Rabbi Steve Leder

Rabbi Steve Leder

“It’s very hard to demonize someone you know and care about. It’s very easy to objectify someone you know nothing about. We really need each other.” Rabbi Steve Leder recently joined Zibby for an Instagram Live conversation to discuss this month’s hostilities between Israel and Palestine and how the violence is now manifesting in America. The two discussed the importance of building genuine relationships with those who are different from us as well as why this is an essential lesson to teach children, and why more Americans need to condemn the rising tide of anti-Semitism when they see it.

Watch the original video on Zibby’s Instagram.


Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. I’m Zibby Owens, as you probably know since you’re watching my Instagram. I am here today with Rabbi Steve Leder. I am really excited that he offered to do an Instagram Live with me today to talk about all of the stuff that’s going on in Israel and the rise in anti-Semitism and what we can all do to prevent it and help do our part to fix it. If you don’t know about Rabbi Leder, I got to know him because he was on my podcast for his book, which was amazing. He’s written four books. The book we talked about the most was The Beauty of What Remains: What Deaths Teaches Us About Life, which by the way, you must go out and read and was amazing. He’s written several other books. He is the Senior Rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA. I will now invite him to join me to talk about all of the news and what we can all do and how we can play our part. Thank you all so much for joining me on this beautiful Saturday. Hi, Rabbi. How are you?

Rabbi Steve Leder: Hi, Zibby. So good to see you.

Zibby: So good to see you too. Thanks for doing this on the weekend, on Shabbat and everything.

Steve: It’s important. I always love talking with you.

Zibby: Thank you. So much is going on right now. I have been reposting all of your statements because I feel like you have such a great perspective on everything, as I realized in all your books and everything. I was hoping maybe you could start off, in case there are people who think they know what’s going on but maybe they don’t know all the details, and just give the general, how did we get here? Let’s pretend there’s a thirteen-year-old girl watching. How did we get there? What is all the commotion about?

Steve: My goodness.

Zibby: The short version.

Steve: I’m going to have to give a very short version and maybe not go back forty years. The roots of this conflict go back a very long way even in modern history. This most recent conflagration, this most recent excuse for violence started when, at the end of Ramadan, there was some rock and bottle throwing by worshipers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I think, honestly, there was some over-policing on the part of the Israelis. That was used as an excuse and an opportunity for Hamas — I think it’s very important to point out Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization not only by the United States, but by twenty-seven countries in the European Union. It gave Hamas the opportunity to attack Israel with rockets, to whip up their base. As has always been the Israeli policy when attacked, is to defend the people of Israel. To give a little more background about Gaza — this, to me, is the most tragic part of this story. A friend of my son’s, who is Hispanic, we were together the other day. She said, “Why is Israel occupying Gaza? Why are they there?” I said to her, “There hasn’t been an Israeli living in Gaza since 2005 when they gave it back in its entirety, with working businesses, to the Palestinian people to rule and run as they saw fit.”

They had every opportunity to become a peaceful, friendly neighbor with Israel and with Egypt. They have a seaport. They have the opportunity to trade with their neighbors. They could have done with Israel what Egypt did with Israel, what Jordon did with Israel, what the UAE has done with Israel, what Bahrain has done with Israel. They could’ve done that in 2005. Israel, by the way, forcibly removed thousands of Israelis from Gaza in order to give it to the Palestinian people. Within two years, what the Palestinian people in Gaza got was Hamas. Now, I think it’s very important to understand what Hamas’s core mission is. Hamas’s core mission, bankrolled by Iran — Iran’s really pulling the puppet strings here. Their core mission is, on behalf of Iran, to establish an extreme, fundamentalist Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East. The first item on the agenda in order to create that reality is the destruction of the state of Israel, is the destruction of half the Jews in the entire world. We’ve heard that story before. Their core mission is not to better the lives of the Palestinian people living in Gaza. If it was, they’d be spending money on hospitals and schools and infrastructure and not on rockets and tunnels. In my view, it’s not only Israelis who are the victim of Hamas. It is the good, beautiful, peaceful, ordinary Palestinian people who have no control over their own lives because they’re led by an oppressive terrorist organization. That’s why there’s been no Arab spring in Gaza. There’s been no Arab spring because of the brutality of Hamas. This is where we are.

