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ANTISEMITISM: THE REALITY OF THE CHALLENGE

January 13, 2019

Mark Finkelstein of the Jewish Community Relations Board of the Des Moines Jewish Federation was kind enough to ask me to prepare a statement on the topic of contemporary antisemitism which he hoped in include in the proceedings of two statewide meetings on antisemitism. He asked this of me because I have been very concerned with and have posted extensively on Facebook, about the frightening growth of antisemitism around the world and here in the United States for several years, and especially since 2014.  He asked that I limit it to 2 pages, so of course, I wrote 3.  Truth is, even in the 3 pages I wrote, I was only scratching the surface of what needs to be said.  Nevertheless, I now wish to share this statement with you.

But before I proceed, let me tell you a little about myself. I was ordained a Reform rabbi in 1975, from the New York City campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1985, I assumed the pulpit of Temple Emanuel of the Quad Cities, from which I retired on July 1, 2017 with the title of Rabbi Emeritus. Since first coming to Iowa, I also have served as an adjunct professor on the faculty of the Theology Department of St. Ambrose University. During my time at St. Ambrose, I have taught one course a year on the Holocaust. For the last several years, that course has been “The Holocaust in Film.” Twice, I have been accepted to participate in seminars for university faculty at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, having studied there with such noted scholars as Victoria Barnett and Deborah Lipstadt. So I am no stranger to the issue of antisemitism and to the struggle to eradicate it.

Along with my teaching about the Holocaust, over the years I have been deeply involved in the struggle for social justice in the Quad Cities, especially focusing on combating the forces of hatred. In November 2016 I was one of the founders of a local organization which we named “One Human Family QCA.” The mission statement of our organization is “To Welcome and protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places of our community.” Fundamental to our organizational philosophy is that we are dedicated to coalition building. We believe that those who hate tend to be “equal opportunity” haters. They do not focus their hate against one targeted group but have more than enough hate in their hearts to target multiple groups. They are not just antisemites but also racists, Islamophobes, homophobes, xenophobes, misogynists, and the list goes on. Therefore, we believe that if hate is ever to be defeated, we cannot maintain a singular focus on only one of its manifestations, such as antisemitism. We must come together as a coalition of targeted groups and people of conscience and stand up, protecting each other in times of distress. For our enemy is not just one manifestation of hate but rather hate itself. If we fight for each other as well as for ourselves, then we have a far better chance to drive back the darkness and bring on the light of a society in which all groups are respected.  As the 1st century Jewish sage Hillel said:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)

It was not long before One Human Family QCA found itself embroiled in a struggle with a nationally based hate group. Early in August of 2017 the White Supremacist group known as the National Alliance began conducting a recruitment campaign in the Quad Cities. They targeted various neighborhoods with their flyers calling upon the people of the community to join their fight to keep our country “racially pure.” Our struggle with them continues to this day. From the Jewish perspective, they made it abundantly clear that the Jews were the masterminds behind a plot to destroy American racial purity. (see their flyer attached to this end of this text)

While it is vital that the Jewish community stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other targeted communities in our battle against the purveyors of hate in our society, that in no way means that we should abandon or minimize our struggle against antisemitism. Quite the opposite. We need to lead the fight against antisemitism, bringing it to the attention of our neighbors (and to our own people) and educating them as to just how toxic is this form of hatred. There are far too many people – Jews as well as non-Jews – who refuse to see the virulence and danger that antisemitism presents. They have a tendency to see us, and we tend to see ourselves, as safe and secure in American society. At one time, not that many years ago, that might have been true. But over the past few years, American society has experienced a massive sea change in which the many faces of hate have been empowered to arise from the shadows and from under their rocks and to become, in a sick way, an acceptable form of public expression. Top of the list has been none other than antisemitism. In the most recent statistical reporting, both by the FBI and the ADL, incidents of antisemitic acts of hatred have topped their lists. In New York City last year, there have been more reported acts of antisemitic hatred than all other acts of hatred combined.

When I started tracking antisemitic activities reported in the media, the overwhelming majority were taking place in Europe (leaving out the Middle East conflict), with but a smattering taking place on our shores. It was in 2014, with the Israeli-Hamas War, that I began to notice a truly frightening change. In various cities, both in Europe and the U.S., pro-Palestinian protests seem to seamlessly move from expressing anti-Israel sentiments to expressing antisemitic sentiments. One protest in Paris ended up besieging a synagogue on Shabbat while another, in Berlin, had marchers chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone” and yet another, in New York City, chose as its venue Manhattan’s Diamond District, in which a large number of the jewelry exchanges are Jewishly owned, and there they chanted, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine must be free!” The “River” being the Jordan River and the “Sea” being the Mediterranean – in other words, all of what was formerly Palestine, including what today is Israel in its pre-1967 borders. Now, let me make this clear:  I am not one of those who automatically equates criticism of the policies of the State of Israel with antisemitism. As someone who has much to criticize about the policies of my own current government, I firmly believe that there are times when criticism of governmental policies can be legitimate. I concur with the sentiments of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – is antisemitic, and not saying so is dishonest.” The events of 2014 brought into crystal clear focus for me just how easy it is for some folks to allow their criticism of the policies of the Israel government to morph into expressions of blatant antisemitism and for other folks to use their criticisms of Israel as a vehicle in which to disguise and sanitize their latent antisemitism.  Along these lines, I cannot help but reflect upon a powerful presentation Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, made to a group of British school children.  He asked them whether or not it was acceptable to criticize some of the policies and actions of the British government, to which they agreed that it was.  He then asked if it was acceptable to call for the destruction of the British state, to which they all readiness said it was not.  He then pointed to that very same distinction when it comes to the State of Israel.

