Archive for the ‘United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’ category

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.

Terrorism Today: Up Close and Personal

November 8, 2010

In August of 1970, at Kennedy Airport in New York, I boarded a plane headed for Israel.  I was not alone.  There were about 60 other young men, some with wives, who boarded that plane with me.  All of us were headed to Jerusalem, where we would be the first full class of rabbinic students from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who would spend their entire first year of study in Israel.  With us as well was a handful of upper classmen who had taken it upon themselves to enhance their own rabbinic studies by spending a year in Israel.

Two of the young men aboard that flight were Lawrence Edwards and Michael Zedek.  After the year in Israel, Larry would be among those who joined me in continuing our rabbinic studies at the New York campus.  After ordination we lost touch with each other until the summer of 2008, when we found ourselves together again in Washington, D.C.; the only rabbis invited to participate in a week-long seminar hosted by the Church Relations Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It was a great feeling to renew our old ties.  Michael was one of those upper classmen I spoke about.  Sunday afternoons in Jerusalem usually found me in the school library, struggling with researching a major theology paper upon which a significant part of my future as a student in the school would hang.  On one such afternoon, I felt the need to have my work reviewed by a neutral but informed party.  I looked around the room in search of one of those upper classmen, and there was Michael.  Up until then, our relationship had been cordial.  Yet in the course of that afternoon it evolved from cordial to friendship. While after Israel, Michael would return to his studies in Cincinnati, our friendship would continue and flourish.

Considering my ties to both of these men, one can imagine how taken aback I was when I read the news of the recent Yemenite terrorist plot to send a mail bomb to a Chicago synagogue, only to learn that the rabbi of the targeted congregation is none other than Rabbi Larry Edwards, and that his congregation, which has no home of its own, is hosted by a larger congregation whose rabbi is none other than Rabbi Michael Zedek.  All this is only compounded by the fact that this might very well be the first time pro-Palestinian terrorists have targeted a Midwest synagogue, nevertheless one that is a mere two and a half hours away from my home.

For many years, I have been one of those who have taken the threat of terrorism to Jewish institutions very seriously.  I believe that there are forces out there that truly have it in for the Jews and that as a result, Jews and Jewish institutions find themselves more at risk than others.  It has been 11 years since the infamous “Summer of Hate” (1999), which saw a string of hate crimes perpetrated by members of white “Christian” supremacist groups, many of them directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.  Much to my chagrin, for the most part, too many of my fellow Jews have chosen to forget that threat.  It was during those days that my own congregation instituted the practice of engaging off duty police officers to patrol our grounds whenever we held a worship service or our religious school was in session.  Now, every so often, we hear voices raised, questioning the need for such protection.  Indeed, there have been times of late when I feel as though there are those who now perceived of me as an alarmist and perhaps somewhat of a crackpot, if not worse, whenever I speak of such dangerous possibilities.  Even when I point out last year’s attempted bombings of two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, the failed Times Square bombing, and the murder of the security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India of two years ago which included a Chabad center as one of their targets, I am met with the dismissive responses of, “But that could never happen here.  They would never do that to us.”

So often have my concerns been minimized that I have not been able to help but wonder myself whether or not I have gone somewhat over the top on this issue.  But just when I find myself struggling with my own self doubt, there is an account in the news of another attempt to do mayhem to a Jewish institution by those who hate us, with the recent news of the terrorist attempt, so close to my home, targeting the Chicago congregations served by two of my old friends being just one more example.  In this latest attempted attack, the intended victims are not strangers in some distant city.  They are friends who live and work just down the road from where I live.  Indeed the issue of terrorism and Jew hatred has not been as up close & personal for me since 1993 when Neo-Nazis, in response to the release of the film “Schindler’s List.” sent post cards to my congregation, the local Jewish Federation, the Davenport police and the FBI, threatening to blow up both my home and my synagogue, along with the offices of the Jewish Federation.

