Whether it’s 25,000 people marching in New York or 1,400 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, it’s abundantly clear that the Jewish community is concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Renown activist and organizer Eric Ward has been watching this trend for decades, which is why he’s been traveling the country to help understand and counter anti-Semitism and white nationalism.
“I would just say that what we are concerned about is that there is a rising trend – not only nationally, but internationally – towards anti-democratic values, meaning a backlash against the gains that have been made towards rights and equity over the last five decades,” said Ward, the executive director of the Pacific Northwest-based Western States Center. “In the United States that has been most defined by a rising white nationalist movement. It is the belief of the Western States Center, that democratic practice, people-centered, transparent and accountable government, is still the best protectors of rights. And that democratic practice is under attack.”
Ward will be in Minneapolis as part of a weekend-long series of speaking engagements Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Ward will be giving the sermon at Friday evening Shabbat services and Shir Tikvah, after which Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg will interview Ward about strategies to challenge white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racism. At 9 a.m. Feb. 1, Ward will be leading Torah study at Temple Israel; and he will be delivering the sermon in worship at First Universalist Church on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 2. That afternoon he will lead a two-hour workshop at First Universalist on understanding and countering anti-Semitism and white nationalism. The three houses of worship are co-sponsoring the weekend.
“Eric is an extraordinary resource for us to help decode what’s going on in our political climate and in our communities,” said Lekach-Rosenberg. “I think just the fact that he’s coming on Shabbat really reminds us that we have to slow down out of the frenzy of our of the news cycle and out of our reactivity to say, ‘What’s going on? What is the inflammatory language that’s being used? What are the tropes and the images that are functioning as triggers and mobilizing members of the community and triggering other members of the community?’ I think that this is our chance to really get smarter and sharper together.
“And I love the fact that he isn’t coming to visit one community, but dropping his pearls of wisdom in multiple worship spaces, and then the workshop space. It gets to be a convening across, we hope, a very, very broad swath of our community.”
Temple Israel Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said that Ward is coming because he is a leading voice in fighting anti-Semitism.
“Eric has the most complete analysis of anti-Semitism I’ve seen,” she said. “My job is to educate the congregation, and his analysis and research are very important to the Temple Israel community to be educated in.”
Over the last several years, Ward said the WSC engaged in a campaign that has been challenging and working with communities to better understand anti-Semitism, not as a set of individual behaviors, but as an ideology that threatens everyone.
“It’s not surprising that white nationalists would also adopt anti-government rhetoric, but we always have to take a step back and try to understand: What does a person mean when they say anti-government? And when did that movement become anti-government?” Ward said. “To be crude, they’re not trying to go back to the days of Gone with the Wind. They are trying to build a new society, a white-only ethnostate, that is completely rid of people of color and Jews. In short, if white supremacy was about racial exploitation, right, white nationalism is about ethnic cleansing.”
Ward did confess that some of the movements most likely to be a barrier against hate were late in coming around to anti-Semitism.
“What we didn’t anticipate was that because anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists across the society, that human rights organizations were struggling themselves with anti-Semitism,” he said. “Maybe not your overt forms that we have seen that lead to the Tree of Life, or the recent shooting in Jersey City, or the attack in (Monsey) Brooklyn, but enough anti-Semitism that it immobilized progressive and left community from being able to get out ahead of this. And I think by all accounts, all of us would acknowledge, right, that level of anti-Semitism that exists overtly in mainstream society is something not witnessed in decades.
“But I will say, on the progressive side, we have fallen so short in this moment by our unwillingness to understand that like all forms of bigotry, anti-Semitism is a systemic problem. The tendencies to buy into anti-Semitism exist across the political spectrum, including our own.”
Lekach-Rosenberg said the timing of Ward’s visit, right after Jews start the book of Exodus in the Torah and at the start of African-American History month (as well as right after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), is fortuitous.
“(We have) this whole month of where we get to really hold our people’s stories of liberation and ask hard questions about what that takes,” she said. “The story is told we cross the sea into the wilderness with an erev rav, with a mixed multitude. And I think the message of that crossing is that we need each other, that it’s not just that Moses rescued, he kept going back to Pharaoh and saying, ‘I’m not leaving until all of the people go out with me.’ I think that the Justice message of that is so clear. As we come into the book of Shmot this year, what does it actually mean to be working for liberation? It can’t be a narrow and narrow liberation.”