Somehow, some way, the media has managed, and social media, to position Israel as the Goliath and not the David in this story. Israel is a country of about seven million surrounded by 350 million Arabs, if not more, most of whom, unfortunately, do not want peace. Those who do want peace have achieved it. We’ve been at peace with Egypt. We gave the Sinai back like we gave the Gaza back. We have peace with Egypt. We have peace with Jordan. We have peace with Bahrain. We have peace with the UAE. We have peace with Morocco. Israel is a willing partner in a peace process. Hamas is not. That’s the sad truth of it. We’re all, Jews and Palestinians alike, victims of a terrorist organization. What has happened, sadly, which I definitely want to talk with you about today because it’s happened in New York where you are and in LA where I am, that cancerous dynamic has metastasized to America ten thousand miles away. We have to do everything we can not to allow that to be the case. I have some really strong feelings about that, which we can get into. That’s a basic background. There has not been an Israeli or a Jew living in Gaza since 2005. To blame Gaza’s problems on the Israelis is really quite a staggering reach, in my opinion.

Zibby: I feel like you’re putting a lot of the responsibility on the media’s depiction of what’s going on. What percent of what’s going on is attributable to them, would you think? This is ninety percent?

Steve: Let’s be clear about one thing. There’s no question that the damage and suffering is much greater on the side of the Palestinians than it is on the side of the Israelis because Israel is a much more powerful county. My point is, the blame for that suffering is Hamas. Israel shields its civilians. Hamas uses civilians as shields, and so I point the finger at them. Now let’s talk about the media. I want to talk about it in an American way that might inform the Israeli-Palestinian context. On Tuesday, I was in Minneapolis visiting my mother for the first time in eighteen months. I got to see my mom.

Zibby: I know. I saw you guys hugging on Instagram. That was so special.

Steve: One of the great moments of my life. A member of my congregation texted me that a group of Palestinians were caravanning around Los Angeles or Palestinian sympathizers were caravanning around Los Angeles shouting “Death to the Jews,” were throwing rocks and bottles at Jews in a restaurant. One of the Jews said, “Fuck you.” They got out of those cars and went into the restaurant and said, “Where are the Jews?” and beat them up. When I heard about it, I immediately went to look at the television in my sister’s house where I was staying. I looked at CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, PBS, all of it. Nothing. Not a word. Now they’ve started three days, four days later. Why not a word? Why nothing? I’ll tell you my theory. This may not make me popular, but I think it’s the truth. I think American Jews should wake up to this truth. There is hypocrisy. There is a double standard when it comes to Jews as victims, as a minority as opposed to other minority victims. If there had been a caravan of thirty white supremacists waving swastikas driving around Los Angeles shouting, “Death to blacks. Death to blacks. Death to Asians” and they drove by a restaurant and someone black said “Fuck you” and they descended on that restaurant and beat every black in that restaurant, that would’ve been national news in thirty minutes. Thirty minutes. There would’ve been marches. There would’ve been statements from the White House. There would’ve been statements from congress, left, right, and center. There would’ve been op-eds in The Washington Post, The New York Times, as there should be.

When the Jews are the victims, it’s relatively silent. I ask myself, where are my woke friends? Where are the people we marched with and breathed tear gas with after George Floyd was murdered? Where are my woke friends? I think the truth of it is that it’s hard for people to see Jews as victims. First, because Israel is militarily the strongest country in the Middle East. In America, and I’m just going to be very blunt, I think it’s hard for people to see Jews as victims because we are defined solely as privileged white people. How can privileged white people be victims? They’re the victimizers. We’re not seen as a minority. The excuse that’s often given by people who are anti-Semitic is, I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m anti-Zionist, or I’m anti-Netanyahu. Some of those people are telling the truth. I can tell you, when those thugs ran into that restaurant and started beating Jews, they didn’t say “Death to the Netanyahu supporters” or “Death to the Zionists.” They were shouting, “Death to the Jews.” Many people, many people, particularly on the far left and in academia and thought leaders cloak anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism or anti-Israeli government du jour.

