When I was nine years old, I saw a movie, in what was called Cinerama, a three-paneled, wide-screen panorama, called The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I loved that film. The exciting parts were three fairy tales, filled with special effects and great dancing. The boring parts were about the twin brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their lives, how the practical Jacob devoted himself to serious scholarship while the dreamer Wilhelm was consumed with fairy tales.
At one point, they’re going to a scholarly conference, and Wilhelm tells Jacob that though they always co-author everything, he really hasn’t done the work and doesn’t deserve recognition, and so he says, “Just tell them I’m your brother.” At the very end of the movie, when Wilhelm’s fairy tales have become wildly and widely popular, and a crowd of children screams, “Tell us a story!” Jacob turns to Wilhelm and says, “Just tell them I’m your brother.”
When I grew up, I learned that much of the work of the Brothers Grimm was in linguistics and that they had been involved in breaking languages into groups called the Semitic languages as opposed to the Indo-European languages. The idea of a group of Semitic languages became the basis for calling some people Semites. Just for the record, the term Semite comes from the name of one of Noah’s sons, Shem, but the peoples that came from Shem did not all speak Semitic languages. Semitic was just a term created by German linguists like the Brothers Grimm who seemed to quote the Bible but actually used it incorrectly. All in the service of breaking people into categories, Us. vs. Them. And the Semites became the Them. Now, who were the Semites in 19th century Germany? The Jewish people.
For the Brothers Grimm, collecting folk tales was part of an enterprise with a bigger goal, to create the idea of one Germany as opposed to different states like Prussia, to say that there was a Germanic people, as opposed to other peoples who had other stories. The work of the Brothers Grimm had different panels like Cinerama, both fairy tales and scholarship, but everything moved towards the goal of creating an “Us” called the Germans.
Four of the Grimms’ tales contain Jewish figures:i One is “The Jews’ Stone” which is linked to the most horrible anti-Semitic charge of all time, the Blood Libel, in which Jewish people kill children and drink their blood for Passover. The others are “The Girl Who Was Killed by Jews,” “The Eternal Jew on the Matterhorn,” and “The Jew in the Thorns” in which the hero tortures a Jewish peddler using a magic fiddle, making him dance in thorns; at the end, the peddler is hanged. It’s horrible. The two that feature anti-Semitism in its most disgusting form were included in the Compact Edition designed for young readers. When those kids were screaming, “Tell us a story,” they were told these kinds of tales.
You read the original Grimms’ fairy tales and you see rape, child murder and cannibalism. You never knew any of this because you were raised on cleaned-up, Disney versions, which I think were scary enough. But in what became Germany, generations grew up hearing these stories, and as they got older they were fed myths about the Aryans and the Semites and about who were the real Germans.
Even though most of the so-called Germans were descendants of people from France.
Even though Jewish people had lived in Germany going back to Roman times, longer than their so-called “Aryan” neighbors.
Do you think that Hitler was a madman who came out of nowhere and bewitched a people suffering from the defeat of World War I? Hitler pushed myths about an Aryan race and Jews as a different race, which really meant a different species, and all of it was in the air and in the tales told to children. Hansel and Gretel pushed the witch into the oven and Hitler pushed six million into the ovens. It’s as if the ashes of the Holocaust came out of the ashes in Cinderella’s chimney.
Not just the stories but also much of the so-called scholarship was a lurid fairy tale.
Again, the Grimm brothers were among the German linguists who were working on a huge mythic program.ii Once they had the myth of an “original” Indo-European language, they created a so-called “original” Indo-European race, later termed Aryans, a mountain people who conquered India. By the way, there has never been a single item of evidence about this conquest.iii And from India, these mythmakers said, the Aryans spread to Greece and Babylonia and Egypt and created those great civilizations.
Everybody in the German culture believed this stuff.iv Many European scholars pushed the theory that the Aryans inhabited the island of Atlantis.
One of the most influential promoters of the Aryan myth was Jacob Grimm, who collected folk-tales, such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which he said represented the ancient lore of the Aryan people.v Grimm claimed that:
The prominent actors in the great drama of history, who gave us literature, art, philosophy and science, were all Aryans, who were always in a struggle with other races, especially the so-called Semitic race.vi
Once they had the idea of an Aryan race, they wanted to exclude the contributions of all other peoples. Only Aryans created Western Civilization. If you’re going to push the superior Aryan race, you can’t have what you’re now calling another race, the Semites, giving the world morality and theology, now can you?
