We Need to Talk About Antisemitism

  • Review
By – December 11, 2023

Over the past few years, many books have addressed the rise of anti­semitism in the US — so any text on the sub­ject that wants to set itself apart must have a fresh take. We Need to Talk About Anti­semitism is such a book. Writ­ing in a con­ver­sa­tion­al, some­times snarky style, Diana Fer­sko offers new insights about anti­semitism, chal­leng­ing read­ers to name and fight it when­ev­er it arises.

Fer­sko is a young con­gre­ga­tion­al rab­bi in New York City, and her posi­tion brings her into con­ver­sa­tion with many con­gre­gants who are deal­ing with anti­semitism in their own lives. For this rea­son, Fer­sko does not begin her book with the great prob­lems of ris­ing hatred on the Left and Right — though she does get there — but rather with the sub­tle, every­day microag­gres­sions she sees all the time. These exam­i­na­tions are per­haps the most unique fea­ture of the book. While oth­er authors take on the biggest ques­tions of anti­semitism first, Fer­sko under­stands that the things that keep Jews up at night are often the per­son­al and sub­tle jabs they field every day. These range from com­ments about how Jews look and behave to play­ground com­par­isons between Christ­mas and Hanukkah that her reli­gious-school stu­dents might face. 

When exam­in­ing a top­ic, Fer­sko almost always con­tex­tu­al­izes it with a per­son­al exam­ple, cit­ing a sto­ry about a time she faced anti­semitism or helped some­one else nav­i­gate it. In one mov­ing appen­dix to the book, she inter­views a Holo­caust sur­vivor; and in anoth­er, she exam­ines how the mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust affects a few grand­chil­dren of survivors.

This book does not pull punch­es. Fer­sko cri­tiques every­one, from anti-Zion­ist activists on the Left to white suprema­cists and Chris­t­ian super­s­es­sion­ism on the Right. She also care­ful­ly describes the steps that anti­semites might take to find abso­lu­tion, explain­ing how we know when it’s time to for­give them and when we should move on. 

One par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant sen­ti­ment that extends through­out the book is that Jews should be able to talk about their Judaism on their own terms. Fer­sko believes that anti­semitism exists when soci­ety speaks for Jews rather than with them: when it denies that Jews are any­thing but a reli­gion, when it uni­ver­sal­izes the Holo­caust, and when it engages in tok­eniza­tion. On near­ly every page, Fer­sko cel­e­brates the diver­si­ty, breadth, and vivac­i­ty of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. She believes that only when Jews demand to set the terms of what it means to live Jew­ish­ly will they have a fight­ing chance at actu­al­ly address­ing ris­ing antisemitism.

For Fer­sko, the biggest prob­lem fac­ing Jews today is that not enough of us are will­ing to talk about anti­semitism with can­dor and courage. Her title, We Need to Talk About Anti­semitism, is a chal­lenge to all of us. Acknowl­edg­ing how hard it can be to have these kinds of uncom­fort­able, frank con­ver­sa­tions, Fer­sko implores her read­ers to begin tack­ling these issues through indi­vid­ual dia­logue, and to afflict the comfortable.” 

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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