Posted tagged ‘Prejudice’

When Purim Invades the Headlines

February 23, 2017

The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim.  I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it!  We dress in costume.  We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year.  We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet.  We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”[1]).  And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival.  We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor).  It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, that December season of giving whose name we never mention, all rolled up into one.  It is one heck of a party and we fondly carry our childhood memories of it with us throughout our lives.

Yet somehow or other, in the midst of all our partying, we can often forget why we party so; what is the cause of the celebration?

The answer is wrapped in a sinister cloud.  It is dark and it is painful.  For Purim commemorates our victory over antisemitism.  It celebrates the defeat of Haman – the Hitler of his day – whose goal it was to accomplish nothing short of a genocide of the Jewish people.  So we party hardy as an affirmation of life in what was supposed to be the face of a certain and horrible death.  Purim is the personification of the old saying, “The definition of every Jewish holiday is:  They tried to kill us.  We won.  Let’s eat!”

Today, most of us intentionally avoid these more somber thoughts when it comes to Purim.  We choose to focus on the joy rather than on the fear.

Unfortunately, this year, at least some of that fear seems to be unavoidable for we have been forced to confront the fact that antisemitism is real and alive in our nation as well as in the rest of the world.  Over the last 72 hours the news media has “discovered” that antisemitism really exists in the United States. The dramatic vandalism of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, with the desecration of over 100 gravestones, along with the addition of 11 more bomb threats to Jewish community centers (bringing the number up to 59 if my math and facts are correct), coupled with the President’s bizarre reticence to address the very issue of antisemitism or to even mention Jews in his statement about Holocaust memorial, and his finally condemning (though weakly) the acts of antisemitism, have forced not only the President but the mainstream media to acknowledge this elephant in the room, if only for the moment. But as we all should know, this issue is an even greater one that many are willing to admit.  And these are only the stories that the mainstream media has picked up on.  For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that since 2014 I have been reporting, almost on an daily basis, various acts of antisemitism that have taken place in our country and around the world.  I know that there are those that have found my “Antisemitism in Action” reports to be somewhat irritating and alarmist for our lives have been good lives and we generally don’t live in fear.  But still, these attacks upon our people are real and they have been real for some time now.  Unfortunately, they will continue to be real after this current news cycle ends and the stories of antisemitism once again fade from the headlines.

Obviously, there is nothing new about antisemitism. It has been with us for at least 2,000 years. Over that time it has taken on nuanced changes but at its core, it has essentially remained the same and, of course, its impact upon the Jewish people has most certainly remained the same. It matters but little what excuse the antisemites give for despising us, for degrading us, and for persecuting us, in the end it all results in the same suffering, ranging from humiliation to extermination.

That being said, today what we are experiencing in America is not the same singular hatred that has marked most of the history of antisemitism. Rather, today’s American antisemitism is but one component of a complex dynamic of American hatred that has found its voice and has felt profoundly empowered over the past year, especially in the wake of the recent presidential campaign. For today’s American antisemitism is intimately and inextricably connected to a web of hatred which includes racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism (and probably a few other bigotries I forgot to mention). For quite some time now I have been fond of saying, “Those who hate tend to be equal opportunity haters.” Today in America those “equal opportunity haters” are sensing a new liberation as they are stepping out of the shadows and coming out from under their rocks to assert their prejudices upon our society, and Jew hatred is but one of those prejudices.

But all this should not get us down.  After all, soon it will be Purim and we will be celebrating; celebrating vigorously.  Why will we be celebrating while bomb threats may be continuing to roll in and perhaps other Jewish cemeteries will be desecrated?  We will be celebrating because, just as our history has shown us, no matter what they try to do to us, in the end we will win.  We will win because it is our right to win.  We will win because there are too many good people in this world to allow evil to prosper.

