Rabbi Jack Paskoff

Rabbi Jack Paskoff

Jews are good at laughing at the people who hate us. We even have a whole holiday — Purim, coming up on Feb. 26 — devoted to mocking the people who would destroy us.

It’s one of the defense mechanisms we developed over the years, especially when we were otherwise kept from fighting back. No less than Mel Brooks is a master of the genre. Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia just makes it a lot easier.

The memes circulating among Jews in recent days have been hysterical. Greene’s 2018 claim that “Jewish space lasers” caused California forest wildfires have given us a lot of good material. After we’ve laughed for a while, though, we have to pause and come to terms with the fact that the individual flaunting these views is a member of the U.S. Congress.

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Let’s go back to the Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus. Jews are something other; Jews are a fifth column, seeking the destruction of the country.

We got the same rhetoric from the Jewish persecutor Haman in the biblical Book of Esther. And, at the beginning of the 20th century, in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated text in which Jewish leaders were depicted plotting world domination (much like the satanic cabal that QAnon adherents think rules the world). And, of course, from Adolf Hitler.

Add to that the linking of Jews with money — Greene made sure to allege that the supposed lasers from space were part of a project connected to the Rothschild banking firm — as well as the questioning of our loyalty and the story is complete. (These stories often are told with code words, like “globalists,” and the Rothschild family has been a favored target of anti-Semites since the 19th century.) At least Greene gets bonus points for creating some good science fiction technology.

Let’s look at several additional pieces of Rep. Greene’s story.

First, anti-Semitic tropes are not the only deplorable messages she has spouted. Next, her views were never a secret. What does it say about the district that elected her? Third, how complicit is the Republican House leadership that has failed to condemn her, and, of all things, appointed her to the high-profile Education and Budget Committees? She was removed from those committees by a 230-199 House vote Thursday evening — with the vast majority of the GOP continuing to support her and voting against her removal.

How do leaders such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy rationalize giving someone who preaches hate, who shows no interest in facts, who accepts conspiracy theories as truth, a say in how children in this country would be educated? The hatefulness never seems to end.

Not just Greene

While Greene’s comments and social media posts leave her more easily open to ridicule, she is not the first person to pollute the U.S. Capitol building with anti-Semitic beliefs.

In 2010, during the Senate confirmation hearing of Justice Elena Kagan, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wanted to make sure that everyone in America knew that this was a Jew being appointed to the highest court when he asked her what she does on Christmas Day. (Even there, Kagan provided humor, responding immediately that she is with all her people on that day — at a Chinese restaurant.)

In 1981, Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings referred to Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, who was Jewish, as the “senator from B’nai Brith,” a Jewish fraternal organization. Yet again, we were made to be the other. These are well-worn tropes.

Despite the ease with which Greene invites scrutiny of herself and her party, we need to be fully honest in saying that anti-Semitism in the public sphere is not limited to one person, one party or one particular political perspective. We see anti-Semitism from the left as well. There have been many comments related to Israel and Palestine that are troublesome.

When some progressive members of Congress criticize Israeli policy, they are well within their rights as citizens and as legislators. Personally, I might even agree with many of their concerns. This has often spilled over, though, into delegitimization of Israel itself. I will hear you decry Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and I will defend you as not being anti-Semitic. When you are challenging Israel’s right to exist, though, I can only see anti-Semitism. Jewish students on some American college campuses have been harassed over this, regardless of any connection — or lack thereof — to Israel. It has been an issue, for instance, with the Women’s March and certain LGBTQ Pride events.

Not if, but when

Sadly, when I am teaching Jewish young people or adults contemplating conversion to Judaism, I must always remind them that even in the apparent best of times, anti-Semitism is never a matter of if, but only a matter of when, and in what form.

It might come with tiki torches on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and the chants of “Jews will not replace us” (and the subsequent defense of the chanting white supremacists by a president who declared that there were “very fine people, on both sides”).

It might come in an insurgent storming of the U.S. Capitol by some people who wore garb with slogans like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (meaning 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust weren’t enough).

It might come from the ignorance of QAnon followers elected to Congress, or it might come from the far-left.

America, we have a problem, one among many. It’s time for some serious self-examination and repentance — a sincere repentance that is more than an apology (although it starts with an apology). Political parties need to challenge their own, condemn where necessary, cut off campaign funding, withhold committee assignments. When will we again hear from Capitol Hill echoes of Army lawyer Joseph Welch challenging Sen. Joseph McCarthy with the words, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Who will have that courage, in the halls of the Capitol and on the streets of our country? As the great Jewish sage of 2,000 years ago, Hillel, said, “If not now, when?”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer invoked that word — decency — in a speech Thursday urging House members to strip Greene of her committee assignments. “This is not about party,” Hoyer said. “It’s about whether or not you will vote for decency and truth.”

It’s a decision we all must make.

Jack Paskoff is rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster. He also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: jpaskoff@shaarai.org.

What to Read Next