Category Archives: Racism

Reckoning with the Arc of the Moral Universe in the Age of Trump: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5779

Arc of the Moral Universe

Writing topical High Holiday sermons is a process fraught with peril. It’s common knowledge among rabbis that if you sit down to write at the beginning of the summer, chances are pretty good that your chosen issue will be obsolete by the time the holidays roll around. In the current political moment however, where current events have accelerated to warp speed, it feels as if issues become obsolete every hour on the hour. Thus my challenge this year: how do I respond without contributing to the ever-increasing barrage that has become our current reality?

More to the point: how do I avoid contributing to the widespread despair that so many of us are feeling? I’m sure most of us are experiencing current events as an onslaught. They come at us faster and faster: every new policy strike-down, every new act of deregulation, every new appointment feels like yet another kick to the stomach.

To put it simply, the world that so many of us fought for seems to be unraveling before our eyes. So many of the socio-political gains we’ve struggled so hard for for so long are being rolled back on an almost daily basis.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I want to forgo the topical sermon in favor of some deeper questions. Namely, how can we maintain our equilibrium during the current political moment? How do we respond to the onslaught? How do we resist the despair that for so many of us, characterizes the nightmare age of Trump?

Since the election, we’ve been hearing from mental health experts that there’s been a dramatic spike in anxiety and depression since the election – a kind of “political stress disorder” – but that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, I’d like to explore why so many of our previously held beliefs about our world seem to have come crashing down on top of us. In particular, I want to look closely at the assumptions that Americans – particularly liberal Americans – use to understand the history of progress in our country.

I’d like to ask, have they been harmful in ways we don’t often stop to realize? And if they are, might there be different frames we can use to understand the world around us? Ones that will help us stand down the despair and give us the strength to fight for the world we want to see? And finally, on this new year, I’d like to explore how Torah and Jewish tradition address this question in ways that might help us find a way forward together.

Let’s start with one very common assumption: the view that history is a march toward progress. This view is considered a central tenet of liberalism and it dates all the way back to the Enlightenment. In fact, this idea is so deeply embedded in the mindset of so many Americans that it is almost taken for granted.

Now certainly, when we look at the unfolding of American history, we could make a very strong case for this view. It certainly seems that the arc of history bends toward justice. Our march toward progress is well known: the abolition of slavery, the creation of labor laws, the right of women to vote, civil rights legislation, environmental regulation.

The idea in a nutshell: “We struggled, we won, progress was achieved.” This linear view of socio-political progress is deeply ingrained in the mythos of liberal America. When these historical moments occur, they enter into our national consciousness and become part of a collective narrative of progress. We venerate them, we celebrate them – often on an annual basis – and then either consciously or unconsciously, we assume that history will continue to progress in a linear fashion from that point onward.

The only problem with this assumption is that it doesn’t. And it never has.

Let’s use the first example on the list I just mentioned: abolition. Most of us date the abolition of slavery back to 1865 with the adoption of the 13th amendment – but in truth, abolition resulted from over century of struggle on many different fronts. But it wasn’t a linear struggle. And the struggle is far from over.

During Reconstruction, former slaves did make meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.

But as W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” After the formal fall of slavery in the South, there was sharecropping, in which black farmers became debt slaves to their white landlords; there was the convict lease system, in which black men were leased out to wealthy plantation owners and corporations; there were widespread lynchings in the South and yes, often in the North as well. There was Jim Crow – a legal caste system that literally divided black and white Americans.

And after the civil rights movement helped bring down segregation, we’ve seen the emergence of the “New Jim Crow” as a result of mass incarceration. As scholar Michelle Alexander and others have pointed out, more black men are currently behind bars or under the thumb of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved at the height of slavery.

Yes, the abolition of slavery was a significant victory and yes, we should celebrate our victories. But we cannot assume that injustice will simply end or evaporate with these victories. More often than not, it morphs into different forms in insidious ways.

It seems to me that liberal Americans – particularly white liberal Americans – chronically underestimate the tenacity and staying power of injustice. Why? Well for one thing, although we don’t often acknowledge it, this country was founded on injustice – on the original sins of indigenous genocide, slavery and the economic supremacy of white property-holding men. Injustice is part of our national DNA. As long as we fail admit this, it’s too easy to ignore the ways injustice is chronically manifest in the life of our country.

Our American political culture reinforces the notion that struggles for liberation invariably lead to the eradication of injustice. The way we memorialize the civil rights movement provides a good example. In her recent book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History,” Professor Jeanne Theoharis writes powerfully about the ways political elites – who historically fought the passage of civil rights – regularly use this history as proof of how great our country is. President Ronald Reagan for instance, repeatedly resisted efforts to turn Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday. He finally relented however, when he realized he could co-opt MLK and the civil rights movement.