There is an old Midrash about two men on a lake in a rowboat. One of them takes out a drill and starts boring under his seat. The other, in distress, calls out to him: “What do you think you are doing?” The fellow replies: “What do you care? It’s none of your business. I’m drilling under my own seat!” The moral is that we are all in this boat together – sink or swim. We cannot afford to focus solely on the prejudices that attack us personally. We must ban together – all victims of prejudice, along with all people of good conscience – and confront the current hatred in all of its forms, standing up for each other and standing with each other in common purpose.

If we ban together with others of good conscience in opposition to ALL forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, then we will win because we will not let the purveyors of hatred win.  We will stand up to them and we will defeat them, in much the same manner that Mordecai & Esther defeated Haman.  Each of us will just have to choose to be the Mordecai and the Esther of today.  HAPPY PURIM!!!!!!!

 

[1]   Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 7b.

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Quad Cities Equality Rally Remarks

January 23, 2017

On Saturday afternoon, January 21st, as 100’s of 1,000’s of men, women, & children were gathering in Washington DC and in communities throughout the nation to protest the objectification of women and the growing dangers of bigotry and hate that have infected our land, in the Quad Cities, a rally was held to show our solidarity with all those throughout the country who were marching.  The rally, which was called an Equality Rally, focused both on the recent challenges to women’s rights and on how that challenge is inextricably connected to a complex of challenges to the rights of many targeted minorities in our society.  The rally was held in the meeting hall of the United Steelworkers Union, in Bettendorf.  The hall was filled beyond overflowing, as a mass of supporters were forced to stand out in front of the hall, due to lack of space inside.  Several inspiring individuals spoke, expressing the pain of women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous Americans, and people with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.  I was among those honored with an invitation to speak from the perspective of our community’s newest human rights organization – One Human Family QCA (Quad Cities Area).  Below is a transcript of my remarks.

First off, thank you for the honor of allowing me to share these remarks with you today.

Before coming here today, my wife and I were attending a memorial service for Reverend Tom Kalshoven. Tom was the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area from 1973 to 1991. Those of you who knew Rev. Kalshoven know that he was a person profoundly committed to the causes of social justice. He marched with Dr. King. He served as the conscience of this community. I cannot help but think of how thrilled he would have been to see so many of you gathered here to affirm the cause of justice in our community.

We have come together because we are deeply concerned about what has been happening in our nation over the past year or so, and what might very well happen as we journey into the future. Let’s face it. Many of us are more than concerned. We are downright afraid, and with good cause.

This past Monday, I was similarly honored to offer a pastoral prayer at a local Martin Luther King Day celebration. There, too, those who were gathered shared our concerns and our fears. Being Martin Luther King Day, I built my prayer around one of the inspiring teachings of Dr. King. He said, “The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.” Yet we seem to be living at a time when that arc has been diverted far off of its course, as it travels, not towards justice, but far away from it.

And that is what frightens us, for we have witnessed the forces of hate as they have freely crawled out from under the rocks which have hidden them for so long and have joyously reasserted their ideology of bigotry, and not without the encouragement of some of our nation’s most highly placed individuals. A dark and ominous cloud of prejudice is engulfing our nation. A virulent virus of discrimination is infecting it as the fever of intolerance burns hot in the minds and souls of far too many of our fellow Americans.

Part of what frightens us is that we see the profound dedication of people who hate to their hatred; people like Dylann Roof who is willingly ready to martyr himself in the cause of hate. Part of what frightens us that we have come to recognize that those who thrive on hate tend to be equal opportunity haters. They hate African Americans. They hate Muslims. They hate Jews. They hate Latinos. They hate those who do not share their sexual orientation. They hate those with lifelong mental and physical disabilities. They hate the defenders of the environment. They hate intellectuals. They may not hate women but they sure don’t look upon women as the equal of men. Rather, they prefer to look at women as mere objects placed on earth, primarily to fulfill the physical pleasure of men.

And now such people feel empowered. Now such people are empowered. And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do about that?” Of course, our natural instinct is to respond, “Protest!” but what does that really mean? We sign petitions. We post our feelings on Facebook. We gather for rallies, just like this one. But all these things; they are not really protest. They are but a prelude to protest. For true protest requires us to take action. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not for a week. But ongoing action until we have achieved our goals. We need to work for change, with the emphasis on work; work until the job is done.

