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Shining Light on Anti-Semitism

Deborah Mayaan
On Heritage (July 2016)
Inward Light

American Friends Service Committee is encouraging Friends and others to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign (BDS) until Israel complies with international law to treat Palestinians fairly. I am happy with that, since I work with Jewish Voice for Peace on this issue. However, when I speak about BDS, I often find people are reluctant to support it because they want to avoid anti-Semitism. I point out to them that Jewish Voice for Peace stands as a reminder to the larger world that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic.

Unfortunately, when I began speaking up more about Israel and Palestine, and after I began explaining that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the state of Israel, this seemed to loosen the gates for some Friends, making them seem to feel freer to spew beliefs that actually are
anti-Semitic, ideas that are demeaning to the Jewish people and the traditions of Judaism. This has been deeply painful for me as a Jew and a Quaker, and I also seek the deeper healing that can arise from this experience. Anti-Semitism does exist in old prejudices that have been learned, and those prejudices can be unlearned.

Quakers have been leaders in taking action for justice for Palestinians. We now have the powerful opportunity to draw upon our testimonies of Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality so that – rather than old biases simply being stirred – the deepest possible healing can take place in both unlearning prejudices and taking action for BDS.

As both a Jew and a Quaker, I hope that we can draw upon “the important historical connections between Quakers and Jews” that Rabbi Brant Rosen described in the article he wrote for AFSC when he began working for them in 2015 (Acting in Faith, AFSC, 1/27/2016). In this article, Rosen shows the parallels between Quaker testimonies and Jewish spiritual values. He quotes Claire Gorfinkel’s observation that, “For both Quakerism and Judaism, God is directly accessible to the seeker, without need for priests or other intermediaries” (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305, 2000).

Quakers have already begun the process of unlearning racism by examining our history with African Americans and acknowledging that history as being more complex than merely a series of shining examples of the Underground Railroad and actions for abolition. (See Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Donna McDaniel and Vanessa D. Julye, Quaker Press, 2009.)

Quaker history with Jews is also more complex than simply the shining examples of rescue and relief work during and after World War II. For example, Quakers share the Christian history of blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. In the past few years, some Quakers have begun the work of reflecting on that history. In one example, some Friends have been deliberating since the 1990s over a song in FGC’s Worship in Song and remain divided as to whether the song is anti-Semitic or not. One verse in this song, “Lord of the Dance,” tells how the “holy people . . . whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high; and they left me there on a cross to die.” Over the years, the weight of opinion in this controversy has been moving towards the view that this lyric is indeed anti-Semitic, yet this song remains unchanged in the Quaker hymnal. (“Singing ‘Lord of the Dance’: Reflections on Anti-Semitism and Loving One Another,” Joy Rosnel Weaver, Friends Journal, April 1, 2010).

Recently, a Friend suggested that I facilitate some workshops on these topics. This is a common, well-meaning suggestion. However, I would like to explain that this sort of discussion is best done with peers who can examine their prejudices together, without the people who are the targets of those prejudices needing to endure the discussions. As a Jew, I myself would not like to endure such discussions. So I invite my Gentile Friends to examine the queries below with each other, and then consider together the background reading that follows.


  • What was I taught about Jews growing up?
  • What was I taught about Jews and money?
  • What was I taught about Jews and power?
  • Does it feel safer for me to express anger towards Jews than to those who hold the most power in society?
  • What do I know about the historical middleman role in European and American societies?
  • What was I taught about Jews’ intelligence?
  • What was I taught about Jews’ expression of feelings?
  • What was I taught about Jews and the qualities of being hard/tough/walled-off or soft/gentle/open?
  • What were my experiences with individual Jews? Are there any generalizations I may be drawing from my unresolved feelings?
  • Have “positive stereotypes” about Jews ever contributed to me comparing myself unfavorably? What has been the effect of that?
  • What was I taught about the Hebrews or Israelites in the Bible?
  • What was I taught about their relation to Jesus?
  • What was I taught about their place in history?
  • What was I taught about Jesus’ relation to the Pharisees?
  • What do I project onto others when I say they are like “x” and I am like “y”, when each of us has aspects of both qualities?
  • Have I ever been the minority in a group? What has that felt like? What contributed to me feeling more or less comfortable in the group?
  • Have I ever been in the less-powerful majority in a group, when a small faction was more in charge? What has that felt like? What contributed to me feeling more or less comfortable in the group?
  • Which of my behaviors might contribute to someone feeling less welcome in a group?
  • What do I do with the fact that Quakers were members in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, including students and alumni of Earlham College? (See Fit for Freedom, pp. 2016-218.)
  • In terms of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, is my relation to the BDS campaign toward Israel more emotionally charged than it was to the similar campaign toward South Africa? What am I to do with that energy in the service of peace, justice, and healing?