I’m just laying it on the line here. I don’t think it behooves American Jews or good people anywhere to deny this double standard to look the other way. It is a real indication of how important it is that we continue to stand up for others when their rights are trampled on. I grew up in Minneapolis. My father’s business was three blocks, my whole childhood, from where George Floyd was murdered. It broke my heart. We’ve had a sister African American church for thirty years with our congregation. We have to continue to build these bridges. I think we also have to be honest with our friends when they let us down. Where were you? We needed you. When your mosque was attacked, I stood by your side. When your brother was murdered, I said his name. I am asking all of our woke friends, when you see anti-Semitism, and you know it when you see it, say its name. Say its name. Say its name. Stand by us as we have stood by you.

Zibby: I love that. I feel like discrimination of any group, even if you’re perceived as privileged as a community, if you’re discriminating a group based on who you are, that’s discrimination plain and simple.

Steve: Correct. By the way, more than half of the citizens of Israel are people of color. These are Jews from Arab countries who settled Israel. These are people of color. I’ll tell you one other thing, the silence in the national media, the only good thing I can say about it is it certainly dispels the myth and the anti-Semitic trope that Jews control the media. If Jews controlled the media —

Zibby: Silver lining.

Steve: — that would’ve been front-page news. It wasn’t. Just now, I saw last night NBC started to cover it. I don’t think my Instagram posts woke up the media, but I think that there were a few of us who pushed pretty hard to shine a light on this hypocrisy. I think it’s made a difference. I don’t for a moment suggest that we try to go it alone. I don’t for a moment suggest that we stop standing up for others when their rights are trampled on and their hearts are broken. I’m merely suggesting we be honest with our friends when they let us down so that it doesn’t happen again.

Zibby: What else can we do aside from trying to be open? which is very hard, by the way, to talk to people. I guess you’d have to post about it as opposed to reaching out to individuals and saying, hey, remember I posted about you, can you post about me? It’s hard, like you said, to put yourself out there and almost ask a favor of everybody.

Steve: I think it’s important if they’re really our friends. When there’s conflict in a friendship and it’s addressed, it often creates a deeper friendship. It’s very much like a marriage. I’m talking about it. I want my friends to hear it. I think it helps. By the way, I’m sure there are times when I’ve let my friends down and wasn’t quick enough to respond or didn’t notice something because it didn’t get the coverage it deserved. I think we just have to have an honest conversation with each other and then commit ourselves to holding each other as sacred going forward. That’s one thing. The pandemic has hamstrung us. I know exactly what I would have done pre-pandemic in this situation. I would’ve reached out to our sister African American church. We would’ve filled our two thousand-seat sanctuary with people of color and the members of our congregation. The mayor would’ve been there. We would’ve had a very healing opportunity. I would’ve been able to stand up there and say, let’s not let a disease ten thousand miles away metastasize to our community where we have worked so hard to be brothers and sisters. The pandemic has really hamstrung us to Instagram and social media. It’s a real problem. That’s just where we are. Hopefully, we’re coming out of it and we won’t be there forever. I’ll tell you something that I said yesterday to someone. I think it’s really important for everyone listening today. I’m kind of a geek. I collect books of old sermons of rabbis from a hundred years ago and to today.

In one of those books, I read a sermon written in 1943. It was actually a high school graduation address given by a rabbi in Minneapolis named Albert Minda, who nobody’s ever heard of, to an all-white, all-Christian high school in 1943. Most of the young men about to graduate would be heading off to war. Many would die. His speech was entitled “What Makes America Beautiful.” He observes in this speech that many countries have larger mountain ranges of purple majesty, many. Go to Nepal. Go to the Andes in Chile. Go to Switzerland. Many countries have greater mountains of purple majesty. Many countries have larger amber waves of grain, wheat fields. He said what makes America uniquely beautiful is when it crowns thy good with brotherhood and sisterhood from sea to shining sea. That is the American differentiator. That is the unique beauty of America. We have to do everything we can to protect that unique, most powerful and important part of what it means to be an American. There is no other way to peace. No other way. That’s my answer. Tip O’Neill was right. All politics is local. Reach out to your friends. If you’re a member of a church or a mosque or a synagogue, find a partner church, mosque, or synagogue to reach out to. It’s very hard to demonize someone you know and care about. It’s very easy to objectify someone you know nothing about. We really need each other.

Zibby: We’re getting all these comments from Jill Zarin in the chat — thank you, Jill — who is saying, and other people have echoed the same sentient, why are other people not speaking out, both companies and — I feel that a lot of people even on Instagram are afraid to speak out. That’s my assessment. The hatred towards Jews and the conflict around Israel and Hamas is so big that to get involved feels frightening for people. What do you think?