Nor can we stand alone. No one group of us can stand alone in our efforts to drive back the darkness. We need to stand together – men, women, young, old, laborers, professionals, people of every color, every race, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of national origins, regardless of religious identity, regardless of political affiliations. We must cross lines and lock arms in common cause. On Monday, I shared with my fellow Martin Luther King Day celebrants, and I share with you now, the classic wisdom of Rev. Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany, who bravely stood up against the Nazis. He said, “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the incurably ill and I did not speak out because I was not incurably ill. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” We do not have the luxury to think of ourselves as separate from others; as our plight being separate from their plight. Once again, to quote Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not choose to stand together then we will not stand at all.

In our community, we have birthed a new organization. We call it One Human Family QCA. Some of you here today already have joined our ranks. Our stated mission is “to protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places in our community.” We are not looking to re-invent the wheel but to work cooperatively with many of the agencies and organizations that already exist to address issues of common concern. And when it comes to certain issues, for which no agencies or organizations exist, then we are ready to open new doors of dialogue and advocacy. Our organization provides but one opportunity to take your concerns and your values and put them into action in order to effect positive change and drive back the darkness that is engulfing us. There are many others dedicated to this cause; organizations like Quad Cities Interfaith and Progressive Action for the Common Good. The point is, when you leave here today, do not see this as an end to your protest but rather as a beginning of the very hard but important work of bringing the arc of history back on course toward justice. To quote a sage from my own Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Our time is now and our cause is just. We only need to choose to act.

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.

Standing On the Border of Tragedy and Hope

December 9, 2015

It was a remarkably beautiful day for December. The sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. I arrived at the Waterfront Convention Center at just about 7:30 in the morning, looking ahead with both anticipation and anxiety about the day which was yet to unfold. Our own LINDA GOLDEN, LISA KILLINGER of the Islamic community, and I had been spearheading an effort to encourage Quad Citians to join in assembling meal packs to be sent to Jordan to feed the Syrian refugees in camps there. The actual assembling of these meal packs would be taking place for much of the day, with teams of 10 working in 1-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. At any given time, we had set ups for up to 16 teams working at once. Going into the morning, we were thrilled by the numbers of Quad Citians who had already stepped forward to help in this humanitarian effort. We had slots for 1,600 people to assemble meal packs and we already had 1,550 people sign up to do so! As the day progressed many more volunteers walked through the door. We enlisted the organization, KIDS AGAINST HUNGER, to do their magic in setting up and administering the project. In the past, Linda, Lisa, and I had wonderful experiences working with them as they put on their program in our religious schools. We were fully confident that they would do a great job. However, they had never put together a program this large or complex. So, as confident as we were, we still prayed that it would all come together smoothly, and it did.

We publicized the event as an interfaith effort and it was shaping up to be true to that name. We had Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Unitarians, Jews and Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists, people of all sorts of religions and people of no religious affiliation, all having signed up to do their part to feed starving Syrian refugees. It was wondrous to see these various faith groups working side-by-side. At one point I had to chuckle for there was a group from the Jewish community that was awaiting the group ahead of them to finish working at their assigned table. The group that kept them waiting were the Buddhists. How often do you see something like that?

At the end of each hour, as the shift was ending, the energy level of the people finishing their shift was high for the very act of helping others increased their energy and lifted their souls. Sitting as I was at the donation table, each shift ended with people crowding the table, wanted to extend their good feelings by giving cash or writing checks to further help the cause. So many of them were so grateful for our having provided them with the opportunity to do this act if kindness. So many of them commented on how bereft they felt in the wake of the violence of the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino; how hopeless they felt coming into the Convention Center, but how filled with hope they felt as they left.

