georgia and other parts of the country.
And we should step back and savor the images on South Lawn this past week as Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. We might disagree vehemently with many of the policies of this Administration, but the Abraham Accords are inspiring and the most encouraging sign in decades of a brighter future in the Middle East. They don’t avoid the need to address the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, but they suggest the possibilities of a new era wherein old orthodoxies are scrapped in favor of new opportunities. And they remind us of the singular role that America can play when we remain engaged on the global stage.
Finally, antisemitism isn’t just an American problem, and many world leaders who took strong stances against antisemitism give us hope for the year ahead. There has been a sea-change in the U.K. where the new Labour leadership has distanced itself dramatically from the incorrigible antisemitism of Jeremy Corbyn. Just this past week, Germany’s Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden have spoken out forcefully against the world’s oldest hatred even as it tries to reemerge across the continent. And again, the indicators of receding antisemitism in the Persian Gulf could be transformative in terms of improving attitudes toward Jews, not just in the Arab world, but more broadly across the Islamic world.
Here’s wishing you a Shanah Tovah 5781. May this be a year for healing and redemption and for an end to COVID, a sweet year for our people and for all people around the world.