Posted tagged ‘Xenophobia’

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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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.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

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.

HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue

October 28, 2010






The Torah portion, Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), is one of those wonderful sections that is simply chock full of powerful stories and lessons.  It tells of how Abraham and Sarah received the news that in their old age, Sarah would finally bear a child.  It tells of how, when God revealed to Abraham the Divine plan to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham actually argued with God on their behalf.  It then goes on to tell of how those cities were destroyed because they did not merit Abraham’s defense of them.  It tells of what happened to Lot and his daughters after their escape from Sodom.  It tells of the birth of Isaac.  It tells of how Sarah, fearing for Isaac’s safety, forced Abraham to send away his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, the handmaid, Hagar.  It then goes on to tell of how Hagar and Ishmael almost died of thirst in the wilderness but instead, God saved them and promised to make Ishmael a great nation.  It tells that most famous account – the one we read on Rosh Hashanah morning – in which God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Yes, this particular Torah portion offers us much to consider, study, and discuss.  It is a treasure trove of important lessons.

Tonight I wish to focus our attention on just one of the stories – one of the lessons – from our Torah portion.  It is one I have yet to mention.  It is the account of how Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and how they received them.  According to the Torah text, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he noticed three strangers approaching.  They were angels, but he did not know that at the time.  As soon as he saw them, he jumped up and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home.  Though he had no idea of who they were, still he bowed down before them and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.”  He offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as being a very important one when it comes to Jewish life.  They spoke about it extensively, and from it they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?”  His answer was that he did so in order to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible.  The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch is tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction.  Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.

There is another midrash which is very telling and very powerful.  It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality.  According to this midrash, one of the many travelers who Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man.  This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered.  After he had bathed, and rested, and had eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them.  Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed.  “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man.  The old man simply replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.”  “But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you.  My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.”  “You are wrong,” replied the old man.  “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place were I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here.  They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.”  Well Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way.  Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?”  Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols.  To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man.  Now you have the audacity to toss him out?  If his idol worship has not bothered me, why should it bother you?”  Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man.  When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.

Why were the rabbis so fixated on this Torah story?  Why were they so fixated on this matter of hospitality; of welcoming the stranger?  Perhaps it was because of another statement that appears and reappears throughout the Torah, that statement being, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah is constantly concerned about the well being of the stranger, and therefore so were the rabbis.  That concern is based upon the fact that of all people, we as Jews should know what it feels like, and what it means, to be a stranger.  We know what it is like to be on the outside, looking in.  We know what it is like to sometimes feel excluded or ignored or  evenworse, and we do not like it.

If we do not like being the stranger – if we do not like being treated that way; as somehow less than others – then from our unpleasant experiences we should learn to do better and to be better when we find the tables reversed; when we are the hosts and others are the strangers.  If we do not like to be made to feel unwelcome, then it is incumbent upon us to go out of our way to welcome others.  And, as the midrash about the old man instructs, it should not matter whether or not we agree with those others.  It should not matter whether or not they are like us or dramatically different from us.  For in the end, as different as we may be, they, like us, are still God’s children and should be treated accordingly.

Our rabbis were truly wise because while they understood that this issue of how we treat strangers most certainly has societal, national, and international dimensions – it impacts such issues as how do we as Americans treat immigrants, both of the legal and illegal variety, and how do Israelis in the Jewish state treat the non-Jews residing in their midst – if we are ever to effectively address such issues properly, we must start our efforts, not so much on the big scale but rather on the small scale, the intimate scale, the personal scale.  The rabbis clearly understood that if we ever want our society to be welcoming to the strangers in its midst, then we have start by building homes that are welcoming to strangers.  That if we start by promoting this virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – on a family level then surely it eventually will take hold on a societal level.

The rabbis understood that we need to turn to Abraham as a model of personal behavior.  Abraham lived a world that was not very welcoming.  Twice – once in this week’s Torah portion – Abraham and Sarah found themselves in foreign lands where they were so unwelcome that if they did not conceal the fact that they were married, Abraham most likely would have been murdered by lecherous rulers.  Yet, even so, Abraham decided that his world was going to be different.  His home would be a place in which strangers would feel welcomed rather than afraid.  Therefore, as Abraham’s home was welcoming to strangers, so should every Jewish home be welcoming to strangers.  There should always be at least one seat open for guests at our Shabbat dinner table.  Guests should always welcomed to the Passover Seder, even as we begin that service by stating, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  Nor should we consider these seats to be reserved for people we know.  Rather, when it comes to this, it is the stranger who should enjoy priority seating.