Paris, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, ISIS, Syria, terrorist violence around the world, including the knife intifada in Israel, all have served to cast the dark shadows of tragedy and hopelessness over our little planet. Yet for that one Saturday, at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf, Iowa it seemed that a bright light had pierced through that darkness and filled our space and our lives with brilliant rays of hope. How could it be otherwise when people of such diverse backgrounds, theologies, and ideologies come together in order to serve a greater good; in order to further the wellbeing of total strangers, people they may even disagree with on political issues? In a world filled with hatred and violence, pettiness and strife, even if just for a moment, there were all these people who gathered to live up to the best of human potential and to create an oasis of caring, respect, and fundamental human decency. There is hope for our future!

When Anti Zionism Becomes Antisemitism

July 25, 2014

I am not one of those who labels every criticism of Israel as a manifestation of antisemitism. Indeed, I agreed, and still agree, with Thomas Friedman when he 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.”

That being said, during the course of this current war, it has become increasingly clear to me that the lines between criticizing Israel and antisemitism have become more and more blurred, and in too many cases, completely obliterated.

When anti Israel protesters in Paris decided to besiege and attack a synagogue on Shabbat while Jews were gathered inside, engaged in worship, that was no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That was antisemitism.

When anti Israel protesters in Berlin enthusiastically chanted in German “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jew, Jew, you cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” while the German police stand by and do nothing, even though such hate speech is illegal in Germany, that was no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That was antisemitism.

When Palestinian television broadcasts its version of children’s educational programming and those shows include having children speak of how they need to kill the enemy, and consistently, the term they use for enemy is NOT Yisraeili – Israeli – but rather Yahud – Jew, that is no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That is antisemitism.

Just the other day, on my blog, in response to a posting concerning the war, I received a comment which spoke of the Israelis in these terms, “They are their father’s seed. They are the offspring of Cain”, that is no longer a statement of protest against Israel. That is antisemitism. For those who do not pick up on the reference, it comes out of the rhetoric of one of America’s most virulent hate groups – the Christian Identity group – which perverts the teachings of Christianity and transform them into doctrines of hate. When it comes to the Jews, they claim that all Jews are descended from Cain, and therefore are inherently evil.

War is a very messy business, and out of it there are enough misdeeds to go around on both sides. The causes and issues which have led to the conflict can be argued for quite some time, with each side having at least some truth to their narrative. But these are debates about the right and the wrong of hotly contested political issues. However, when these debates degenerate into diatribes of bigotry and prejudice, we cross a line that once crossed, it is hard to reverse. As for me, I try very hard not to permit my opposition to Hamas to somehow morph into a hatred of the Palestinian people as a whole. Therefore, I will not stand idly by when I witness the opposition of others to the actions of Israel morphing into crass antisemitism. That others accept such a transition, and indeed embrace it, is an abomination.

Politics and Justice: The Foggy Line

May 15, 2013

I tend to be outspoken, both in my synagogue and out in the community, on issues of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice – even when they are controversial; perhaps especially when they are controversial.  Over the years, I have advocated for the hungry, for the homeless, for the newcomers to our shores.  When African American churches were being set on fire in the South, Rabbi Stanley Herman and I organized the Burned Churches Fund.  When local bigots burned crosses in West Davenport, Dan Ebener, who was then the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Davenport, and I organized a Say No to Hate Rally at Sacred Heart Cathedral; a rally which filled the cathedral to overflowing.  When it became apparent that while our community had many wonderful agencies to address the needs of the homeless, they needed help in raising funds of their efforts, I, along with a group of caring citizens, several of them from my congregation, put together a fund raising organization called In From the Cold, which focused its efforts of supporting agencies serving the homeless.  When it became increasingly clear that in my community the primary religious voice that was making itself heard in the publid forum was the voice of conservative Christianity, I joined with Rev. Dan Schmiechen of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Charlotte Saleska of the Unitarian Church in organizing a group called Progressive Clergy, which would serve as the voice of socially liberal religious traditions in our community.  When I became aware of how many of our local school children were without adequate winter wear to fend off the Iowa cold, I got together with the superintendent of the Davenport School District and organized a program called Coats for Kids whose function it was to collect, clean, and distribute gently used winter coats to needy children.  When there were those who were burning the Koran in protest to the proposed opening of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, I was one of the primary supporters of an interfaith solidarity gathering at the Moline mosque.  I have testified before the city councils of both Davenport and Bettendorf in support of both women’s reproductive choice and extending the categories of groups protected by our civil rights ordinances to include the diversity of sexual orientation.  When John Deere sought to cut the health care benefits of its retirees, I led the clergy in protesting that action.  This list can go on and on.