If you’re creating a narrative of how history happened, that other narrative, the Bible, and the people who gave it to the world, have to go.vii
And so you have fairy tales that are violently anti-Semitic.
And so you had a Holocaust, the aim of which was to destroy anyone with Jewish blood to make the world safe for so-called Aryan blood.
I want you to understand why the Holocaust happened. And even more, I want you to understand just how bizarre, ignorant, absurd and crazy anti-Semitism is. And so let me tell you about something that happened to me, one of the scariest moments of my life, which brought all of this together in my mind.
I spent a few days last January in Germany, working with a fantastic group of people who want to give young leaders in different professions a perspective on the Holocaust and on the ethics that we hope will inform their careers. Our group went on a pilot trip to different places and museums, but what affected me the most was when we drove through a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood in Berlin filled with some of the most gorgeous villas I’ve ever seen. And we were told that Jewish people owned many of those villas before World War II, until one day in 1941, when every Jewish person in that neighborhood was ordered to walk up the street to the train station, Track 17, from which they were taken by train to the concentration camps. And I stood there, and it was me, carrying my suitcase, holding my child, wondering where I was going and why this was happening. And now, nine months later, I’m still walking up that street in Berlin, on my way to Track 17, and I look at my neighbors and I say, “Why don’t you say anything? Why don’t you do anything? I’m your friend and your neighbor. I’m your brother. Why don’t you protest? Do you agree with such wickedness?”
And as I stood there at Track 17, I thought about the fact that World War II happened, and the Holocaust happened, because of a huge horrible fairy tale, a purely artificial myth.
And the myths just keep on coming.
I’m in Germany on a Friday, and I’m dialing through the channels, and there are only two stories on the news from all over Europe and the Middle East, about the Israeli conflict in Gaza and how a plane fell into the Hudson River in New York City. It was a few days before the inauguration of a new President, who would live in a White House that had been built by black slaves, and there wasn’t a word about that. Was nothing else happening in any other country? Why is the world so focused on Israel and New York City? And I kept hearing on all the new reports: “Hamas keeps the truce; only Israel breaks it. Israel is the aggressor. Israel is monstrous. The poor Palestinians are being massacred.” Not a word about anything Hamas or the Palestinians had done to provoke this response. Not a word about the fact that Israel had pulled out of Gaza in exchange for nothing but the hope of peace.
And the next day it’s Shabbos, and I walk to shul in what used to be East Berlin, and I have to go through a metal detector and get frisked by police, but it’s okay, I go to Shabbos morning services and I have lunch at the Kiddush and I’m thinking: Here I am in Berlin sixty-four years after the Holocaust, and I went to shul. And I leave shul and I’m walking down a beautiful boulevard in Berlin, and I’m proud of myself, because it was hard for me to go to Germany, and I did it, and I feel safe. And just at that moment I literally walk into a vicious anti-Israel demonstration with screams of “Death to Israel!” and “Death to the Jews!” And I guess I must have a look on my face or something, because a policeman pushes me away with his baton, saying something about going away before I get hurt.
And so I don’t want trouble, and I walk away, parallel to the demonstrators, who have seen the policeman push me away, and who in one second collectively decide that I am their enemy. And as I walk, hundreds of demonstrators are screaming terrible things at me, pushing against the policemen who have formed a line.
It was some scene: A line of German policemen protecting me from a mob.
I promise you: I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t said anything. I was not wearing a yalmulka. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And then I realized: Just like me, the Jewish people in Europe happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were no guiltier of anything than I was as I walked down that street in Berlin. And they were all killed.
I want you to understand what anti-Semitism is really about. It’s all nonsense, destructive hateful nonsense that has no basis in reality, either the reality of the past or the reality of the present.
And the hits just keep on coming. The world channels much of its anti-Semitism through its hatred of Israel.
