Last week, I had an opportunity to speak with a number of middle school students at one of Rockland’s synagogue hebrew schools. I was invited to speak about the Federation and its role in confronting antisemitism. The key message I gave to the students was that the most important way to confront antisemitism is to take pride in and actively participate in their Jewish identity. I also shared that they are not alone if facing antisemitism, and the Federation and their Synagogue communities stood with them.
Without going into details, it was evident that a number of them encounter antisemitic words and actions - multiple times - as a matter of course. We are of course following up on this but what struck me was the normalization - in middle school! - of this expression of disdain, derision & insult, if not yet explicit hatred or violence.
And then, as I considered what I had heard, I thought of another troubling issue and how these phenomena might be connected.
Jonah Hill. Julia Louis Dreyfus. David Duchovny. Rhea Perlman. Molly Gordon. Elliot Gould. Bryan Greenberg. Lauren London. Richard Benjamin. Hal Linden (!!) These are many of the Jewish actors in the cast of the recently released film “You People”. Many of you will recognize all or most of these names. Talented actors. And terrible disappointments to me. The movie, currently showing on Netflix, is, to put it mildly, a travesty. It uses Jews as a stand in for white fragility and systemic racism. It gives a pass to the vile antisemitism of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. It normalizes the malign accusation of Jewish collective responsibility for the involvement of individuals in the slave trade (while ignoring the fact that Jewish funding sustained the abolitionist movement for decades). It trivializes the Holocaust by giving the impression that Jews would use its memory as a cover for “cheapness”.
What is most troubling about the release of this movie is that it isn’t only these actors. It’s too many of those in an ecosystem of Jewish actors, executives and creatives who seem to have been paying no attention to what has been going on in America and the world these past years, especially since 2018. There are several who do speak out about antisemitism. Sarah Silverman. Gal Gadot. Rob Reiner. And more. But I keep coming back to the thought - How disassociated from Jewish life must the actors in this movie be if they could proactively associate themselves with this film? A film which dangerously perpetuates myths and stereotypes, while leveraging and normalizing a deadly antisemitic ideology at a time when Jews across the country are investing in securing their synagogues and schools from violent threats across the spectrum?
And further. The movie was released a couple of weeks ahead of African American History Month. There is a long history of goodwill and partnership between America’s Jewish and African American communities. I think of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who gave their lives in the pursuit of civil rights for African American voters in Mississippi. I think of Rabbi Heschel who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a sefer Torah on his shoulder. I think of Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Zach Banner (who I had the privilege of meeting last spring), who have tirelessly raised their voices against antisemitism.
And this is what Netflix chose to broadcast, now? It seems to me that this is an insult to the millions in the African American community who work for partnership and understanding, as well as justice.
What brings these threads together is what we must address as part of confronting antisemitism. It is the normalization of hatred, prejudice, and stereotypes. For us it starts with antisemitism, and as Jews that will always understandably be our priority. We have a responsibility to reject and counteract this normalization. One way we are obliged to do so, as I told the students, is to manifest our pride in our Jewish identity and heritage. We can do so in so many ways. We can remember that it was the Jewish values of establishing a system of laws, equality before the courts, taking care of the poor and indigent, that are the foundations of American values, informing every freedom and responsibility that the Founding Fathers established. We can also be involved in the lives and communities of our neighbors because we are mandated to care about all people in our tradition, rather than being a straw man for apologetics about assumed prejudice in a movie like ‘You People”. We can best ‘normalize’ Jewish ideals in the public sphere by acting on those values.
Finally we have a responsibility to say, teach, and share that there is nothing normal about antisemitism or any other kind of hate, and there never should be.