As a Jew, my passion for Tikkun Olam comes naturally to me.  The Torah continually instructs us to be proactive in matters of social justice.  So many are the times when the Torah calls upon us to pursue this course, reminding us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; reminding us that as Jews, we have known what it means to be the victims of injustice and from those experiences, we must take away the lesson of how imperative it is for us to pursue justice for all people – “tzedek, tzedek tirdof! – Justice, justice shall you pursue!”  Where the Torah leaves off, the prophets picked up, for their voices were clarion in the call for the pursuit of justice.  Indeed, when Reform Judaism had turned away from the rigors of ritual mitzvot such as kashrut as the primary expression of our Jewish identity, we turned to focusing on the ethical mitzvot, especially the social justice mitzvot.  And what did we call ourselves?  We called ourselves prophetic Judaism.  Indeed, to this day, across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, when we talk about pursuing social justice, we refer to it as a prophetic mission and the prophetic tradition.

There was a time, really not that long ago, when this was almost expected of faith communities and their religious leaders; when the pursuit of social justice was considered an essential part of the mission of communities of faith.  So we saw wonderful images, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the cause of civil rights for all people regardless of race.  We saw clergy and congregations across faith lines speaking out and marching in protest to the Viet Nam War.  In my own community, sometimes I would be approached by congregants who would say, “You know, Rabbi, people out in the community tell me how much they respect you for most of the stands that you take, but they are really troubled by your stand on Planned Parenthood…”  In saying that, they were informing me that while there were those who disagree with me, no one was challenging the appropriateness, or legality, of taking a stand on a social issue.

Now you need to understand that for tax exempt not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches  there is a very important line that separates social issues advocacy from political advocacy.  While it is perfectly appropriate for organizations like synagogues and churches to take stands on social issues, it is strictly prohibited and jeopardizes their tax exempt status if they advocate for particular political candidates or parties.

For most of my rabbinate, and before, the lines separating those two types of advocacy were pretty clear and such conflicts were easily avoided.  But in the course of time something has changed, and these lines have gotten blurred.  They seem to have gotten so blurred that today there are those who feel that they can claim that advocating for particular social issues is, in effect, advocating for one particular political party over another; one political candidate over another.  Therefore, for a synagogue – and perhaps even its rabbi speaking and acting outside of the synagogue – to advocate for a particular social issue would seem to violate the prohibition against engaging in partisan politics.

In the world of politics, it seems that times have changed.  There was a time when a political figure’s stand on any given social issue was not a function of party politics but rather of personal conscious.  There was a time when our political leaders felt freer to follow their consciences rather than the agenda of their parties.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “Lincoln” knows from whence I speak.  The 16th amendment passed, granting freedom to African Americans, because there were those in Congress who were willing to vote their conscience rather than their party.  As a youth I recall reading with wrapped attention John F. Kennedy’s book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, in which he raised up 8 U.S. senators who courageously crossed party lines in order to vote their conscience.

But somewhere along the line, the landscape of American politics changed.  I remember first clearly noting that change while watching President Bill Clinton delivering one of his State of the Union addresses.  As I watched, I noticed that when it came to the applause, the members of Clinton’s party applauded every time.  However, the Republicans only applauded when signaled to do so by their Congressional leadership.  The members of both sides never really chose for themselves but rather they stood by their parties.  Once aware of this, of course I needed to test my theory.  So I would continue to watch State of the Union addresses with this in mind, and sure enough, this held true during the presidency of George Bush with the Democrats reserving their applause only to those times when they received the signal.

