Standing Down Legal Segregation on Yom Hashoah

bibleinjail21 Today marks Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and as it turns out, this year it falls on a serendipitous milestone: namely the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Although MLK wrote his letter to respond to the reality of Jim Crow in the American South, I do believe his words have much to offer us as we remember those who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II – in particular, King’s insistence on the moral imperative to break unjust laws and the inherent immorality of legal segregation:

(There) are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.

In light of King’s words, it is worth noting that the rise of Nazism in Germany was facilitated by largely “legal” means – through myriad laws and regulations that successfully segregated Jews from the rest of German society.  King himself pointed this out in his letter when he wrote:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal…” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

In this regard, Dr. King’s insight might well inspire us to commemorate this sacred day by redoubling our resolve to eradicate laws that segregate peoples on the basis of their national, ethnic or religious identities.


Segregated Shuhada street in Hebron, February 2012 (photo: Hithabrut-Tarabut)

While it pains me to say it, I cannot help but note that the very country that first established Holocaust Remembrance Day itself enforces its own form of legal segregation between Jews and non-Jews. As one Israeli observer wrote in Ha’aretz five years ago, “Segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israel…is almost absolute.” In the West Bank, Jews and non-Jews are segregated by separate legal systems, separate roads, separate transportation systems, and in some cases, separate sidewalks. And in Gaza, Palestinians are segregated from the outside world entirely.

I have no doubt that there will be those who consider it unseemly of me – or worse – to point this out on Yom Hashoah of all days. To this inevitable criticism, I can only respond, how can we purport to take the lessons of the Shoah to heart while ignoring realities such as these? How long will we, as Jews, look way from these unjust laws in Israel that “distort the soul and damage the personality?” On this, of all days, shouldn’t we, as King suggested in his letter, “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive?”

May the memory of the fallen be for a blessing.

15 thoughts on “Standing Down Legal Segregation on Yom Hashoah

  1. David

    In Israel, as in all other countries, non-citizens don’t have the same rights as citizens. Arab Israeli citizens have the same rights as Jewish Israeli citizens. Arab residents of Jerusalem were offered the opportunity to apply for Israeli citizenship. A large number (40% ?) of Arab Jerusalem residents would prefer to be citizens of Israel, rather than live under the incompetent, corrupt, and kleptocratic PA. However, most of them are afraid that if they apply for Israeli citizenship the PA will murder them.

    I agree that Israel (and the world) should stop supporting the PA, end military rule in Judea and Samaria, and apply Israeli law to all the residents of Judea and Samaria.

    The only hope that I see for Gaza is for Gazans to overthrow both Hamas and Fatah and elect a government that is willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, to renounce all violence, to end Jew-hatred, and to live as a peaceful neighbor of Israel and Egypt.

    1. Richard Handel

      David- Your comment is based on profound misinformation and moral myopia.

      First, the statement that “Arab Israeli citizens have the same rights as Jewish Israeli citizens.” Nonsense. All you need to do is first fathom the question “What does it mean to define a state on the basis of one ethnicity, religion, or race?” (i.e., the “Jewish and [supposedly] democratic State of Israel”). The only answer is that the state is established to promote and prefer Jewish rights above those of all other groups (including, and most especially, the native inhabitants of the land, who have been displaced, ethnically cleansed, discriminated against and oppressed since 1948. Hence, a discriminatory sate down to its DNA and self-definition.

      There are over 50 Israeli laws that facially discriminate in favor of Jews and against all others (e.g., the Absentee law, the law of the return, laws that prefer veterans of the IDF, the nationality law, laws with respect to land ownership that are administered in concert with the Jewish National Fund (that leases or sells public land only to Jews) and a host of others listed on the Adalah website: ). That’s what is called “de jure” (by law) discrimination.

      Then there’s what’s known as “de facto” discrimination – where the attitudes and practices of the majority group result in wide-spread discriminatory practices applied against other groups (as well discussed in this comment by Rabbi Rosen.) As in America, “separate but [un]equal is inherently unequal.”