As we welcome strangers into our homes, so should we, as Jews, welcome strangers into our synagogues.  When we see someone we do not know, we should feel it to be our obligation to approach that person, introduce ourselves and help them to feel at home among us.  I am sure that there are among us tonight those who have found themselves in other communities on Shabbat or on holidays.  There are those who, while in those communities, have gone to local synagogues.  In some of those synagogues, we felt left out in the cold.  We were alone, and no one even acknowledged our presence.  It was as if we were not there.  And after the service, we left the building feeling worse than empty; feeling somehow wounded.  Then there are those who, finding themselves in a similar situation, entered synagogues in which people approached them, welcomed them, wanted to get to know them, and tried to make them feel at home.  And that felt great!  The point being that Hachnasat Orchim may start in our homes but should naturally flow into our synagogues.

But in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues.  As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with.  And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.

Our Cousin at the Foot of the Mountain

September 11, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I turn to the Torah portion, the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, as a source of inspiration for my sermon. This year will be no different. However, before I enter into my remarks, I must tell you that the sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I originally intended to share with you. That particular sermon will have to wait until next Rosh Hashanah.

In some ways, that is unfortunate because, though its text has not yet been committed to paper (or whatever you commit texts to when you type them into your computer), it was, is, and will be a very nice sermon; one of those thought provoking feel good sermons that people so much like to hear these days. But as I said, it will have to wait.

You may wonder why I felt the need to set that sermon aside. That is a fair enough question. The answer is that there are times when the world takes over and as a result the sermons that clergy plan to deliver are not the ones they wind up delivering. Rather, they find themselves needing to deliver the sermons that the world demands of them. Unfortunately, this is such a time.

With that being said, let me turn to our Torah portion.

Usually, when rabbis discuss this Torah portion, they almost always center their reflections upon Abraham and Isaac, and all that transpired between them in this powerful account. However, when we consider the totality of the story, we need to recognize that Abraham and Isaac were not the only characters present. There were others. The Hebrew text refers to these others as Abraham’s “na’arav” or “sh’nei na’a’rav,” which most translations, including the one in our prayer book, renders as “servants” or “two servants.” However, the typical Hebrew term for servant is not “na’ar” but “eved.” “Na’ar” usually means “youth.” Recognizing this irregularity in the text, the rabbis of the Midrash asked, “Who were these two special youths who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey?” They generally agree upon the answer. One of them was Abraham’s servant, Eliezer; the person who, later in the text, Abraham would send to Aram Naharayim, the town in which Abraham’s brother, Nahor, lived, in order to acquire a bride for Isaac. The other was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, the son of the maid servant Hagar, Isaac’s half brother.

The presence of Ishmael in this seminal story of our people is highly significant. For even here, in the midst of a foundation story of the Jewish people – a story of one of the truly make-or-break moments in the history of our people and our faith; for if Abraham had carried through with his intended sacrifice, then this story would have marked the end of the Jewish people and of Judaism – even here we sense the presence of Ishmael. And who is Ishmael? As Isaac’s half brother, he is our uncle. But he is more than that. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Isaac, the followers of Islam trace theirs back to Ishmael. With that in mind, we must never forget that the Muslims are our cousins. They are part of our family, and as such, they have been present with us throughout our history, even from our very beginnings. For even in this story, while Isaac the Jew is on top of Mount Moriah – what would become the Temple Mount – with Father Abraham, Ishmael the Muslim is standing at the foot of the mountain, awaiting the outcome. He accompanied us on our journey there, and he will accompany us on our journey back to Beer Sheva.