What I was witnessing is something that we all already know; that our country has become divided along political party lines.  As a manifestation of that political divide, each of the parties has staked its claim on one side or the other of social issues.  Therefore, if you take one side or the other, you can be accused of lining yourself up with one party or the other.  As things have shaken out, the Democrats tend to be more on the left, and the Republicans more on the right.  So no matter which position we as a faith community take – the more liberal or the more conservative – there will be those who accuse us of engaging in partisan politics.

This situation tends to paralyze American congregations and clergy of all faiths.  They so fear becoming identified with one political party or the other, and therefore risking the loss of their tax exempt status, that they choose to refrain from all Tikkun Olam activities or restrict themselves to only the least controversial, or the non-controversial, such as supporting meal sites and hunger programs.  While these are indeed good works, and should be pursued, that is not nearly enough for faith communities, for if faith communities relinquish their role as the guardians of conscience in our society, then who will pick it up?  Regardless of what faith we profess, our faith calls upon us to be courageous in our efforts to care for and protect all of God’s children.  We must be courageous as the prophets were courageous; we must be outspoken as the prophets were outspoken.  Because there are those who accuse us of being partisan in our politics, that does not grant us license to abandon the demands of our conscience.

We must come to recognize that the problem does not reside in our having become partisan in our politics, for we are not.  As long as we focus our words and actions on the issues and not on the political parties or the individual politicians, we are not engaging in partisan politics.  We are engaging in Tikkun Olam.  Where the problem does reside is to be found in what has happened to our political system, where the party line has drowned out the call of conscience.  And that is partly our fault.  It is our fault in that we no longer demand of our political leaders that they be people of conscience; people who are willing to cross party lines to support what they truly believe in; people who are more interested in advancing the interests of the American people than then interests of their particular political party; people who would qualify for inclusion in John F. Kennedy’s book PROFILES IN COURAGE.  We have the power to make that happen, for we have the power of the vote.  We have the power to tell those who aspire to political leadership that our top priority is that they do the right thing – following the dictates of their conscience – even when it is not the party thing.  Then once again, we will find ourselves living in an American where there can be times when Republicans and Democrats stand together to do the right thing.  When standing on one side or another of an issue will no longer be confused with engaging in partisan politics.

The Sin of Standing Idly By

September 28, 2012

It was back on Rosh Hashanah evening of 1999 that I presented to my congregation a very unsettling sermon entitled “Summer of Hate; Winter of Challenge.”  It was all about how the Summer of 1999 was marked by hate crime after hate crime; act of violence after act of violence, many, but not all of which, were targeted at fellow Jews.  The most famous of those acts of violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.  But beside from the Columbine shooting, during that summer there were also synagogue burnings in Sacramento, California, a noted member of a hate group going on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, targeting Jews, African Americans and Asians, and another hate group member entering a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, a suburb of  Los Angeles, in order to shoot Jewish children in a day care program.  It was an extremely violent summer and it was time for us as Americans to put an end to hate and particularly gun violence in our nation.

This coming Spring, my congregation will celebrate with two wonderful young ladies as each will become a Bat Mitzvah.  When I gave that sermon back in 1999, those two young ladies were not yet born.  Yet here they are, each one preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, and we Americans are still faced with some of the same dreadful problems as confronted us then, gun violence being one such problem; a major problem.

Indeed, the serious concern over this issue in our country even predates the birth of these young ladies.  In my congregation, three years before I gave that sermon, a young man by the name of Daniel Werner made gun violence, in the form of drive-by shootings, the topic of his Bar Mitz­vah speech.

Now it is 2012 and we have just endured another summer of violence; violence pouring out of the barrels of guns.  There was the shooting in the moving theater in Aurora, Colorado.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee.  There was the shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.  There was the shooting in front of the Empire State Building.  This summer’s gun violence was a shocking testimony to how broad based is this problem.  Today, resorting to using firearms as a means of expression is not just to be found in the realm of the political or social radicals.  There are many different kinds of people who pick up guns and pull the trigger as an expression of their own inner turmoil.  The shooter in Colorado used a gun to give expression to his own mental illness.  In Milwaukee, the shooter used it to express his prejudice against minorities.  In Washington, the shooter used it to express his anger at those who promote a conservative social agenda.  In New York, the shooter used it to express his frustration with events in his personal life.  And these only represent the incidents of gun violence that have merited the attention of the national news media.  They are but only the tip of the bloody iceberg of gun violence in America today.