Steve: I think one could’ve said the same thing to Martin Luther King Jr. during the sixties’ civil rights marches. Why was he successful? Because he held America up to its own values and showed America that it was falling short of its own professed values. I think that’s what we have to do. That’s why we have to speak out. America, you are not holding true to your stated values. Jews are a minority, a very small minority in this country, most of whom are not in the one percent despite that anti-Semitic trope. If you prick us, we bleed like everyone else. If it is brotherhood and sisterhood that is uniquely beautiful about America, then speak out when your Jewish brothers and sisters are bleeding just as we should speak out when our Palestinian brothers and sisters are bleeding and our black brothers and sisters are bleeding and our Asian brothers and sisters are bleeding. All I ask is when you see anti-Semitism, say its name. Say its name. Say its name. Then you’re being true to what makes America beautiful. At some level, some meta-level, Zibby, this isn’t about Jews. This is about our professed values and lived values being the same. Let’s not be a nation of phonies and hypocrites. To reiterate, I must say, I think there’s some classism in it as well. I think a lot of people feel like Jews are just a bunch of white, privileged people. They’re the problem, so who cares? I’ll say it. I think that’s an incredibly ill-informed and cruel assessment, but I think it is an assessment that many people make. Silence is our enemy. Silence is our enemy.

Zibby: Have you seen the video of the neo-Nazis in Milan all lined up in the square saying “Heil Hitler”?

Steve: No.

Zibby: It made my sick to my stomach. My husband just showed me. It’s everybody, yesterday, all lined up doing this. Is this just the beginning? This is what I’m so panicked about.

Steve: Look, all roads do not lead to Auschwitz. Hamas is not the SS. I don’t want to overstate it. I do believe that anti-Semitism as a political doctrine has been rejected by the majoritarian culture of America. Now, I am concerned that there is a very different conversation going on on the far left of the democratic party, a very different conversation, one that sees some kind of moral equivalency between the democratically elected government of Israel and the Iran-backed of Hamas. I’m shocked and very concerned that some of the democratic party’s most left-leaning representatives actually are drawing a moral equivalency. I would like five minutes in a room with them to talk about it because I don’t understand it. I think it’s incredibly naïve and ill-informed. Yeah, that’s dangerous. That’s why AIPAC matters. That’s why the American Jewish Committee matters. That’s why being engaged and why your vote matters. Do I think it’s the beginning of the end? No, I don’t. I think America is an extraordinary and great country for Jews unlike any other in all of our history. Frankly, Zibby, if anyone ever asks you as a Jew, where and when would you like to be born in all of history? you know what I would say? Right here, right now because we’re the luckiest Jews who ever lived. You and I are the luckiest Jews who ever lived. We’re free.

The question is, what do we do with our freedom? There are two kinds of freedom. There’s freedom from and freedom to. In America, we are free from most forms of institutionalized, politized oppression. What shall we use that freedom to do? We should use it to uplift all, but all includes ourselves. You know those famous words of Hillel written 2011 years ago. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” It’s as true today as it was then. I am optimistic about the American experience and experiment. It’s been an amazing country for Jews. It still is. We need to be vigilant and keep it that way. I think we will do that, as I said before, by holding America up to its own professed standards of protecting — democracy is not really about protecting the majority. The real definition of democracy is a nation that protects its minorities. The majority doesn’t need that protection. We need to keep being good Americans. We need to stay engaged in the political process. We need our friends. Almost all Jews in America live in only thirty-five congressional districts. Think about that, Zibby. What does that mean?

Zibby: Wow, that’s crazy.

Steve: That means we need our friends. We need friends. We cannot go it alone. We should not go it alone. Is this the beginning of the end? No. Must we be hypervigilant? Yes. Is anti-Semitism the oldest of stories? Yes. America is the one place where I believe we can transcend it. I really do.

Zibby: What do you think we should tell all of our kids, grandkids? People are asking. I feel like there’s such a confusion now over this conflict and the sanctioning of anti-Semitism in general, which of course is not okay no matter what’s going on. Nobody wants anybody to be targeted, Palestinians, Israelis, nobody. What can we say to our kids who maybe they don’t have the bandwidth yet but want to make a difference? They are the ones who are going to keep us on this sea to shining sea trend.