It was in 2014, with all that was going on in morphing criticism of Israeli policies into virulent antisemitism, that I started publishing a regular Facebook post which I called “Antisemitism in Action.” Over the years, I quickly found that I often had more than enough material to publish this posting on a nearly daily basis. It is frightening to realize that almost every day there is an antisemitic incident worthy of publishing. With the passage of years, while antisemitic incidents in Europe have remained very high, there has been an alarming increase in antisemitic incidents here in the U.S. So much so, that in my reporting they have almost eclipsed my sharing of the incidents out of Europe.
Also with the passage of time, it has become increasingly clear that we Jews are being attacked on two fronts; from both the extreme right and the extreme left. When the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, they chanted “The JEWS will not replace us!” Meanwhile today we are struggling with our torn values challenging us to either support the Woman’s March or stand up against the antisemitism so clearly expressed by its national leaders. To the followers of Louis Farrakhan, we Jews are not just White but Whiter than White and the leaders of White suppression against the Blacks. Yet to the White Supremacists and the Neo-Nazis we are anything but White. We are the intended destroyers of the White Race.

I firmly believe that we as Jews can no longer afford to claim that this hatred of us is a passing phenomenon or a manifestation of those who exist on the extremes of our society. We are under a very real and serious threat, in a time when expressing hate in all its forms has become socially acceptable. As we watch our own government go after the Latinos among us – documented as well as undocumented immigrants – and the Black athletes who drop to their knees, as if in prayer, in opposition to the indiscriminate shooting of their brothers and sisters, and the members of the LGBTQ community, as those at the highest levels of our national government try to legislate these Americans out of their citizenship right, and the indigenous Americans who continue to be stripped of their land whenever the wealthy see fit to do so, I cannot help but think of the famous “Martin Niemoller quote:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

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When Silence Becomes Sinful

May 22, 2016

As a child, it was not uncommon for me to receive from my parents the counsel that “Silence is golden.” They were far from alone in their positive assessment of the virtues of silence. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tributes to it. The Psalmist said, “To You, O God, silence is praise.” In Proverbs we read, “Even a fool, when he holds is peace, is counted wise.” The prophet Habbakuk proclaimed, “Let all the earth keep silent before God.” Nor does it stop there in Jewish sacred literature. In Pirke Avot, the great Rabbi Akiba said that “Silence is a fence for wisdom.” In Tractate Yevamot of the Talmud it states “Your silence is better than your speech.” The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote “The world would be much happier if people were fully able to keep silence as they are able to speak.” Even such a non-Jewish luminary as Mother Teresa sang the praises of silence when she said “God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence.” Everyone seems to agree with my parents about the virtue of silence; how great it is!

But truth be told, as history has taught us, there are times when silence isn’t golden but rather toxic; when silence doesn’t praise God but rather denies God; when silence isn’t wisdom but rather foolishness, fatal foolishness; when silence doesn’t make the world a happier place but rather a far more painful place in which to live; when God is not the friend of silence but rather it’s mourner; when silence isn’t a virtue but rather a sin.

Who should know this better than we, the Jewish people? Is our collective memory so short lived – so narrow – that we are so quick to forget the toxic silence of the Holocaust? As I teach my students at St. Ambrose University, if we retell the story of the Holocaust believing that there were just the good guys and the bad guys, the victims and the murderers, the rescuers and the collaborators, then we do that story a great disservice. For there were others who were present in that time and at that place and though they never lifted their hands against a Jew, they still were far from innocent. We call them the Bystanders. These were the millions of people who stood by, watching the Nazis cart off the Jews to gas chambers, crematoria, concentration camps, and who stood by in silence. They may not have lifted a finger to help the Nazis but neither did they even utter a word of protest to save the Jews. They stood by, and in their silence and in their inaction, they allowed it to happen. It haunts me, and it should haunt you as well, every time I look at any one of the many photos taken on Kristallnacht in which crowds of bystanders are passively looking on as synagogues are being burned or Jews are being humiliated. So many silently stood by as 6 million of our brothers and sisters, infants and elderly and all those in between, were turned into ash and were sent up to heaven in dark and dusky smoke. We know from the history of our people that silence can kill.

The philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” And what is keeping silent if it is not choosing to do nothing? We have seen evil triumph, even if just for a while, aided and abetted by the silence of the multitude; by the inaction of the multitude. Now those who kept their silence may have been good people at heart, but they gazed upon the victims and said to themselves, “That’s not me nor is it my family, so it’s really not my problem.” But they were wrong. For it was their problem. For in their silence, they permitted it to happen unchallenged and unopposed, and for having so chosen, they bear their own portion of the burden of the guilt. In their silence and in their inaction, they became accomplices to the crime.

Now one could say, “That was then this is now.” Or is it? Perhaps with every passing day, “now” is becoming more and more like “then,” and we, who now live safely and securely in our own homes are finding ourselves in the role, not so much of the victim, but rather of the onlooker, the bystander. As such, with every passing day, we are being challenged – whether or not we acknowledge the challenge – we are being challenged as to whether or not we will say something; whether or not we will do something; whether or not we will keep silent and passive as we watch the world crumble around the lives of human beings other than ourselves.

Over the past few years, across our planet, we have experienced a frightening rebirth of the social acceptability of bigotry. And lately that disease has spread its infection within the very borders of our own homeland. No longer are expressions and actions born of prejudice restricted to the fringes of our society. Indeed there are those – some of whom are in high places – who encourage these expressions, these actions, and the attitudes that give birth to them, and wrap them in a so-called patriotic package they call protecting America and making America great again. But how can America be protected when certain Americans are openly attacked? How can the greatness of America grow when its seeds are sown in the soil of hatred and prejudice?

We American Jews have been lucky this time. Yes, there have been Jews who have been attacked on the streets of our cities and certainly, it is with fear and trepidation these days that we send our children off to college when antisemitism is definitely growing on the campuses of our colleges and universities. But all this is nothing compared to what is happening to the Jewish communities in Europe.  All that is nothing compared to what is happening to some other minorities in our own country.

Yes, there are others in our own land who are not so fortunate as we have been. They are today’s victims. Foremost among them probably is the Muslim community. Islamophobia has become a wildfire, blazing out of control. In my community, at a recent interfaith dialogue program entitled “The Toxicity of Fear,”two deeply disturbing stories were shared. One was caught on film outside of a Starbuck’s in the Washington D.C. area. A Muslim woman, in traditional garb, was sitting, checking her phone, bothering no one, when a Caucasian woman accosted her, screaming obscenities in her face. The Caucasian woman briefly walked away, soon to return in order to dump a cup of smelly liquid over the Muslim woman’s head. The other story struck even closer to home for it involved a well known member of our local Muslim community. One night, in the recent past, she was driving home from western Iowa, along Interstate 80, wearing her traditional head covering, when she found herself being followed very closely by a beat-up pickup truck. She sped up and so did her followers. So she pulled over and slowed down to let them pass. As they passed, they opened their window and shouted at her all sorts of obscenities and hate filled remarks about her being a Muslim. A little while later, they pulled off the road and waited for her. As she passed them, then threw beer cans and other garbage at her car. Incidents such as these are happening all over our country. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of them?

Nor are they the only victims, as we witness a resurgence of homophobia, especially as it has been directed at those with a transgender sexual orientation. This prejudice has manifested itself both privately and publicly, in word, in deed, and even in law. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of it?

Yes, there are times when silence is indeed golden and discretion is the better part of wisdom. But there are also times when silence becomes sinful and we, by our very silence, become greatly diminished as moral human beings and in the sight of God. Of all the people on the face of the earth, we Jews know how very lethal silence can be, for our kindred suffered and bled and died while others remained silent to their plight. If there is a commanding voice coming out of the Holocaust, then it is the same commanding voice that came out of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt. For as the Torah demands of us again and again, “Do not wrong the stranger for remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We Jews have been victims of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and sometimes we still are. Therefore we, of all people, must take up the cause of today’s victims. In the language of the Holocaust, God expects of us that we should become the Rescuers rather than the Perpetrators of even the Bystanders.

It was with all this in mind that a group of us who have a special interest in promoting Holocaust awareness – Jews and non-Jews alike – put together a statement entitled “A Statement Against the Rhetoric of Fear and Intolerance.”  We have been inviting those who share our concerns to add their names to our call for decency and the respect of human dignity.  As of this writing, we have collected over 200 names, but it is going to take far more than that to make enough of an impact to effectively get our message across.  I have posted that document on my blog, where you can find it immediately preceding this post.  I invite you to read it and if your agree with its message, add your name to it by simply stating your name in a “comment” to the blog.  Speaking out is the first step to putting an end to the toxic bigotry which is spreading across our country and around the world.