Let me share with you some statistics, and I hope that these statistics disturb you as greatly as they disturb me.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes issues an annual Global Study on Homicide.  In its latest report, issued in 2011, the United States ranked 15th in the world in gun related homicides.  This report is rated by the number of gun related homicides for each 100,000 people in a nation’s population.  For the United States, the number is 4.6 for every 100,000 Americans.  The nations who rank higher than us are to be found primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some in Eastern Europe.  However, when it comes to affluent nations, the United States ranks number 1, with no one else coming close.  In fact, the affluent European nations typically have a rate of 1 per 100,000, if not lower.  For example the rate for France is 1.4; for the United Kingdom, 1.1; for Italy, 1.0; for both Spain and Germany, 0.9; and for Switzerland, 0.7.  We Americans love to brag about our being #1, but this is a first place prize which should shake us to our very core.

While the United Nations report focuses on crime, and in this case homicides, there also has been a study done by the United States Center for Disease Control.  Theirs is a study of shootings in America, criminal and otherwise, fatal or not.  According to their findings, approximately 105,000 Americans are shot every year (104,852 in 2010) with approximately 31,500 of them being killed (31,347 in 2010).  This averages out to 287 Americans shot every day, 86 of them fatally.

When it comes to the number of Americans killed by guns every year, it may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of fatal gun deaths is not homicide.  It is suicide.  In 2010, while 11,493 of our fellow citizens were murdered with guns, 18,735 Americans use guns to kill themselves.  Several years ago, my brother-in-law was one of them.  He was a manic depressive who went off his medication.  He owned a pistol to protect his business.  But in a depressive state, alone in his house, he sat down on the couch in his family room, put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The remainder of the annual gun deaths are categorized as either unintentional, undetermined or the result of a legal intervention, which I imagine is their way of saying that these people where shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties.

This study also points out that beside from those Americans who die at the barrel of a gun, every year there also are approximately 73,500 people who are shot but not killed (73,505 in 2010).  When we add up those numbers, we arrive at the devastating annual figure of approximately 105,000 Americans who are either killed or injured with a firearm.  This is nothing less than a profound national tragedy.

When we who live in the Quad Cities watch and read the news reports about all these shootings, we have a tendency to think of them as always happening someplace else, like in Colorado or New York.  Yet we in Iowa and Illinois are not immune to this disease of gun violence.  It touches our states and our communities as well.  According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, there were 21 firearms related murders in Iowa in 2010 and 364 in Illinois.  During that year, there were other crimes such as robberies and aggravated assaults in which firearms were used as well.  But we do not need to turn to the statistics com­piled by the FBI to know that guns are killing people – often children – in our community.  All we need do is open the newspaper and watch the TV news.  In fact, just the other day one of my congregants – Linda Golden, who is a high school teacher in Rock Island, Illinois – was telling me about having attended a funeral for a student in her school who had been shot to death.  I would like to say that such shootings are rare in our community, but the fact is that they are happening far more often than we dare to admit.  But since they are not happening to our children, but to other peoples’ children, we tend to pay them scant heed.

Why am I talking to you about gun violence on Yom Kippur?  This is supposed to be a deeply spiritual day during which we plumb the depths of our own souls – when we take inventory of our lives – when we confront our own personal sins and shortcomings, and hopefully resolve to repair and correct them.  Where does gun violence fit into any of that?