So the Muslims are our cousins; they are our family. In the light of contemporary history, that is a difficult concept for many to grasp. For we have spent the last 70 years or so contending with them. So much blood has been shed. Jewish blood by Arabs. Arab blood by Jews. Still they are our cousins. How can we reconcile the two? Well, as many of us know, sometimes the most strident conflicts occur within families. Family feuds can be the most bitter and devastating of controversies. Yet even so, in the end, family is family. And while within a family we can engage in the most vicious warfare imaginable, still there is something almost instinctive within us which demands that we set aside our differences and stand by our family members when others endanger them.

I remember an incident from my childhood which testifies to this phenomenon. My sister, of blessed memory, was six years older than I. As children we always fought, and she would never pass up even the slightest opportunity to beat me up. However, one day, standing at the school bus stop, one of the older boys started beating me up. Immediately, she stepped in and started beating him up. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “Why are you hitting me? After all, you beat up Henry all the time.” To this she replied, “He’s my brother, so I can beat him up, but don’t you dare lay a hand upon him!”

So it is, or should be, within the family of Abraham. It is one thing for us to contend with our cousins, the Muslims. It is quite another to stand silently by while others persecute and abuse them. And sad to say, that is exactly what is happening today – not in some far off land but rather here, on our very shores.

What I am referring to is the controversy which has whirled around the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in New York. The debate over this proposed mosque has stirred up some of the ugliest aspects of American culture today. As a result, we have witnessed a burgeoning of virulent hatred and prejudice. As a result, we Jews, as people of conscience, nevertheless cousins to the Muslims, have been handed the challenge of whether we will join in this hate fest, or silently stand by, and by our silence give tacit approval to it, or stand up and stand with our cousins, even though our dispute with them over the future of the Middle East continues to be bitter and bloody.

Personally, I have struggled with this issue. When the question of the mosque first arose, I have to admit that I myself wondered, “Why do they have to build it there? Isn’t that more than a bit insensitive considering the fact that the tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of their faith?” I also have to admit that I wondered about where the funds were coming from. It would be one thing if they were being raised from among the American Muslim community, but something else if they were coming out of the Arab world. Yet even as I entertained these questions, my main concern still centered on the principle of freedom of religion. Still, this is America and in this country people of all faiths are supposed to be free to worship according to their faiths wherever they choose to worship; even if they are Muslims who wish to worship at or near Ground Zero.

As I was grappling with my mixed feelings over this issue, one day at lunch I was approached by Rev. Ron Quay of Churches United, who wanted us to get together to discuss whether or not the Quad Cities faith community ought to take a stand in support of the mosque.

When we did hold our meeting, we ultimately decided not to act immediately but rather to wait and see. What were we waiting for? First of all, we feared that by jumping into this controversy, we would actually be causing more harm than good. At that time, all the negativity was centered on the mosque in New York. There had been no expressions of anti-Muslim hostility here in the Quad Cities. So we feared that if we spoke out, we would actually provoke such hostility. We did not want to give this hostility more legs, especially more local legs than it already had. Secondly, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to step forward without a request to do so coming from our local Muslim community. If they wanted our help and our support, all they needed to do was ask for it. For us to impose it upon them might indeed do them more harm than good.

But as fate would have it, the anger and the prejudice surrounding the proposed New York mosque would not remain in New York. Like the virulent social cancer hate is, it began to metastasize, spreading its toxins across our country. Feeding off the New York controversy, the purveyors of Islamophobia starting peddling their poisonous pellets of prejudice wherever they could.

The New York Times published a feature article about an evangelical pastor in Florida who was organizing a public book burning of the Koran scheduled for September 11th. I know that there are those who are very unhappy with me when I make Holocaust analogies, but how could I, as a Jew, not shiver at the parallel between this man’s intentions and the Nazis’ burning of Jewish sacred books and books by Jewish authors?

In the Washington Post, I read about how the Islamic community of Mufreesboro, Tennessee – a community which lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors for over thirty years – had met with strong opposition when they proposed building their own mosque in their own town. Nor was this opposition made up exclusively of those who spoke out at county board meetings. It also included hundreds who gathered for a large noisy protest rally in the town square and political candidates who made their opposition to this mosque a center piece of their campaigns. Painfully, an article published in the Post one week later, reported that among those who opposed this mosque there were those who had escalated their protests to include acts of violence such as an act of arson at the construction site, along with reports of gunfire there as well.

