As Certain as Death and Taxes

Antisemitism has permeated societies for centuries. It has transcended geographical boundaries and historical epochs.
May 15, 2024
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In November 1789, as he neared the end of his life, Benjamin Franklin penned a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, concerned after not having heard from him since the start of the French Revolution just a few months earlier. Le Roy, known for his work in physics and as a pioneer in the field of electricity, was an esteemed member of the French Academy of Sciences and a significant Enlightenment-era figure.

Franklin, writing in French, inquired about Le Roy’s health and the situation in Paris over the previous year. He then provided a brief update on the major developments in the United States, mentioning the recent ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the formation of a new government. “Our new Constitution is now established,” he wrote, “[and] everything seems to promise it will be durable.” Although, as he noted wryly, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

As was often the case with Franklin’s pithy one-liners later attributed exclusively to him – his “death and taxes” observation was not original. It first appeared in “The Cobbler of Preston,” a 1716 comedy by English playwright Christopher Bullock, with the main character, Toby Guzzle, uttering the immortal line: “’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes.”

In any event, it is Franklin’s adaptation of Bullock’s quote that stood the test of time, and it has become synonymous with his name. Nevertheless, it has often struck me that what is missing in both Bullock’s original and Franklin’s reiteration is the one other certainty in the world – no less persistent and undoubtedly as permanent as death and taxes: namely, antisemitism.

Antisemitism has permeated societies for centuries. It has transcended geographical boundaries and historical epochs. From medieval Europe to the modern world, from the dusty provinces of the Ottoman Empire to the incendiary pages of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent periodical, from the evil rhetoric of Adolf Hitler to the paranoid theories of Joseph Stalin, antisemitism has proven incredibly resilient and pervasive, and it has cast a long shadow evident to this day.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote and spoke frequently about antisemitism. As he explained: “Antisemitism is not a unitary phenomenon, a coherent belief or ideology. Jews have been hated because they were rich and because they were poor; because they were capitalists and because they were communists; because they believed in tradition and because they were rootless cosmopolitans; because they kept to themselves and because they penetrated everywhere. Antisemitism is not a belief but a virus. The human body has an immensely sophisticated immune system which develops defenses against viruses. It is penetrated, however, because viruses mutate. Antisemitism mutates.”

And in its latest mutation, the cause of antisemitism is the Jewish people’s unshakeable love for and devotion to Israel, the sovereign country of the Jews, established – after almost two millennia of bitter exile – in their ancestral homeland, the land cited in the hallowed pages of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s bequest to the Jewish people.

But as Rabbi Sacks observed, antisemitism has adapted and evolved over time, morphing into many different forms, even as it always retained its destructive core. Today, criticism of Israel has become the primary vehicle for antisemitism. And while the right to critique any nation’s policies is fundamental to democratic principles, it has become clear that anti-Israel sentiment and activism has veered, or more likely been deliberately directed, into the dangerous territory of bigoted, unbridled Jew-hatred. In polite company, no one will ever admit to hating Jews; instead, antisemites freely admit to hating Israel and Zionists, and indeed anyone who refuses to condemn Israel and call for its downfall (in other words, the vast majority of the world’s Jews).

Over the past few days, this façade was fully exposed for what it is in Los Angeles, at UCLA. After an illegal pro-Palestinian encampment was set up on the campus last Thursday, Eli Tsives, a 19-year-old theater and film major, attempted to attend a class. He was immediately obstructed by several students wearing keffiyehs and face masks. Despite showing his student ID and requesting access, Tsives, who was wearing a Star of David necklace, found his path firmly blocked by the group. Tsives is not Israeli, nor is the Star of David an exclusively Israeli symbol. Rather, it is a universally recognized Jewish symbol. This was enough for Tsives to be denied access to his class.

Jewish UCLA students have told me that they are frightened to walk around with yarmulkes and with their tzitzit visible. Last Sunday, in a big show of support for UCLA students, the L.A. community came out in force to show solidarity with Israel on the UCLA campus. The pro-Palestinian rabble – all of them cloaked in the keffiyehs that have become the mark of this latest manifestation of Jew-hatred – looked uncomfortable with the Jewish community’s unashamed, unadulterated love for Israel. And over the past couple of days, after confrontations between the illegal protesters and pro-Israel counterprotesters predictably descended into violence, LAPD finally came on campus to dismantle the unlawful encampment and to arrest the agitators who set it up and refused to leave.

The fight against antisemitism is a fight for the soul of America. All Americans must stand in solidarity with Jews against hate, and champion the values of understanding and tolerance.

The challenge ahead for American Jews is formidable, particularly in the post-Oct. 7 landscape. The response to this crisis will not only shape the future of Jewish community life in America, but it will also reflect the moral integrity of our nation. The fight against antisemitism is a fight for the soul of America. All Americans must stand in solidarity with Jews against hate, and champion the values of understanding and tolerance.

Last Shabbat, Jews across the world read the Torah portion of Acharei Mot, which includes the detailed rituals for the Yom Kippur service. The Day of Atonement is a profound opportunity for introspection and self-reflection, calling upon individuals and communities to recognize their shortcomings and seek forgiveness. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, American Jews must reflect on the complacency that has allowed us to believe antisemitism was no longer a significant threat. Recent events have shattered that illusion, revealing a disturbing resurgence of bigotry that demands a collective response.

Yet, we are not alone. Many of our fellow Americans are horrified by recent developments and will stand with us. As Rabbi Sacks so tellingly declared: “Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone. The victim cannot cure the crime, and the hated cannot cure the hate.” He added: “Antisemitism begins with Jews, but it never ends with them. A world without room for Jews is one that has no room for difference. And a world that lacks space for difference lacks space for humanity itself.”

And while the scourge of antisemitism may be as certain as death and taxes, this doesn’t excuse us from fighting back. We stave off death by staying healthy, and our accountants work hard to ensure we only pay the taxes we owe, and no more. It is time for us to stand up to antisemitism, to call it out for what it is, and to fight it with all our might.

The United States was the first country in human history to treat Jews as equals, allowing them to practice their faith without hindrance. It is time for our country to reclaim this glorious legacy, and to ensure that the tendrils of hate do not overwhelm the very essence of what made this country the greatest nation on earth.

Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader at Beverly Hills Synagogue, a member of the Young Israel family of synagogues.

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