The violence born of guns which plagues our nation – which draws our attention and breaks our hearts from time to time over the years, when there is a Columbine or a Granada Hills or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, Colorado, or a Sikh Temple shooting – is a corporate, national sin for which there must be both repentance and atonement.  Whether we realize it or not – whether we accept it or not – corporate national sins, especially in this nation which prides itself on being the great democracy, are also personal sins.  They belong to each and every one of us, just as much as all the sins we list in the “Al Chet Shechatanu” prayer; just as much as all those other sins which we may not have found listed in the High Holy Day prayer book but which each of us might have privately listed as we pondered our personal weak­nesses and failings and as we aspired to improve upon those behaviors in the year ahead.  As members of a democracy we do not possess the luxury to be able to say, “That’s the nation’s sin.  It is not mine.”  For they are ours.  For in a democracy, the sins of the nation become the sins of each of its citizens.  Why?  Because we create the nation.  We create it and we recreate it every single election day.  The people who make the decisions and take the actions, or fail to take the actions, which determine the very nature of our nation are the ones who come election day need our votes – our approval and our support – which in turn bestows upon them the power to mold our nation’s present and fashion its future.  So if our elected officials have allowed this nation to wallow in the sin of gun violence, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have permitted our elected officials to allow this tragedy to be reenacted time and time again without their making any effort to alter or stop it.  Yes, often they go to the sites of what the media luridly describes as “masacres” and they attend the funerals and they may even wax eloquent in their eulogies, but they do nothing to stop it.  Their tears are crocodile tears, and it is our fault – we, the voters – for we let them get away with it.

The sad reality is that we do not need to dress our young people up in uniforms and send them to foreign soil in order to suffer massive American casualties.   We only need to send them to high schools and colleges and houses of worship and movie theaters, for in our current gun environment they could just as easily fall victim in those places.  My daughter, Helene, and her friends love to go to these midnight movie premieres, like the premiere of the Batman film in Aurora at which that horrible shooting took place.  But as the Aurora shooting shows us, when one goes to such a premiere, one takes one’s life in their hands.  Are any of us so foolish as to believe that while it can happen in Aurora, Colorado it cannot happen in our own community?  Of course it can!  For it is as easy for an unstable person to acquire the firepower in most American communities as it was for James Eagan Holmes to acquire it Aurora, Colorado.  And if that were to happen in our own community, God forbid, then the sin would be upon our heads because we allowed those in power to remain in power while do nothing to protect our children from lunatics with guns.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah the text commonly called The Holiness Code.  In it there is a verse – Leviticus chapter 19, verse 16 – which states “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”  This is the sin for which we must repent and atone; the sin of standing idly by while all our neighbors who have become victims in all of these shootings, time and time and time again have bled and died while we have remained silent.

This past summer, soon after the shootings in Aurora, the members of our new Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship struggled with the question of how can our community of faiths put our various faiths to work so that as a united faith community we can say, “Enough already!  Too many have died and died need­lessly.”  So we have started to address this issue.  Our first step was to write a letter to our various elected officials, both local and national, expressing our concern.  An edited version of that letter appeared in Sunday’s Quad City Times  But that is not where our efforts will end.  Indeed, in the wake of the Milwaukee shooting we gave our full support to the local Sikh community.  Next month we will be meeting to look at future action steps.  One thing seem certain.  We wish to place a special emphasis on gun deaths in our own community.  As we develop our action plans, I pray that many others will join us in our efforts.

For far too long, we all have known about this blight upon our society.  We have condemned it.  We have mourned it.  But we have not taken sufficient action to alter it.  When you think about it, it is a disgrace that the two young ladies who will celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah this Spring were born into an America in which we, the people, were aware of and distraught about the loss of life in our society because of the proliferation and accessibility of firearms, yet here it is 13 years later, and nothing has changed.  The killing remains ongoing and indiscriminate.  It is not enough for us to pray that the day will come when a child becomes a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah and does so in an America which knows no gun violence.  We have to work for that goal as well.  We have to make our elected officials understand that we, the citizens of America – that we, the potential victims of future gun violence in our country – will no longer tolerate their empty promises and gross inaction.  Together, may we create an America where we no longer fear that we or our children may be shot and killed simply because we were walking down the street or attending a worship service or going to a movie.