Rev. Quay and I conferred. We had worried about giving Islamophobia legs. Well, as report after report of anti-Islamic hatred came in, it was becoming abundantly obviously that this hatred was growing legs of its own. It was likewise becoming obvious that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – we would have to take a stand in opposition to it. For as this issue has evolved, it is no longer an issue of whether or not the site of the New York mosque is appropriate. It has become crystal clear that the fundamental issue here is one of protecting religious freedom; one of taking a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry.

Still, on a local level, there were some pieces that were missing for us. First of all, there was the fact that this hatred of Muslims had yet to touch our community. And of course there was the fact that our local Islamic community had yet to express a desire for any public action in this regard.

Well, that too, was soon to end. It ended for me one morning while on the treadmill during a respiratory therapy session. The TV was on in the therapy room, as we patients were watching the Today Show on KWQC as we exercised. And then there it was on the screen before us, being broadcast by our local TV station. It was the most horrible of commercials. I suspect that at least some of you have seen it. It started off with the claim that whenever the Muslims conquered a place, they celebrated their victory by building there a mosque. Images of Jerusalem, Spain, and now Ground Zero. It equated the building of a mosque at Ground Zero with the building of a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor. It then went on to castigate Congressman Bruce Braley for supporting the building of this mosque and it encouraged our local citizens to call Congressman Braley to express their opposition and discontent. Now this Islamophobia had local legs. This hatred had come to roost in the Quad Cities. The picture was complete. Our community would not be spared the taint of this hatred. The strident voices who strive to provoke fear in the hearts of the American people by invoking that fearful term, “jihad” were now here recruiting our friends and neighbors to join them in their own holy war against anyone who follows the faith of Mohammed.

So Rev. Quay and I contacted the local Islamic community to let them know that if they wanted to take public action in response to such prejudice, we were willing to stand by them and with them, and we would encourage the other members of the Quad Cities faith community to do so as well.

They have taken us up on our offer. So, on Saturday evening, September 11th, starting at 5:00 p.m., the Moline Mosque will be hosting an interfaith gathering; a Day of Unity and Healing. The program will only last an hour but if people of conscience – and I hope that includes everyone in this room and everyone in our Jewish community – if people of conscience come out and support it, the impact of such a gathering on the Quad Cities will have enduring value. It will affirm the living essence of those important words which President George Washington wrote back in 1790 to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Our Muslim cousins residing here in the Quad Cities are good citizens. We most certainly disagree with them strongly about the situation in the Middle East, but still, they are good citizens; as good as we are. We, a people who have suffered centuries of persecution, only to find a haven here in a free America, may very well be the best equipped in our land to appreciate their current situation; to appreciate what it is like to be the target of hatred. If we do not stand up for them now, then we demean the memories of all those Jews of generations past who fell victim to the power of bigotry.

I not only invite you to stand with me on the evening of September 11th, in the mosque in Moline. I implore you. It is the debt we owe to our forebears. It is the debt we owe to our children. It is also a family thing. They are our cousins and they need our support. As Ishmael stood by Isaac. So must we now stand by them.

Wrestling With Immigration Reform

May 14, 2010

With Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, recently signing into law a very restrictive and controversial bill addressing the issue of illegal immigration in that state, the opening shot has been fired on our next major political battlefield – immigration reform.

At first blush, it would appear that the issue of immigration reform is one of those topics around which Americans are united, with the overwhelming majority agreeing across party lines that massive federal immigration reform is both necessary and long overdue.  However, appearances can be deceiving, for such agreement ends right there; with the belief that immigration reform is sorely needed.  Beyond that point, our nation is truly fractured between those who feel that our immigration policies must be liberalized and those who feel that they must be made more severe and be more diligently enforce.  A recent New York Times / CBS News Poll on reactions to the Arizona law indicate that 51% of those polled feel that the law is about right, with 9% saying that it does not go far enough, while 36% feel that it has gone too far and 4% having no opinion.

