Reflections on Rosh Hashanah 5775


As we mark the end of another year with the advent of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we pause to take stock of the year that has passed, to learn from ourselves, our experiences and our mistakes as we move forward to build a better future.

This has been a most difficult year for the Jewish people and particularly for the state of Israel, which once again has fended off a threat on its southern border from an implacable foe, the terrorist group Hamas. As the year concludes there is little hope that the most recent war will lead to any meaningful change in the depressing state of affairs in the Palestinian territories and particularly in Gaza, where Hamas rules with an iron fist, an anti-Semitic charter and a deep ideological opposition to any rapprochement with Israel.

In the year ahead we can expect Israel to face new challenges internationally as a result of the ongoing conflict. We know that Israel acted with an abundance of caution in Gaza and had no other choice but to protect its civilians from the hundreds of rockets flying overhead and more than a dozen terrorist tunnels burrowing underneath Gaza into Israel.

And yet the international blame-game is already underway. If past is prologue, Israel once again will take the full brunt of blame while Hamas gets a pass. We will need to be prepared for the onslaught of one-sided investigations, biased recriminations, and calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state.

Fortunately, Israel was not completely alone. Many European countries stood up to support the Jewish state as it fought to defend itself and its civilians from the campaign of Hamas terrorism, and the U.S. provided crucial support to Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which was critical in saving countless lives and protecting cities from incoming rockets.

We must never forget the lives of the three kidnapped Jewish teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. They became the latest blameless victims of terrorism and blind hatred and extremism. We mourn the 72 Israelis killed in the 50-day conflict, as well as the Palestinian civilians who needlessly died in Gaza.

In terms of anti-Semitism globally, by any measure the year 5774 was an annus horribilis for the Jewish people. The passions whipped up by those protesting the war in Gaza led to open displays of hostility against Israel. Those displays gave way in many instances to ugly anti-Semitic outbursts, while leading some to act out violently against Jewish institutions, homes and businesses.

Who would have thought we would hear chants of “death to the Jews” on the streets of Berlin in our lifetime?  Who would have thought that Jewish stores would be marked and face boycotts, that Jews on the streets would be attacked in broad daylight?

This time around, unlike during the Second Intifada or Israel’s military offensive in Gaza in 2008-2009, the anti-Jewish attacks were not limited to the Middle East and Europe. This time Jewish communities from South Africa to Turkey and South America were the scene of ugly anti-Jewish rhetoric at protests and outbursts of anti-Semitic violence. It seemed as if the lid was taken off, and unbridled anti-Semitism was taking form all around us.

Some countries responded better than others. In Western Europe, leaders of France, Britain and Germany stood up and made clear anti-Semitism was unacceptable. And citizens in Germany and Britain organized large public rallies against anti-Semitism.

This time we also had a more complete picture of the extent of the problem. 

Released in May, the ADL Global 100, a first-of-its-kind survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in 100 countries worldwide, revealed the startling fact that anti-Semitism is hardly a thing of the past. We learned that 26 percent of the world’s population harbors classical anti-Semitic attitudes. The litany of ancient notions we thought had been a thing of the past—that Jews have too much power in business, that Jews dominate finance, that Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own, that Jews have too much control over global affairs and the media, that Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars—these have stuck, and have remarkable staying power in far-flung regions of the world.

There was some good news and rays of hope in the survey as well. For reasons not entirely clear there are certain places around the globe—such as Laos, the Philippines, Sweden, the Netherlands, Vietnam, the U.K. and the U.S.—where anti-Semitism was found to be virtually non-existent or much lower than global averages.

While the level of attitudes in the U.S. has reached historic lows—as low as 9 percent of the population according to the most recent data—this country has not been immune to the global tsunami of anti-Semitism, either.  Witness the dozens of anti-Israel rallies that took place during Israel’s military action in Gaza, where expressions of anti-Israel invective veered into anti-Semitism. And witness the names of ordinary, all-American small towns such as Pine Bush, New York, and Overland Park, Kansas that have new meaning to us as Jews because they made headlines as places where the specter of anti-Jewish bigotry has once again revealed its ugly face.

As we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, we celebrated the fact that much has been accomplished on the road toward a more welcoming and open America. This was a year in which marriage equality for members of the LGBT community made extraordinary advances.  But in many areas—religious freedom, voting rights, education equality, women’s reproductive rights, discrimination and racial profiling—there is still much work to be done. We were reminded of this when the Supreme Court for the first time authorized sectarian Christian prayers at town council meetings over the objection of all three Jewish justices.

Another reminder was the climate of racial tension that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri after an unarmed black man was shot by police. And we were confronted the hard reality of racist sentiments being expressed in major sports franchises and by celebrities. We also witnessed expressions of bigotry that flared up around the immigration debate, offering yet another reminder of the struggles that lie ahead.

This year was a disappointment for those of us who are working in coalition with Latino American groups on finding a sensible pathway for illegal immigrants to find full inclusion in society. In the absence of a political will to make meaningful reforms, we saw children fleeing persecution from their home countries in Central America, only to be stopped at the U.S. border and turned back.  Hopefully, next year we will see positive solutions from both the Administration and Congress. 

As we enter 5775, there are new challenges confronting the U.S abroad as well. We are now engaged in new war against terrorism in confronting the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose followers continue to shock the world with their violence and beheadings of Western journalists. On this Rosh Hashanah, we pray for the safety of the U.S. soldiers who are bravely defending this great country. 

Let us hope for a coming year filled with peace, a year where the forces of intolerance and oppression will give way to the forces of equal rights, understanding, freedom and democracy. Let us pray for a world where we have a strong insurance policy for the Jewish people’s survival in the existence of a healthy and vibrant state of Israel. L’Shanah Tova!

Barry Curtiss-Lusher is national chair, and Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.


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