Guest columnists Karen Levine, Tom Gardner, Sandy Mandel, Judith Souweine and Annique Boomsma: Painful letter filled with anti-Semitic expressions

Though we disagreed with Jay Fleitman’s letter to the editor (“Furious Biden visited Blake Sr. in Wisconsin,” Sept. 14) in which he objected to Joe Biden’s visit with the Blake family because of Jacob Blake’s father’s use of anti-Semitic expressions, we cringed in disbelief reading Mary Hall’s letter in response to Mr. Fleitman’s letter (“Responding to Fleitman,” Sept. 16).

Her letter feels hurtful, misguided and filled with anti-Semitic ideas that self-proclaimed progressives sometimes express, perhaps without realizing it.

We agree with Hall’s idea that we should not avoid talking to people with whom we disagree. Leaning into such discomfort offers the only possibility of fostering greater understanding of the impact of our words. Toward that end, we write this response to her.

Hall attributes to Fleitman the belief that “anyone exhibiting unhappiness with Jewish behaviors will lead to another Shoah.”

“Jewish behaviors?” Is the implication that Jews have telltale behaviors? We, as Jews and allies, find this language hurtful and absurd. Anytime one attributes characteristics to a whole group it is inherently prejudicial and insulting.

The greatest risk for another Shoah (God forbid) is the rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia, stoked by white nationalism and authoritarianism, in this country and in the world. Jewish sensitivity to these risks and how terrifying these times feel, should not be belittled.

Hall then introduces the totally unrelated topic of the complex politics of Israel/Palestine, conflating issues and confusing terms. She writes, “In the Zionist project, I find Jews to be proceeding in ways that I cannot defend.”

It is important to state that within the Jewish world there are many diverse voices about the direction and aspirations for Israel/Palestine and its inhabitants. Jews are not a monolithic group proceeding in the “Zionist project,” nor is the conflict defined by a “procreation war between Jews and Palestinians,” as she states in her letter.

The complexities and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians certainly deserve a more nuanced discussion, and we wonder what this has to do with Fleitman’s letter about Biden’s visit to comfort the Blake family? Just as troubling is the reflexive assumption that any topic that involves Jews and anti-Semitism must also relate to the politics of Israel/Palestine, which in this case is totally unrelated. It is also important to clarify that the terms “Jews” and “Israelis” should not be used interchangeably, nor does either represent a monolithic population.

Then Hall encourages Fleitman to “help move his cohort toward behaviors that people like her may find supportable.”

“His cohort?” Does she mean all Jews? Does she think of Jews as a “cohort,” all of whom think and behave one way, but could be corralled by one of its members to all think and behave another way? We find this language insulting and hurtful. And, we can assure you that Fleitman does not speak for us, nor represent our values.

The elder Blake’s comments are deplorable, but as deplorable is Fleitman using Bidens’ human act of expressing sympathy to a suffering parent as a device to garner support for the reelection of a racist, anti-Semitic, authoritarian president.

Hall follows with more confusing remarks about world overpopulation, another important topic unrelated to Biden visiting the Blake family. Is she constructing a farfetched idea that because some ultra-Orthodox Jews have large families, they are responsible for global overpopulation, and by some stretch this might also excuse Jacob Blake’s father’s anti-Semitic words? If so, blaming Jews for all manner of global problems is the oldest anti-Semitic trope. We couldn’t begin to make sense of this reference in the context of her letter about Biden’s visit to the Blake family — we just know it was very cringeworthy.

Let us be clear: Anti-Semitism should always be called out, whenever it is expressed, as should racism and all forms of bigotry.

Anti-Semitism is used by white nationalists to divide communities that might otherwise be natural allies. This moment demands that we come together to fight racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and all forms of oppression.

We are afraid that Hall’s letter was more harmful than helpful toward that end. It is painful when bigoted words and ideas come from those with whom we could be allies.

Hopefully these uncomfortable conversations engender deeper understanding and bring us closer to creating a more inclusive, safe world. We refer Hall and readers to the book “How To Be An Anti-Racist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, and the article “Skin In The Game,” by Eric Ward.

The writers are members of the JCA Tikkun Olam Committee, the JCA Tzedek Racial Justice Initiative and concerned residents of Amherst, Pelham and Florence.

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