The new Arizona law obviously is a manifestation of the point of view of those who wish to see more restrictive immigration laws.  No sooner did Governor Brewer sign it into law than we started hearing from several political hopefuls across the land, seeking to gain mileage for their own campaigns by calling for their states to follow Arizona’s example.  Here in Iowa, two of the three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination immediately jumped on that bandwagon.  The third – former governor, Terry Branstad – was not far behind, supporting the concept of sterner immigration laws but cautioning that since we are not a “border” state, we should not try to duplicate the Arizona law but rather tailor one to better meet our state’s particular needs.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that regarding immigration reform, I fall on the liberal side of this issue.  However, what may come as a surprise to all is that as liberal as I am on this topic, I am not nearly as liberal as many of my fellow liberal allies would like me to be.  I find myself standing in an uncomfortable no man’s land; too liberal for the conservatives among us, and too conservative for the liberals.

So where do I stand?

First of all, I am distressed by the new Arizona law.  I, like all of its critics, fear that in spite of whatever assurances Governor Brewer may offer, still fundamentally, it is a racist law.  No matter how well trained the Arizona police may be, they still will not be able to avoid falling into the trap of racial profiling.  Indeed, the only way that they could avoid such profiling is by stopping and checking everyone’s citizenship credentials – and we all know that is never going to happen.  At the end of the day, the only individuals who they will stop and request documentation from will be Latinos.  That, in and of itself, is a litmus test to the law’s racial bias.  After all, here we see the underlying assumption that the only illegal aliens in our midst are Hispanic.  Could it not be possible that there might also be illegal aliens from Norway or Denmark or England or Italy, or dare I say, that threatening national entity on our northern border – Canada?  Of course there could be!  If there are people from those nations, and others like them, living in our country, it is only logical to assume that some of those people are living here illegally.  Yet to focus these stop-&-searches exclusively on Latinos is just as unjust and racially prejudice as when our nation, during World War II, chose to intern as enemy aliens only those of Japanese descent, and never even considered doing likewise to those of German or Italian descent.

“Absurd!” you may think.  But I turn your attention to a recent movie; “The Proposal.”  Of course this was a romantic comedy, but it did carry a sharp edged message, that message being that not all illegal immigrants need to come from south of the border.  Some can even come from Canada.  Yet when we identify the problems associated with illegal immigration as being solely Latino problems, whether we like to admit it or not, that is racism, pure and simple.

When I consider our current immigration laws, I cannot help but be troubled by how restrictive they are.  Somehow, we have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants.  All those people who flocked to our shores in the 17th, 18th, 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries, who settled this land, founded this nation, and built it to be the world power it is today, were all immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.  The Puritans at Plymouth Rock were immigrants.  The English in Jamestown and the Dutch in New Amsterdam were all immigrants.  Most Americans today do not have to search far on our family trees to find our immigrant ancestors.  My grandparents came to this country from Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  I expect that most of the readers of this blog can claim similar immigrant roots, going back to their great grandparents if not their grandparents.  Today, each and every one of us enjoy all the freedoms and pleasures of living in America because at one time, this country opened its doors to our immigrant ancestors.  In those days, it truly was the land of opportunity; what my Jewish ancestors referred to as Die Goldene Medina, “The Golden Land.”  They came here with nothing or next to nothing, started at the bottom of the social ladder and worked their way up.  It was hard going, but they did it.  They did it, primarily because they were permitted to do it.

But all that changed in the 1920’s.  Many forces coalesced to re-frame American immigration policies and attitudes.  Following World War I there was a renewed interest in isolationism; the desire to cut off America from involvement with the outside world.  As a result, in spite of the fact that President Woodrow Wilson was the primary architect of the League of Nations, our nation chose not to join it.  Then there was the Communist scare.  After the Russian Revolution, there was great fear in this country that the overthrow of America was next on the Communists’ agenda.  That fear was translated into a fear of immigrants being potential Communist agents.  There was even the growing popularity of the racist pseudo-science of eugenics.  In 1916, a man by the name of Madison Grant published a book entitled THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE which became  a very popular read in our nation.  This book went through many printings and by 1937 had sold over 1,600,000 copies in our country.  This book espoused the  eugenics racial hygiene theory, as it  proclaimed the superiority of the Northern European races, and warned of the racial threat posed by the admission to our country of people of inferior races.  Then, of course, there was the eternal concern about immigrant workers competing for jobs against “real Americans.”  As a result of these factors and others, in 1921, Congress passed the Immigrant Restriction Act, the goal of which was to maintain the racial balance of our country.  It intended to achieve this by limiting future immigration to a quota of a nation-by-nation maximum of 3% of the number of people from that nation who were living in this country in 1890.  This law was superseded by the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the quota to 2% and also prohibited the immigration of East Asians.  In 1952, while the Immigration and Nationality Act did abolish the racial restrictions applying to immigration from East Asia, it did affirm the quota system in its 1924 form.  It should be noted that President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, speaking in his veto message of “the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of the 1924 bill.”  He further went on to say, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”  As a Jew, it does not go unnoticed that Truman’s objections to this bill were in good part based upon the understanding that its retention of the quota system was in fact an intentional continued refusal to open America’s doors to so many Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust.  Unfortunately, Truman’s veto was overridden by a vote of  278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.