The world has bought a propaganda package about Palestinian history that is as mythical as that of the Aryan race. Many think that Palestine, the country, goes back through most of recorded history. Those who say that Palestine has always existed, however, should be able to answer a few basic questions about that country, such as:
1. When was Palestine founded and by whom?
2. What were its borders?
3. What was its capital?
4. Can you name at least one Palestinian leader before Yassir Arafat?
No one can answer these questions, because the very concept of a Palestinian people is very new.
I can show you statements from Arab leaders in 1919, 1937, and even in 1947, right before the creation of Israel, and even after the creation of Israel, where these Arab leaders say in explicit terms that there is no such thing as Palestine and that the Arabs in Palestine are not a separate political entity. For these Arab leaders of the people living in that area, there was no such thing as Palestine or Palestinians.
If these Arabs really have a genuine ethnic identity that should give them the right to self-determination, why did they never try to become independent until the Arabs suffered their devastating defeat in the Six Day War in 1967?
If people want to create a myth, or form a new group, that’s their right and their business.
If you want to consider yourself an Aryan, and you want to believe in some unhistorical myth about being descended from a mountain tribe in India, that’s your business.
But when you kill millions of people as part of your program to make that mythical race the rulers of the world, it’s not ridiculous; it endangers the world.
And so if there is now a group called the Palestinians, wonderful; every group should determine who it is.
It’s fine if these new Palestinians want an independent nation that will live side by side in peace with other nations.
But if you perpetrate a myth that Israel destroyed the once proud nation of Palestine that has existed since time immemorial, and thus you have the right to destroy Israel and everybody in it, then you are endangering the world. Then it’s not just a historical myth but also a wicked and evil fairy tale.
A myth that is designed to destroy others is a horrible thing.
Anti-Semitism is such a ridiculous phrase. If there are Semites, people who speak Semitic languages, then the Arabs are Semites. For an Arab to be anti-Semitic should be impossible.
They are our brothers.
What am I asking of you today?
In your life, being Jewish has brought you many wonderful and sustaining and positive things. But most of us have suffered to one extent or another because of people who hated us for being Jewish. People tell me stories all the time about a remark that was made fifty years ago or our shock when a colleague or co-worker says something out of prejudice or ignorance. I’m asking you: Don’t be afraid of anti-Semitism, don’t hide from it and cower from it, and above all don’t let people get away with it. Know it for what it is: myths, lies and fairy tales.
Like it or not, you represent our people. And so you have the responsibility to know the facts, about Israel, about the Holocaust. I know that I am saying things today, and that I say things all the time, that people disagree with. And whenever I defend Israel, or just state the facts, some people around here get mad at me. That’s fine. I accept that. But don’t be in such a rush to condemn Israel. Don’t criticize Israel like the rest of the world does when Israel does what it thinks best in trying to defend itself. No nation on this earth should fail to respond when it is being attacked. There could be peace tomorrow if Israel had a sincere partner on the other side of the table.
But the other thing I ask of you today is that you do not let yourself become so cynical that you give up your hope for peace.
The Bible, the narrative that the Nazis rejected, said that all human beings are equal, that we are all from one family. The Bible doesn’t say that the world began with the Jewish people. We don’t need to reject your narrative if it is true. But if it’s false, our very existence reveals the fact that you’re lying.
And I guess that’s why we’re such a problem.
The Bible says, over and over: We are all brothers, and we are all the children of the One G-d.
And so we see the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, the head of the Jewish people and the head of the Arab peoples, together at the funeral of their common father Abraham. We want to live together in peace. That’s what our stories tell us.
But other people tell other stories. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm collected wicked folk tales and spread false myths, and they added to the horrors of our world. They gave us lies, myths and fairy tales. What talent, what genius, what work ethic; they had the power to do so much, and look what they chose to do, thinking that they were creating a positive program for their country and yet working with materials about witches and monsters and fueling the cause of hatred.
I wish that they had done scholarship in the interest of peace and humanity and kindness.
I wish that they had lived up to the way they were portrayed in that movie from my childhood. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm was not a wonderful world; it was a horrible world.
Instead of spreading anti-Semitic hatred to the people and children of Germany, I wish that they had said, “We are all human beings. We are all the Children of G-d.” And I wish that they had said to the Jewish people what we want to say to everyone in this world, “Just tell them I’m your brother.”