Steve: The first thing is not what we say, but we do. The first thing is, let’s be sure we raise proud, educated Jewish children devoted to the values of the Torah and the state of Israel. Let’s grow happy, proud Jews. Happy, proud Jews are the kinds of people who engage productively with others because they know who they are. Expose them to Israel. Take your kids to Israel before you take them to Paris or before you send them to some camp or before you take them to some national park. Take your kids to Israel. People who really go to Israel and see it for what it really is are always amazed, always amazed. It’s an extraordinary place. That’s the first thing. Raise proud Jewish kids. Take them to Israel so they know what they’re talking about when they’re old enough to engage. Let them see you living out Jewish values. Take them to your synagogue’s food panty when you volunteer on Sunday morning. Take them to the march when you march with the oppressed. Show them as much as you tell them, or more. You know, you have four kids, right?

Zibby: Last time I checked.

Steve: I’m one of five, so I have some sympathy for you because I know what my mother went through. They may not always be listening, but they’re always watching. They’re always watching. I have the advantage — we talked about my book last time. In the book, I talk about what I’ve learned from sitting with so many families to prepare them for the funeral of a loved one, listening to that stew of stories about their loved one. Zibby, it’s never the resume the kids talk about. It’s never the net worth. It’s never the zip code. It’s never the GPA. It’s never the awards. It’s always the small things that that grandmother or grandfather or mother or father did with those children when they were young. That’s what they remember. What you do with your children is much more important than what you say. It creates lifelong memories and impressions that carry them forward even after you’re gone. Is Israel important? Is Shabbat important? Is synagogue important?

If the answer is yes, in your behavior, not your words, in your behavior, I think your kids are going to turn out to be lovers of Israel and are going to be the kind of kids — this sounds self-laudatory. I don’t mean it to be. I’m trying to give you an example. I was on a Zoom earlier today with a group called the British-American Project. It’s a think tank of Brits and Americans. They asked me to be on a panel about the very thing you and I are discussing. In the middle of the panel, I asked the Palestinian in London, “Where can I contribute to a fund for the rebuilding of Gaza?” He was shocked, speechless, but I meant it. I said, “I’m not alone. My congregation will do it.” Those are the things you want your children to see you do, not just hear you talk about. Take them with you to the black church, your sister church, and your synagogue. Engage them in relationship building. The other thing I would say that’s so important is when your friends let you down, you got to talk about it. You have to let them know because that’s a real friendship. I think then your odds are pretty good because America is a remarkable place for Jews, deeply flawed, much work to be done, but historically speaking, remarkable.

Zibby: Just to summarize — people are asking in the chat, yes, I am going to post this in my feed. You can all just post it to your stories after. I will put it up on YouTube somehow once I figure out how to do that. Don’t worry about that, everybody. I’m on it. You can forward it. What’s our to-do list? There are a lot of authors who are watching, too, who can use their voices for good. What can we all do? Give us an action plan that we can carry out step by step. Go. Please.

Steve: Justice Potter Stewart was asked by the supreme court to define obscenity in a pornography case. He said, “I can’t define it, but I know when I see it.” When you see anti-Semitism, and you know it when you see it, say its name. Say its name. Say its name. Do not look the other way. Don’t let your woke friends look the other way. That’s the most important thing we can do, and to become knowledgeable. If you’re going to engage on this topic — I can understand why some people would not want to. I really do. If you’re going to engage, be knowledgeable. Don’t just talk. There’s this very important saying in the Talmud that I use a lot in my congregation. In English it says, say little and do much. Engage with organizations doing this work. Engage with others of other faiths and ethnicities. Be proud Jews. Be proud. It’s a beautiful, value-centered, glorious tradition that we’re a part of. Let’s be proud of that. Let’s protect it.

Zibby: Amen. Thank you. That was amazing. You are amazing. We’re all going to keep watching what you write. I love all the statements. Keep doing them. You are an example of what you said. You are leading by what you’re doing. We need a leader.

Steve: So are you, Zibby. Thank you for this time. Thank you to everyone who was watching. Let’s all do what we can to love each other from sea to shining sea.

Zibby: I love that. Goosebumps. Thank you, Rabbi. Buh-bye.

Steve: You’re welcome. Buh-bye, Zibby.

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