I suspect that rarely has there been a time in our nation’s history when immigrant groups did not have to confront some sort of prejudice when coming to, or trying to come to our country.  There seems always to have been those Americans who have treated newcomers with fear and hatred.  It is  ironic that of all people, it was the Native Americans who served as a major exception to this rule. for they graciously welcomed the Pilgrim immigrants to their shores and aided them in their time of need.  Probably no groups in our society know of this hostility to newcomers to America better than the Jews and the Catholics.  It was home grown antisemitism which kept the immigration doors locked to all those European Jews who unsuccessfully sought an American refuge from Nazi persecution.  And as for the Catholics, starting in the 1850’s they suffered at the hands of the members of the Know Nothing Party, whose goal it was to put an end to immigration, particularly targeting Irish and Italian Roman Catholic immigration.  Such opposition to immigration and hatred of immigrants is nothing new in our country.  It is a challenge which we faced in the past, just as we must face it now.

Yet in spite of our nation’s disturbing history of resistance to newly arrived immigrant groups, I do not believe that such hostility is an accurate reflection of the American spirit.  Rather, I believe that while there have been those among us who have actively rejected and discriminated against the immigrants of their day, still the American ideal remained, and I pray still remains, that our land should be a safe haven and a land of opportunity for all newcomers.  As a Jew, I am profoundly proud of the fact that emblazoned on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are words of welcome, penned by a fellow Jew, the poetess Emma Lazarus.  I choose to believe that the words of her poem – “The New Colossus” – still remain America’s ultimate values statement on immigration to our shores:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”   It was in this spirit that my grandparents were welcomed to this land.  This was and should remain truly one of the most important of American values, fundamental to American life ever since the very first settlers crossed the Atlantic and set foot on our shores.  But somewhere along the way, there are those Americans  who seem to have forgotten this.  If the poll on the public response to the Arizona immigration law is correct, then somewhere along the way, not only has the flame on that famous lamp gone out, but the arm which proudly raised that lamp has been lowered and the lamp itself has been dropped.  Perhaps nothing has brought this sad fact into sharper relief for me than an experience I had while on the way to Postville, Iowa, to participate in a rally in support of the immigrant workers who were caught up in that now famous raid.  My wife, a friend, and I were just outside of Postville when we stopped at a gas station convenience store for a break.  Parked next to us were a carload of Chicagoans, one of whom was dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, complete with body makeup.  Seeing the “Statue” we assumed both that they were heading toward the rally and were coming as supporters.  However, as we approached them and engaged in conversation, while we learned that they indeed were heading to Postville, their purpose was to participate in a counter-rally.  It would seem that for them, the Statue of Liberty had somehow been transformed from its original symbol of welcome to immigrants to one which was intended to guard our shores against the invasion of immigrants.  When we Americans choose to forget our own immigrant roots and how we are the direct beneficiaries of our nation’s earlier open immigration policy, xenophobia – fear of strangers – becomes the order of the day.  While there are those today who try to crown it as a virtue, I cannot help but reflect upon the fact that in the Reform Jewish prayerbook for the High Holy Days, xenophobia is mentioned as one of the sins for which we are instructed to communally confess.