I suspect that my friends Larry Edwards and Michael Zedek, and their congregations, never seriously believed that their congregations would be the targets of a terrorist attack.  I am sure that while they entertained the possibility, still they felt that the odds were greatly against it.  That is normal.  In fact, that is how I feel.  While I entertain the possibility that my congregation and the other institutions of my Jewish community someday might be targeted by those who hate Jews, still I believe that the odds are greatly against it.  That being said, that chance – that possibility – no matter how remote, still exists.  It is that possibility, no matter how slight, which should inform the decisions and actions of every synagogue and Jewish institution.  While it should not paralyze us Jews with fear, it should motivate all Jews to take such dangers seriously enough so that we take wise steps to prevent them.  For while as Jews, we should not live in fear, neither should we bury our heads in the sand, denying the possibilities of dangers which may confront us.  In all of this, the Jewish attitude should be “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That is the prudent course to take.  That is the responsible course to take.  For if Jewish institutions choose the path of inaction – the path of failing to defend our people either because of a refusal to accept the possible danger, or worse yet, because considering the odds, they do not wish to incur such expenses – then God forbid, should some ill befall such a Jewish institution, bringing injury and perhaps even death in its wake, then some of the burden of guilt will rest upon the shoulders of those who chose to ignore the possibility of danger as well as upon those of the attackers.

It is a sad thing to have to admit that even though we now live in the 21st century, there is still too much truth to the old Yiddish expression, “Schwer zu zein ein Yid! – It is difficult to be a Jew!”

One Lung Living

June 15, 2010






I am a sufferer from asthma.  However, with the proper medication, I usually have been able to keep it under control.  However, this past winter I suffered from an upper respiratory infection which my primary care physician strove to knock out with prednisone and a serious antibiotic.  When all was said and done, the coughing was far more under control but I never really recovered from the shortness of breath.  For months, I attributed that shortness of breath to my asthma, which I thought had somehow just gotten out of control.

When I finally did have an appointment with my pulmonologist, he suggested that since it had been a year since my last breath test, I should take another.  Much to both of our surprise, the test indicated that my breathing capacity was half of what it was a year ago.  So he listened to my lungs and grew concerned that there was far less breath noise coming from the left lung than the right.  So began more serious tests.  An x-ray revealed that the left side of my diaphragm was elevated up against the lung, which appeared significantly reduced.  Something called a sniff test – which uses a fluoroscope, which I have not seen since the 50’s – clearly showed that the left side of the diaphragm is paralyzed.  Why?  We are still seeking that answer.  Thank God, the most common cause – cancer – has been ruled out.

In the meantime, I basically have needed to get on with my life, primarily using only one of my lungs.  Obviously, it has made a difference.  I tire more easily.  Indeed, I perpetually feel weary.  And it does not take that much to make me breathless.  Walking uphill, even with the slightest of inclines, is a chore.  A short flight of stairs leaves me utterly winded.  My gait is slower and walking while talking – on cell phone or in person – has become quite the challenge.

As I write this, I am on one of my mini-sabbaticals.  Months ago, I had been invited by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., to attend a two-week seminar for university faculty teaching the Holocaust.  With my oldest child, Shira, living in the D.C. area, and with my commitment to Holocaust education, I have been eagerly looking forward to this experience.  Well, with the onset of this lung problem, it was questionable as to whether or not I could handle all the walking and book schlepping that would be required of me, not to mention the infamous D.C. summer heat and humidity.  Anticipating what lie ahead, I was on the fence – yearning to immerse myself in the seminar experience yet fearful that my body would betray me.  Friends questioned the wisdom of my going ahead with these plans.  But when I asked my pulmonologist, he told me that I would regret passing up such an opportunity.  Therefore, as long as I took it slow and listened to my body, I should go for it.  So I did!

I write this article having finished the two-week program, on the night before I return to the Quad Cities.  Physically speaking, this has not been an easy two weeks.  Even though I was born and raised in the ultimate city – New York – still, living in a small city such as Davenport, where one drives everywhere they wish to go, it is easy to forget how labor intensive it is to travel by public transportation.  The walks to and from the Metro (the D.C. subway system), with a backpack filled with papers and books slung over my shoulder, in the heat and humidity which even mark the Washington mornings, were in and of themselves exhausting, and breathtaking (but not in the “My, how beautiful!” sense of the word).  Invariably, by the time I reached the classroom at the Museum, I was soaked in sweat.  And if that were not challenge enough, anyone who knows the D.C. Metro system, knows that it runs deep underground, with major escalators transporting passengers to and fro.  However, as those who know the system can attest, those escalators are often non-functioning.  With one lung working, I quickly found that a dead down escalator was no fun, but manageable.  A dead up escalator, on the other hand…  But when all was said and done, the very fact that I enter these words into my keyboard is testimony to the fact that I have survived.

As with most of the challenges of our lives, embedded in their difficulties are important life lessons.  This challenge was no exception.  There is much I have learned from my Washington experience, out of the classroom as well as within it.

