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June 17, 2021 11:51 am
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Don’t Fight Antisemitism — Share Jewishness

avatar by David Weitzner

Opinion

An aerial view of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To those of us feeling under attack and somewhat abandoned, Jewish Federations have advice: Educate yourself about the “new antisemitism,” report it wherever you see it, preach to allies about antisemitism’s dangers, and challenge opponents. It’s the seemingly timeless advice I was given as a student in the 1990s, and my parents were given a generation before me.

But times have changed. For the non-pundit class, the advice to “go out and fight antisemitism” may not be helpful. Deploying talking points, even those rooted in historical fact, seems to move no one in social media echo chambers. I suggest a different, near-term tactic: Spend less time fighting antisemitism and more time expressing Jewishness.

What do I mean? Let me share a recent example: A few weeks ago, hundreds of musicians committed to a statement asserting that Israel is a genocidal colonial enterprise. Some brave industry-insiders tried to argue why this stance is problematic, but changed no minds.

The band Phish took a different approach. For their recent archival webcast, they chose to release a show from 1993 featuring a rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” Given that Phish has only covered the song a dozen times over thousands of concerts, choosing to release this show, at this particular time, is no accident. The Jewish and Jewish-adjacent band members didn’t flood social media with talking points. Instead, they beautifully showed how Jewishness, Jerusalem and artistic energies are intimately connected in this band’s creativity.

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Phish’s strategy echoes philosopher Richard Rorty’s observation that imaginative expressions tend to be far more persuasive than argumentative ones. As he explains “People can be very intelligent … without having wide sympathies.” Culture wars are sympathy battles. Either one sympathizes with Jewish folks because their claims resonate within a shared experience, or one does not and remains convinced that, for example, defenses of Zionism are morally insufficient.

For years, I tried to “fight” endless variances of antisemitism. When sitting with leading business ethics scholars as an invited guest after a conference, I opened my mouth to opine, and a colleague qualified my still unstated perspective by warning “But David is a religious Jew…”

I didn’t cower into silence. After inviting the Israeli consul general to guest lecture on business/government interaction, my Dean asked, “Why are you people the source of all my problems?” I launched a formal complaint. After my union crafted a justice, equity, and diversity initiative that named every type of hate but antisemitism, I sought to rally objections to what was not an innocent oversight. In each instance, and these are but a few, despite my fight, those with a record of Jew hatred retained their power.

So, this semester, I am switching strategies, adding my new book on capitalism and Jewish wisdom to the reading list, seeking to normalize the Jewish language of mitzvah and chavrusa as worthy entrants into the management lexicon. And while we are in the early days of the experiment, it looks like a success.

Students in my class read the story of Moses smashing the stone to get water for the complaining Jews, startled by a myth where the celebrated hero goes against God’s instructions. I explain that leaders inspired by Moses would be less interested in tools of management, and more interested in techniques to encourage co-creation. Moses smashed the stone because implementing the divine plan was not his priority. He recognized that he and his stiff-necked people were in this together. If this was the more difficult path, so be it.

The diverse student body is responding positively to cultural exposure. When I was a student decades ago, Jewishness was part of the popular conversation. Most classmates had a passing knowledge of the Bible, the Holocaust, and Jewish cultural contributions. That’s not true today. Students I encounter admit to knowing next to nothing about Judaism outside of the politics of Israel. They know nothing about our spiritual tradition, our mythology, or our history.

Just as Phish literally didn’t miss a beat as they jammed from “Mike’s Song” into “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” I’m no longer hesitating as I move from talking about Harvard strategist Michael Porter to Moses. After all, how can we build alliances if Judaism is an undefined black box to those we reach out to? Jewish folks worried about our communal future in the West and elsewhere need to spend less time and energy on fighting antisemitism and put far more effort into displaying our Jewishness. It is the hopeful path to effecting the transformative cultural change needed at this moment.

David Weitzner is an assistant professor of management at York University. His new book Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work is out now through University of Toronto Press and Penguin Random House Audio. Follow him on Twitter @WeitznerDavid.

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