All of this particularly disturbs me as a Jew.  For Jewish tradition is very clear on this matter.  The Torah repeatedly charges us to treat the “stranger” in our midst as the “home-born”, with dignity, compassion, and justice.  It repeatedly reminds us to recall “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  As we once suffered under the mistreatment of the Egyptians because we were strangers, we need to resolve to be better than that when we deal with the strangers in our midst.  There is no quota system in the Torah, nor is there a call for racial profiling to be found there.

Considering all these factors, I firmly believe that we need to pry open our nation’s  doors to immigration.  We need to return to a time when we were welcoming of newcomers and willing to share the American dream and hope with those so desperately in need of both.

Obviously, today is not the 19th century nor the very beginnings of the 20th.  Times have changed and situations have changed, and therefore, so must our approach to immigration.  We cannot simply re-open Ellis Island and hang out a generic welcome sign.  This, being the 21st century, we need to establish a 21st century response to our immigration challenges.

Of course, the first challenge we face today is the presence of so many illegal immigrants/undocumented workers residing within our borders.  The approach taken by the state of Arizona basically has been to round them all up and ship them all out.

I would take another approach.  I would like to see our nation offer each and every one of these illegal aliens an amnesty.  I say amnesty rather than citizenship because I believe that American citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility, and therefore should neither be treated lightly or merely given away in the manner of a supermarket promotional.  While I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it, still that citizenship should be earned.  Ergo, I would offer amnesty, not citizenship.

I envision such amnesty as an opening of the path to citizenship.  While the amnesty would be open to all, yet if one accepts the amnesty, then they also must accept the responsibility to enter into the established process of naturalization.  Like all other immigrants, they must take the classes which teach about what it means to be an American, they must take and pass the tests, and of course, if they are successful in the process, they must take the oath of loyal citizenship to our nation.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say, “I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it.”  By making that possibility available, I am not just talking about offering classes.  I am also talking about offering whatever social supports are necessary to enable these individuals to be able to maintain their lives and their families while they are going through the naturalization process.  We need to do whatever is necessary to make this opportunity for these people a realistic opportunity and not just a symbolic one.

If there are those who refuse the amnesty, or who accept the amnesty but refuse to go through the naturalization process, then these individuals are truly illegal aliens, for they have been given the opportunity to become American citizens but have actively chosen to reject it.  It would appear to be their desire to reside in our nation, to take advantage of all the benefits offered by our nation, but not to become at one with our nation.  This is simply unacceptable.  If a person wants to enjoy the benefits of America, then that person has to accept the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with being an American.  If they are unwilling to accept those responsibilities then they have no place in America.  While the opportunity to become an American should be open to as many as possible, still one must be an American, or an aspiring American, in order to enjoy the benefits of our country and reside within our midst.  For those who choose otherwise, then the door swings both ways.  Not only are they welcomed to leave but it is appropriate to usher them out.

Addressing the issue of the illegal aliens in our midst is only one of our challenges.  For there are plenty more potential illegal aliens where they came from; there are plenty of others who are and will be seeking entry into our country but who at this time still reside outside of our borders.   They are the potential illegal aliens of the future.  Well, the future begins now.  As we address the issue of dealing with the illegal aliens in our midst, we also have to address the issue of how to we prevent massive illegal immigration into our country in the future.

My response is not by building higher walls to keep them out but rather by establishing a better and more open and just system to responsibly welcome them in.  The first thing that must go is the quota system.  America should not be about trying to maintain some sort of ethnic balance from the past.  We should be about making America available to all those who desire and deserve to be Americans.

We need to develop a system which effectively screens potential immigrants.  It needs to be an accessible system so that it is very clear that legal immigration to America is indeed a very real possibility.  Yet at the same time it needs to be a system which does protect America.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who may pose a threat to our people, such as convicted felons (as defined by American law and not the perversion of law promulgated by some dictatorships) and those who carry contagious diseases.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who are unwilling to invest themselves in the process of obtaining American citizenship.   Such screening is not discrimination.  It is wisdom.  For while welcoming as many aspiring Americans as possible is the right thing to do to,  still it is the wise thing to try to assure that those whom we welcome will add to the strength and the character of our nation, and not detract from it.