      Yes, one can deplore Hamas for its militancy and fundamentalism, but one has to apply such condemnations equally against the zealots in the settler camp, who are just as abominable. And Israel must accept responsibility for the popularity of Hamas – if Israel had wanted to create groups of militant rejectionist religious fanatics, it could have done no better than it has over the last 67 years – displace, murder, oppress and dehumanize a group based on its ethnicity and religion, what else can one expect. An occupied people have the right to resist their occupation, even by violent means. Although I condemn attacks on civilians (both by militant rockets and by use of a modern army such as Israel does constantly (see, e.g, the serial slaughter by the IDF in Gaza over these last years and the incessant violence used by the IDF in the OTs)

      Finally, the oft-used phrase “recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” needs to be examined in light of these basic principles. Israel now has the right to exist as a state, but not one based on ethnic, racial or religious preference. There isn’t a “tension” between the Jewish nature of the State and its democratic nature…it’s logically, morally, ethically and legally a CONTRADICTION. You can’t square that circle.

      As a son of a sabra and an American, I implore all to look at the real facts of history and the present. It’s well past time to make Israel a state for ALL of its inhabitants – from the sea to the Jordan.

  2. gwpj

    Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
    Pushing any group aside as insignificant and worthless is unjust. Unjust laws destroy not only the persecuted and shoved aside, they also destroy the people who support them. Think about it.

  3. Robin Gorsline

    Thank you, Rabbi Brant, for remind ding us that the struggle for recognition of the innate dignity of every person continues, and that the witness of those who have gone before must guide us forward. We must remember the lost in the past, but we cannot ignore the lost today.

  4. theglauber

    Thank you for reminding me of Dr King’s letter and his thoughts about just and unjust laws.

  5. Garnel Ironheart

    I have been listening to this kind of thinking for years and it never ceases to amaze me.
    The lesson of the Holocaust isn’t that Jews must be uber-tolerant, uber-conceding, uber-nice because the Nazis, y”sh, were the opposite. The lesson of the Holocaust is that we must not allow our enemies to slaughter us wholesale, that Jewish blood isn’t cheap and that no one will defend us other than ourselves. “Never again” isn’t a plea for multicultural coexistence, it’s a shout out that we will not allow our enemies to have power over us again if we can help it.
    The Arabs in Yehuda and Shomron are not our friends. As individuals they might all be very nice people but their leaders, the people who have de facto control over their lives in ways incomprehensible to Western folks, hate Israel and wish to see it destroyed. They are not people so much as pawns in the hands of their rulers and until those rulers change the pawns must be countered.

  6. Eric C. M. Basir

    Rabbi Rosen: A voice of reason. Thank you for continuing to help us all—Jew, Muslim, Christian and others—to look squarely in the mirror. Your bravery is supreme compared to all the so-called warriors, zealots and patriots ready to justify their hate to continue the bloodshed.

  7. David

    Martin Luther King’s Dream for Peace in Israel (quoted from )

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed a remarkable clarity of vision and purpose. He complemented these attributes with a sound understanding of the history of human oppression. Dr. King’s unequivocal renunciation of anti-Zionism reflected his consistent, courageous opposition to all manifestations of bigotry. Against the backdrop of resurgent Jew hatred worldwide, epitomized by the hypocritical Durban Conference on “Racism”, Dr. King’s candid, thoughtful reflections on the true nature of anti-Zionism are particularly edifying.

    Watch this very enlightening film that shows Dr. King’s strong support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. He had a dream for peace in Israel, but understood that peace comes with security.
    Shortly before his death, Dr. King had the moral courage to confront the burgeoning Jew hatred of the extreme left wing, including the Black Panthers and the radicalized Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, as well as the Black Muslims. For example, during a 1968 appearance at Harvard University, he stated bluntly:

    “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.”

    King immediately recognized anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism – refusing to indulge what he believed was simply another manifestation of the same hatred confronting Blacks. As Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who worked closely with Dr. King during the civil rights movement, observed that “he knew that both peoples [i.e., Blacks and Jews] were uprooted involuntarily from their homelands. He knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery. He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettos, victims of segregation. He knew that both peoples were subject to laws passed with the particular intent of oppressing them simply because they were Jewish or black. He knew that both peoples have been subjected to oppression and genocide on a level unprecedented in history.”