First I have learned that it can be all too easy to surrender to our challenges.  We can permit them to overwhelm us and immobilize us even before we attempt to confront them.  “This will be too much for me!” we say as we convince ourselves to step back and aside.  We play it safe and by so doing, we avoid the pain that comes with facing the difficulty head on.  But we also avoid the multiple benefits of moving forward with our lives.  I could have passed on the seminar, staying safe and secure in my home in Davenport; never expending myself beyond the slightest huff or puff.  I most certainly would have been more comfortable.  But there would have been so much more that I would have denied myself.  First of all, there would have been the seminar, which was great!  Great teachers.  Great colleagues and new friends.  Great new insights into a subject that really moves me.  Then there would have been the quality time I spent with Shira; the weekday dinners and the weekend outings.  On the last 5 days, Gail and Helene joined us.  What a special time the four of us shared; something which we do not get the opportunity to do that often any more.  Then there was Washington itself.  I never tire of this city.  There is so much to do here, and especially to learn.  Every visit is a growth experience.  I could have taken the easy way out and stayed safe at home, but then I would have missed all of these wonderful experiences.  The benefits were most certainly worth the physical price I had to pay.

Second, I learned that there is a difference between listening to my body and surrendering to it.  My body has been telling me to slow down – not stop!  So I have had to learn to slow down.  My gait these days is definitely slower.  It is more of a meander than a march.  Yet I can still move forward without completely losing my breath as long as I can accept that slower pace and as long as I give myself more time to get where I am going.  Even so, it was somewhere between ironic and comic that I found that while walking the streets of Washington, at this much slower pace, still there were those people – able bodied people – who walked even slower than I; they had two good working lungs (or so I assumed) but still I outpaced them!  Slower does not necessarily mean last, but even if it does, it is the getting to where you are going that counts.

All this has made me reconsider how much so many of us push ourselves.  We are driven, but in truth it is also we who are the drivers.  And where does it get us?  More often than not, to the very same place we would wind up if we simply slowed down and chose not to tear our bodies and our lives apart in the getting there.  All the time, people say “What’s the hurry?” but how many of them really mean it?  Yet that is really one of the most important questions of our lives.  “What is our hurry?”  Why must we transform our lives into races?  If only we would choose to slow down, we might find a heck of a lot more to enjoy along the way.  And God knows, neither our bodies nor our souls would need to suffer the wear and tear of it all.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, we must learn to play with the hand that has been dealt us.  I do not know what caused the left side of my diaphragm to stop functioning.  So far, the doctors do not know either.  Is it something I did or is it just a freak happenstance?  Admittedly, I cannot say the same about my obesity (and I think about that a lot these days), but about my lung right now I can say it.  Of course I want to repair the damage but it may not be reparable.  If it isn’t, I will have to learn to live with it.  I will have to figure out how best to treat it; how far I can take it and how can I avoid doing further damage.  But that does not mean that my life as I know it has come to an end.  I cannot cry over it.  I just have to move forward with it.  And I most certainly cannot give up seeking a means to repair it.  When conventional medical treatment runs its course, I will turn to non-conventional treatment.  I will do this for as long as such a pursuit does NOT interfere with my living as full a life as I can, in the moment.  What I mean by that is that I will not surrender my life to the quest for a cure, but will continue that quest as long as it enhances my life and does not detract from it.

For the important thing about life is actually living it.  Not just enduring it or expending it, but living it; making the moments and the minutes and the hours and the days and the weeks and the months and the years matter.  As a rabbi, one of my most painful duties is trying to offer comfort to those elderly congregants who have become so afflicted that while they maintain a biological life, they have lost any semblance of a quality of life.  Having had the privilege of serving my congregation for 25 years, I have enjoyed knowing these individuals in the fullness of their lives.  But now, to watch them transformed into empty breathing, heart beating shells, simply breaks my own heart.  That is not a fate I wish for myself or anyone I love.  Yet as I spend time with such people, they teach me still – in their silence and their vacant stares, they teach me.  They teach me that I must make the most of my life while I still have the ability to do so, for when that ability is gone, it is gone.  All that will remain will be the mark I have left on those whose lives I have touched – hopefully in more positive than negative ways – while I was still capable of being a vibrant actor upon this stage.  When it comes to that type of living, no malady such as a bum lung is going to get in my way.  I will not let it.  Rather, I choose to play the hand that’s been dealt me and carry on as best I can, given the circumstances.

I know not what the future holds for me but this I do know.  I will choose to make the most of whatever I have, challenges not withstanding.  That is what living a full life is all about.  If it has taken the loss of the use of one of my lungs to drive home that lesson for me, then so be it.  I am grateful for the insight.