Intimately tied to the issue of immigration has been the struggle over language.  For years now, “English Only” laws have been a center of much debate in our nation.  There are those who hold that such laws protect the very fabric of American culture, and there are those who hold that such laws are the essence of racism.  Personally, I have been torn by this debate.  I see both sides and stand uncomfortably in the middle.  English is our national language.  As such, I firmly believe that all those who aspire to American citizenship must learn to speak the language.  It is probably the most important key that opens the door to the fullness of American life.  To make believe that it is unnecessary for our aspiring immigrants to learn our language is pure folly.  Indeed, to minimize or deny our immigrants’ need of English skills is to condemn them to remaining on the lowest rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder.  Now that is discrimination!  I find it ironic that those who would work hardest to protect our immigrant population would at the same time promote an anti-English ideology which would in the end only hurt those they wish to protect.

That being said, I am not completely in favor of English Only laws.  I do suspect that those who promote them are doing so for less than idealistic reasons; that there is an underlying prejudice embedded within them.  While I do believe, for example, that an electoral ballot should only be published in English, for English skills should be a prerequisite for American citizenship, while voting is a privilege of citizenship, I do not believe that such things as exams for a drivers license should be only published in English.  These people are going to drive on our streets, and they are not necessarily going to wait until they pass their citizenship exam to do so.  Indeed, if they are living in a community like mine, they need to drive to survive, for in such communities one cannot depend upon public transportation.  Simply as a matter of public safety, I would prefer that they be permitted to take their driving exams in whatever language they speak so that they can become licensed drivers, and hopefully safe drivers.  The same would go for access to medical care.  Regardless of language, people get sick.  Everyone deserves to be able to communicate what ails them to medical professionals.  Therefore, when it comes to the question of English and immigration, while we need to be assertive about the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of our national language, we should not be absolute.  We need to seek out the appropriate middle ground; something the advocates on both sides of this issue have refused to do.

No presentation on immigration would be complete if it did not address the issue of employment.  For almost as long as immigrants have flocked to America, there have been those Americans who have opposed immigration on the grounds that the new immigrants would be taking away their jobs.  Yet when we look at the history of American immigration, and when we look at the immigrant situation in our nation today, we can clearly see that such a charge is patently false.  It is rare indeed when new immigrants enter our society and find themselves somewhere in the middle or top of the employment food chain.  Far more often than not, they are on the bottom of that chain, doing work that other Americans prefer not to do.  So it is today.  Our immigrant, and particularly our illegal immigrant population are deeply involved in what might be called menial labor.  They are janitors.  They are dishwashers.  They are maids.  They work in such difficult industries as meat packing.  Theirs are jobs that the overwhelming majority of Americans would never consider doing unless their situation was absolutely desperate.  Rather than “stealing” jobs in our society, they are filling a very real need.  This has been the way with all American immigrants.  The first generation does whatever needs to be done in order to keep their family fed.  They send their children to school and it is that next generation that starts to take their group up the socioeconomic ladder.

In successfully addressing the issue of immigration reform, when it comes to jobs, we also address another serious flaw in our current system.  That flaw is the abuse of illegal immigrants by unscrupulous employers.  There are those who enjoy the financial benefits of maintaining a significant population of illegal immigrants in our nation.  These illegal immigrants are nothing more than the victims of such employers.  These employers pay them substandard wages and provide them with little or no benefits.  Worse yet, they hold them captive, enslaving them with the threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities.  As the raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa revealed, this system subjects these illegal immigrants to all sorts of collateral abuses, including sexual abuse and the flagrant violation of child labor laws.  All this would be brought to a grinding halt if these people were not forced to live under the radar in our country.  If they could be granted official status and with that, official protection.  Indeed, such an elimination of an illegal immigration work force would force such employers to offer legitimate wages, benefits, and working conditions.  It would create a more open and competitive jobs market.  Yes, prices would go up, but is it not about time that the money we Americans save due to lower prices stop being blood money?

Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty poetess, is one of my American Jewish heroes.  Part of me is happy that she is not around today to see what our country has done to its immigrants.  It would break her heart!  Yet another part of me wishes that she was among us still for she would not be one to stand idly by on this issue.  She would be a strong voice reminding us of our immigrant heritage and of our responsibility to offer to others today the blessing which our ancestors received when they arrived on these shores.