I was in Philadelphia over the past week – my first real visit there as a tourist. My son and I went to sites of historical interest – Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and so forth. And we also visited places of Jewish historical interest – we welcomed Shabbat last week at Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest congregations in America, where they still practice the traditional Spanish-Portuguese minhag, and also, of course, the National Museum of American Jewish History, now nearly a decade old.
If you have not yet been to this museum, it is worth the trip to Philly. It documents and explores the Jewish experience in America, from the arrival of the 23 Dutch Jews seeking safe haven in 1654, straight through to our contemporary moment. The visitor watches as the community grows, primarily through waves of immigration, spreading from the Eastern coastal enclaves and across the continent, developing a distinctly American character along the way.
Judaism has flourished in this country. And why is that? Because, unlike in the Europe of old, Jews were effectively welcomed from the outset. Yes, the initial group that landed in 1654 were only tolerated by the Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, and had to petition the government in Holland for the right to stay. But with independence declared in Philadelphia 122 years later, followed soon by the enshrinement of Democratic principles in the Constitution, Jews were treated as equal citizens, something that did not occur in most of the rest of the world until much later.
And we continue to thrive here. As I grow older, I am more and more grateful that our founders, even though they most likely saw the Jews as unlike them, created a system that guaranteed religious liberty.
And so too for other immigrant groups. Though Irish immigrants were discriminated against horribly upon landing here, our government gave them the same protections; so too for the Italians and the Chinese and people from many other places. It took a long time – too long – for the U.S. government to treat the children of African slaves, who were brought here against their will and sold in public markets as animals, as equals, but eventually that happened, albeit imperfectly.
So it is with great pain and dismay that I followed the public clashes over the last two weeks over four first-term congresswomen who were insulted by the most visible representative of the United States government. I will not rehash the story here.
But we have a real problem in confronting this, folks. And we the Jews have to make sure that we are not sucked into the bigotry underlying this.
It seems to me that in the not-too-distant past, Americans were good at keeping prejudices to themselves in the public sphere. But that has changed. Whether due to the lamentable principle that the most outrageous statements are the only ones that rise to the top of the crowded, noisy news pile, or because of our president’s apparent unwillingness to call out xenophobic hatred when given the opportunity, all of our anti-isms are coming out of the closet.
Leading the current pack is the anti-immigrant movement roiling the world.
But not only that. I have heard Jews, friends, colleagues, say horrible, hateful things, like, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” Or, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” something which is clearly not true. I have heard Jews use slurs and make offensive jokes about racial and ethnic groups.
And, let’s be clear here: this is not unique to the Jews. In fact, I would say that, based on my own personal experience, Jews are no more or less prejudiced than any other group. It is, unfortunately, a natural human inclination to be dismissive, disdainful, or even hateful of people unlike you.
And, in particular, when I hear politicians of any sort saying things like, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” or people applying the terms “apartheid” or “genocide” to the State of Israel, I understand that intolerance is not limited to any particular group or political persuasion.
If we want this nation to hold together, and to continue to uphold the democratic principles that have enabled the Jews and members of every other group to thrive in this country, we must ensure that the infection of bigotry of all sorts is defeated.
We read this morning from Parashat Pinehas, which is the most-read-from parashah in the whole Torah because it contains the festival sacrifices. So we read a passage from it every Rosh Hodesh (at the beginning of each Hebrew month), and on every holiday morning throughout the year. But we only read about Pinehas, the biblical character, on this Shabbat. And that is OK, because he is not necessarily somebody whom we want to cite as a role model.
At the end of Parashat Balaq, which we read last week, Pinehas stabs a couple in flagrante delicto – an Israelite man canoodling with a Midianite woman. The Torah text itself seems to regard this as a good thing; Pinehas’ bloodthirsty action is rewarded by God with an end to a plague that was punishment for idolatry.
But the vast majority of commentators see his vigilante justice as a negative. In fact, there is a custom that is widespread among soferim, the scribes who write out Torah scrolls, that when God says, at the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, “Hineni noten lo et beriti shalom,” I hereby give Pinehas my covenant of peace, they leave the letter “vav” in the word “shalom” as broken, the top piece separated from the bottom by a little white space. The suggestion is that while God clearly did not want the Israelites cavorting with non-Israelites, the zealotry of Pinehas created a fractured peace, not the wholeness that the word “shalom” suggests.
Drawing lines through zealotry, dividing people through anger and hatred, does not create peace. On the contrary, it fractures all of us.
Another site of interest that we happened upon in Philly was the Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. It includes six memorial pillars, representing the six million Jewish victims, with each pillar “chronicling an atrocity of the Holocaust and contrasting it with American constitutional protections and values” (according to the memorial’s website). One of those pillars includes a well-known quote from President George Washington, in a letter to the congregation in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, 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 in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Although not appearing on this memorial pillar, Washington continued as follows:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Our nation has been a safe haven and a beacon of hope flowing from the democratic principles it has upheld since its establishment. We, along with other immigrant groups, have been welcome and treated as equals by our government, if not always by our fellow citizens, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, contrary to the words of the prophet Micah whom Washington cited, I am afraid.
When angry mobs are chanting against immigrants, and indeed American-born politicians,
when the level of public discourse has become so debased as to feature public figures insulting each other with obscenities,
when supporters of the State of Israel find themselves unwelcome on both right and left, I am afraid.
But even more so, I am afraid because of the oft-quoted words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, originally delivered at a church in Frankfurt in January, 1946, not long after World War II:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist…
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent; I was not a Jew.
Niemoller’s reflection, that by the time they came for him, there was nobody left to speak up, applies to us today as well. We the Jews may not be the current target, but we better not find ourselves in Niemoller’s shoes.
When we hear anybody say anything that can be construed as demeaning or derogatory to another group, whether it comes from a friend, a politician, or your mother, it is our obligation to speak up for the disenfranchised, because, as you know, we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And when angry mobs start chanting anti-immigrant epithets, we have to stand up as a community and say, “Never again.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/27/2019.)