    Here are some other quotes from Dr. King:

    “I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world… as a marvelous example of what can be done… how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”

    “Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

    “I solemnly pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews.”

    Original Source: Andrew Bostom, January 20, 2003

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      There have been serious questions raised about the veracity and context of these quotes by King, which are regularly bandied about by Israel advocates. At any rate, it is important to note that King died shortly after Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I think it is well worth asking how he would respond to the reality today of segregated legal systems, roads and transportation systems in the West Bank, not to mention administrative detention of children, home demolitions and expropriation of Palestinian lands.

  8. Andrew

    Rabbi Rosen: You are a hateful racist and supporter of violence against Jews. You should leave the Rabbinate immediately and join ISIS. People like you are the reason for Islamic violence against tens of thousand in Africa and the Middle East. Your support for hate groups like Jewish Voice for Peace makes you complicit with the ongoing persecution of minorities throughout the world as well as Iranian colonialism. You should travel to the killing fields in Africa and see for yourself your policies in action. I hope you rot in hell with the Nazi, terrorists and other racist homophobes you collaborate with.

  9. Sylvia

    Brant Rosen writes: “I have no doubt that there will be those who consider it unseemly of me – or worse – to point this out on Yom Hashoah of all days.”

    Unseemly of you? Not at all. Coming from you, I’d consider it banal, expected, predictable: Never has the banality of evil been so clear.

  10. Free Polazzo

    Rabbi Rosen,

    Rabbi Speaks My Mind! 🙂

    Your blog states so well a major reason that 18 years ago I helped to co-found Uplifting People here in Atlanta, GA. Uplifting People’s reason for being is to help people in Georgia to NOT return to prison. We have been helping *(mostly) African American returning citizens to recover from their encounter with the legal system where the laws and law enforcement were/are heavily stacked against them. ( For evidence, read: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander). This wasn’t some spur of the moment decision. It was based on a lifetime of seeing how we oppressed African Americans and waiting for way to open for me to find something to do that would not make things worse.

    My mom, Fay, who was born in 1926 in Germany, was treated badly because she was born into a minority that was hated for many, many centuries. For her membership in that minority, she was humiliated most of her childhood. in her elementary school classes her teachers would humiliate her in front of the whole class. When she went outside she was shunned and called names and threatened in her hometown of Heidelberg. All because she was born a Jew. And this all happened before she ended up in a camp for being a Jew. She was “arrested” as was my dad for being the “wrong kind of person”. Luckily, she survived to tell me about it.

    Mom brought my twin and I to America in 1946. While growing up in NYC I remember my mom telling me to thank every black person I ever would meet. Why, I asked? She said “Because if it wasn’t for them, WE JEWS would be getting the hate and anger and discriminatory behavior that they were receiving. NEVER FORGET!”

    I saw first hand the results of oppression that my mom and her brothers and my grandparents had suffered and still suffered with something we now know is PTSD. (My twin and I were attacked by fellow 5th graders while living in Brooklyn for being “Christ Killers”!) Still, I grew up learning and believing that the USA was a land of opportunity where all are created equal. And I looked for ways to help those whom America had decided to treat as its scapegoats.

    Sadly, I could not find a spiritual home where scapegoating was not practiced, Happily in my early 40’s I found the Atlanta Friends Meeting and learned that they actually practiced (as humanly as possible) their belief that there was that of the Spirit in every person. Even me!

    When I joined, my letter said I would remain a Jew even as I became a Quaker, because that is how I was raised and because I wanted to honor my ancestor’s journeys that led me to this place where I “turn round right’. I felt that I could be a bridge between the mostly Christian community I live in and those of us who were not used to their language.

    It is not easy to speak truth to those closest to us on our Spiritual journey but each of us speaking our truth is required if we are to build the peaceable kindom (sic) that we all seek. If we want peace, it must begin with ourselves and those we live and work and worship with.

    Thank you, Brant, for speaking truth and for working with the American Friends Service Committee.



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