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A while ago, while working on a story about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States, I met up with Rabbi Noah Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. There in his office, Farkas told me a story that I cannot ever forget.
A little context: I had asked Farkas about his then-recent trip to Berlin to give a presentation on anti-Semitism. I told him I had visited a concentration camp in Munich a year ago, and that I was impressed to see how seriously the German schools taught students about their ugly history. This conversation came in the midst of Farkas expressing his anger and disappointment at our own U.S. government—both the White House and Congress, both our left-wing and the right-wing leaders—for condoning anti-Semitic rhetoric. That’s a big contrast to Germany, a country so horrified by its past that it has an entire department dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism.
Then Farkas paused. There’s a catch to Germany’s hyper-sensitivity toward Jews and anti-Semitism, he said: “There’s this secondary level of anti-Semitism existing in Germany that’s riddled with guilt.” This subtle form of anti-Semitism is one where Jews have become so precious as mandated by state law that it’s ironically creating negative sentiments among Germans who feel like they’ve got to bear a national, ethnic stink forever because of Jews. Meanwhile, Jews remains a tiny minority in Germany—out of about 83 million people in Germany, only about 116,000 are Jewish, or about 0.14 percent of the population.
“A Jew has become a unicorn,” Farkas said: “It’s a precious animal, very rarely ever seen. The narrative is that because we killed the Jews off, we have to take care of them when we see them.”
The problem with that narrative is that Jews are now perpetual victims, nor are they seen as fellow Germans. They’re some rare breed that don’t belong in Germany but must be handled gingerly and fearfully as one would treat a unicorn. Obviously, that doesn’t make anyone feel good—and signs of resentment and pushback are already brewing in Eastern Europe among people who want to tear off the guilt imposed on them since birth and freely declare themselves proud nationalists without public censure.
Such is the limit of a government trying to wring certain social and racial attitudes out of a society through punitive laws and censorship: Sometimes, they backfire.
During his trip to Berlin, Farkas also visited Dresden, a city that at its height in the early 1900s had 6,000 Jews but now has about 700. There, Farkas met with a group of high school students, many of whom had never met a Jew. Farkas told them that though not every German person actively participated in the Holocaust, for the Nazis to have even pulled off the magnitude of decimating 6 million Jews, there had to be millions of Germans at the time who were at least vaguely aware of what was happening but turned a blind eye.
Later, a high school girl aged 16 went up to Farkas and told her she was working on a project researching the story of a Jewish family who had lived in the house she now lives in. That previous family, of course, had to leave that house because of the Holocaust. Some in the family survived, some didn’t. She came to him with tense shoulders and an expression wrecked with guilt.
Farkas saw the burden she had shouldered and told her, “I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want you to be born into the world feeling guilty for what your great-grandparents did. But I do want you to feel responsible for the living, breathing Jewish minority communities who are around you.”
When the girl heard that, she visibly relaxed. Guilt, she could do nothing about except feel awful about herself and the past. But responsibility for those already around her? That seemed something she could uphold with integrity and dignity.
That’s the difference between feeing guilty and being responsible, Farkas said. Constantly being made to feel guilty only perpetuates hate. Who wants to be born into the world guilty for the sins of our fathers? Eventually, someone will revolt and burn that guilt with the flames of hate.
But we are born responsible, Farkas said: “That responsibility is just part of the fact that we’re created in the image of God, that we’re all created in the image of God, and so we’re all responsible for each other.” And that responsibility is greater when you know you have certain privileges and resources that others don’t have.
I thought of this conversation often, particularly as I wrestle with issues of race. What Farkas said about guilt perpetuating hate makes sense in light of the rise of white supremacism and the legions of young, disgruntled white men arguing that they’re now the least privileged and most despised group in the country. I also heard echoes of that during my interviews with former white supremacists.
I also saw how this guilt played out in another way. I’ve met white people who carry around with them “white guilt” like a chain around their neck and constantly lament their white privilege in some sort of twisted self-flagellation that really only serves to announce to the world how woke they are. That’s just annoying and patronizing.
I even recently read a tweet by an actress that said: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” Now that’s just ridiculous and purposeless. One black friend once told me, “I wish those people would just go and enjoy their lives rather than wring their hands moaning about their whiteness.”
The term “white privilege” triggers a lot of controversy, but I don’t think it should: It’s not meant to invoke guilt, but to remind someone that they may have certain advantages that others don’t have. Some of those advantages fall in racial lines, but we’re all born with certain undeserved privileges, or blessings—be it being born into a healthy two-parent family, or being raised in a good neighborhood with good schools, or being able to drive or shop without inciting suspicion, or enjoying citizenship in a free, prosperous country.
Being “responsible” means being aware of the resources and means we have, and using them for the good and empowering of others. That’s not just some social concept—that’s wholly Biblical: Freely we have received; so freely do we give.