Some Reflections on Our History

For many centuries, in many parts of Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land. A survival strategy for them was to serve as middlemen between the upper classes and the peasants. As a result, the anger of the peasants was directed at Jews as moneylenders and merchants. This pattern continued when immigrant Jews in the U.S. became shopkeepers in low-income neighborhoods, or when they became teachers, social workers, or health care workers in those communities.

Such middleman status continues today with the state of Israel serving as an outpost of the U.S. in the Middle East, and with Israeli companies receiving U.S. funding to develop and test border technologies on the US/Mexico border. I call upon my Jewish community to reconcile our survival strategies with our traditions of acting for social justice, and with trusting in G!d to direct our paths. And also I call upon non-Jews to question whom they vent their class anger upon.

(The spelling “G-d” comes from Jewish tradition, as a way of treating the name with reverence, so it is not casually destroyed on paper. The variant “G!d” can make us even more aware of the living, changing nature of G!d, rather than viewing “God” as a sort of a fixed idol in some way.)

Jewish tradition places a great value on education, and teaches people to question authority and to come to truth through dialogue, hearing many points of view. G!d evolves and so do we throughout the Hebrew Bible, into the oral tradition, a certain stage of which has been codified in the Talmud. One of my favorite Talmudic stories is about the time when people came up with such great points, even better than G!d made, that G!d laughed and said, “My children have bested me!” This image hardly fits with the image that many Christians have been taught about the “Old Testament” – that it centers on a mean and punitive G!d – while in contrast, they are taught only the “New Testament” centers on love, through the teachings of Jesus.

From my perspective, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament hold mixtures of passages that are either loving or punitive, inclusive or exclusive, promoting centralized power/authority or the wide distribution of power/authority. In text analysis in the Jewish tradition, we talk about the different authors, such as passages thatuse Elohim vs. YHVH, or the priestly passages. In the Christian tradition, Robert W. Funk, Roy W, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar have published The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Macmillan, 1993), in which they seek to discern the messages of the historical Jesus in contrast to the changing viewpoints of his followers, who shaped the writings in the New Testament.

In The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (Harper & Row, 1986), Hyam Maccoby notes that Jesus did not set out to create a new religion. Since Jesus followed the Jewish tradition, his teachings reflect that, such as the beautiful Sermon on the Mount, in which the beatitudes can be traced to traditional Jewish sources, a tradition steeped in love and forgiveness.

Maccoby provides evidence that it was Paul who created the new religion, rather than following the Jewish path, and then he had conflicts with other early followers. According to Maccoby’s evidence, the anti-Judaism of the New Testament was a legacy of Paul and his followers, including the assignment of blame to Jews for killing Jesus.

Some scholars, such as Maccoby and Harvey Falk (Jesus the Pharisee. A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, Paulist Press, 1985), provide evidence that Jesus was one of the Pharisees, the great innovators in Jewish tradition, who developed the oral tradition, the flexibility of practice that would lead to an enduring tradition, one that was not dependent upon the existence of the Temple, which would be destroyed.

In Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Seabury Press, 1974), Christian theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther posits that the anti-Judaism in the New Testament is the basis for the anti-Semitism that lead to the near annihilation of the Jews of Europe. First there was the distortion in the history of what Jesus taught, then the expansion of hurtful words and acts of exclusion, then the killing of millions of people, and ultimately, the erasure of culture through lack of survivors in areas where once great clusters of the modern inheritors of the Pharisee’s tradition of dialogue had lived.

The strategy of the power structure in Israel to collaborate with the power structure in the U.S. can been seen as coming from unhealed trauma – that terrible feeling that there is nowhere safe in the world – except, hopefully, in Israel. Jewish spiritual tradition teaches that Jews were given the land of Israel, but then the first Holy Temple was destroyed because of gross violations, and the second Temple was destroyed because of infighting among Jews. Jews’ return to the land and the third Temple were to come in G!d’s timing, as part of a spiritual process. The return was not to come through a secular political process.

Return to Israel was to come through the traditional acts of repentance, prayer, making amends, and giving to increase social justice. Belief is not central in Judaism; action is. That is a huge point of connection between Jews and Quakers. May we sit in worship together with our various beliefs, and all be held in the Light, and all come to unity in a path of actions for peace and justice. ~~~

Look here for a list of links to the references used in this article.

– Deborah Mayaan is a member of Pima Monthly Meeting in Tucson (IMYM). She serves on the Migration Action Committee and in other groups focused on transforming fear and on healing issues of the militarization of the borders of US/Mexico and Israel/Palestine.


Judaism discrimination BDS Christianity Anti-Semitism

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