Anti-Semitism: When it Happens on the Airplane

Anti-Semitism: When it Happens on the Airplane

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Anti-Semitism: When it Happens on the Airplane

Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head, again. This time it’s roaring forth with all its might and ugliness. Familiar boundaries and common civility that once held it at bay have been undermined and breached. Now purveyors of hate are given permission to spew anti-Semitic vitriol and age-old canards, and general hate-speech is put into the same basket to be judged as if it were really the same. But, a two-thousand year-old libel against Jews and Judaism, Israel and its people is not a relative issue to be set aside even for political expediency. No matter the political landscape and no matter one’s political affiliation or disaffection, no permission should ever be granted a freshman politician or a veteran statesperson to feel satisfied with his or her anti-Semitic positions.

In a reply email to a concerned congregant, I wrote:

I grew up in the 1970s, surrounded by messaging on the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, Soviet Jewry, the post 1967 war, and, of course, the Holocaust. Building partnerships with former enemies and teaching the world about Jewish history were part of a new hope for peace that grew out of the spirit of the 1960s. Aside from hippies and peace-signs, it was real work. In those cold-war years, it was easier, as many have observed, to know who your enemy was, because we were taught to say, “Better dead than red.” But, today, there are no iron curtains and there are no enemies of the state like before. Though we stand on polarized sides of the aisle, we’re looking across it at fellow Americans, and we’ve been reared on multi-culturalism and strength in diversity. I believe in multi-culturalism and strength in diversity, too, when it orients us towards a greater good that leverages reasonable expectations for all. But, a discerning person, whether liberal or conservative, must be prepared to recognize red lines. In my opinion, there is no red line that matters to us more than expressions and acts of anti-Semitism. No one will come to the aid of Jews and Israel like Jews, themselves, and probably evangelical Christians. But, at the end of the day, we have the only pure motivation for saving Jews.

While the Reform Jewish movement rightfully advocates for social justice in America, including healthcare, equal rights, immigration reform, etc., it’s time to re-position Jewish unity, here and in Israel, as our highest priority. Synagogue budgets and local and national Jewish agencies’ budgets should reflect a renewed purpose in securing the Jewish future against rabid anti-Semitism. What we can accomplish together is far greater than what we can expect others to do on our behalf. If signs of a rising tide of anti-Semitism don’t persuade us to reorient us towards our Jewish future, we will have failed ourselves. I would rather delay efforts on social justice issues, à la Tikkun Olam, than risk the obligation we have to confront, address and reshape social media and public opinion about Jews and Judaism.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Reform rabbis, especially, walked with giants of social justice. Their names are familiar to most, but it’s their deeds that live on as the greatest testament of what was at stake. In the 1980s, rabbis identified with the sanctuary movement, as refugees from South American countries fled northward. Rabbis made the news, they were jailed, and some lost their pulpits. In the 1990s, rabbis fit themselves into roles to advocate for all kinds of issues, including Palestinian rights, Haitian survival, and general social justice. At their best, they were purveyors of Torah and bearers of Jewish light. But, in the end, while some change happened, Jews and Judaism mattered less. Time, ignorance, and changing world-views granted new generations increased space far from the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel and her subsequent wars for survival, Vietnam, Watergate, the Iron Curtain, and other significant world-changing events. Are we doomed to repeat history?

A friend reported to me an incident that occurred on a domestic airline flight just one week ago. She was seated next to a middle-aged man who didn’t mind his personal space; he was over-the-line, loud, and generally annoying. When she left her seat to use the restroom, the flight attendant acknowledged her frustration. Unprompted, the flight attendant took out her phone and looked up the flight manifest. Turning to her, the flight attendant pointed to the passenger’s name and said, “Here’s why!” The passenger’s name was an obvious Jewish surname. My friend was horrified but unable to respond. She returned to her seat. The incident will be reported to the airline, but it’s only one of many, many cases of small but insidious anti-Semitic moments that accumulate and do real harm. Bigger cases and more horrific incidents are already making their way down Main Street.

In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we must choose to be both free and brave. We need to wake up. Or, as they say, today, we need to be woke.

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.