When Reagan signed the bill into law, he said,

We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.

But it’s not only conservative politicians who promote this new mythic history. Theoharis also quotes Barack Obama from a 2007 speech in Selma, Alabama. Referring to the civil rights generation, he said, “They took us 90 percent of the way there, but we still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side.” The implication that we have eradicated 90% of the racial problems in our country is of course, serious political hyperbole. And it speaks to a very common trope in our national culture: that our great nation was founded on a struggle for freedom, that these struggles are what make this country great, and that these struggles somehow eradicate injustice from our midst.

In reality, however, these struggles don’t succeed because of our country – they succeed in spite of our country. And they certainly do not end racism and injustice once and for all. Whether they stem from hyperbole, ideology or unconscious assumptions, I believe that these false tropes breed complacency. After all, why worry too much if we believe history proves our struggle will eradicate injustice in end? And when injustice metastasizes into new and different forms, it upsets our neat, linear assumptions about American progress. As a result, we’re ill-equipped – emotionally and strategically – to respond properly to this new reality.

I’d like to turn now to Jewish tradition and explore whether or not the Torah has anything to offer us on this particular question. It’s often been observed by liberal scholars in fact, that this linear view of historical progress can be traced back to Biblical tradition. According to this school of thought, the polytheistic traditions of the Ancient Near East viewed history as circular, embodied in the never ending, constantly repeating cycles of nature. Israelite monotheism however, upended these traditions, sublimating the gods of nature to the one God of history, who alone could control nature and events according to his will.

Here’s a good representation of this view – I’m quoting from an essay by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

The consequences of this shift from nature to history reinforce the idea of ethical monotheism. Judaism develops a linear concept of time as opposed to a cyclical one and sanctifies events rather than places. The mountain of Sinai is not holy, or even known, but the moment of revelation is. The Torah intentionally conceals from us the place where Moses is buried. Time is a medium less susceptible to idolatry or polytheism, in which God’s presence is made manifest audibly rather than visually. Time becomes for Judaism the realm in which humanity and God join to complete together the work of creation…The triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.

While this is a popular view of many Jewish scholars, I find it to be problematic on so many levels. Particularly this notion that “the triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.” This kind of linear messianic thinking leads to a concrete end game, a victory that will solve all our problems. Messianic movements of course, have historically arisen during periods of acute crisis – times in which the vision of the ideal world becomes profoundly exciting and intoxicating to the growing numbers of people. But as we know all too well, messianic movements almost always end in upheaval, disillusionment and too often, tragedy.

You don’t have to be fundamentalist or even particularly religious to engage in linear messianic thinking. We all have a tendency, particularly during difficult times, to focus our expectations on an idealized conclusion. While this is undeniably inspiring and motivating, we too often end up mistaking the victories we experience along the way as the end game itself. We fall into the trap of viewing progress as an entitlement rather than something that must be constantly, constantly struggled for in every generation. It sometimes feels to me that this fixation on the end game is itself a kind of idolatry. We might say that we create a false god whenever we objectify one idea or concept or movement as the ultimate panacea for the problems of the world.

This is not however, the only Jewish frame for understanding history. I’d like to suggest another – one that I personally find to be much more helpful and inspiring. It is embodied by the word,“Yisrael” which literally means “one who struggles with God.” In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael after he wrestles with a mysterious night visitor that turns out later to be God. Jacob is victorious – and this moment marks a critical turning point in his life. But at the same time, he is wounded by the encounter – he limps as he crosses the river the next morning.

It’s also notable that Jacob’s struggle does not end with this one episode. His life certainly does not follow a straight line from this point on. Nor does the journey of the people of Israel who bear his name. In fact, the Torah narrative always ends before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Just when they arrive at the threshold, we literally rewind the Torah back to the beginning and we start the journey anew. The cycle begins once again.

In other words, redemption is not located in any particular place or point in time – it is experienced in the act of struggle itself. God cannot be found in a land or place, nor at some literal end time. God is in the struggle. We might even say, God is the struggle.

Now I know for some this might seem on the surface to be a bit on the bleak side. Some might of you might be thinking, “Is this all we have to look forward to? Life is just one long endless struggle? And we never even get to the Promised Land? How is this inspiring?

Please understand: I’m not saying we can ever give up on our vision of our the world we want to see. I am suggesting that at some point it is important to let go of the expectation that we must inevitably get there – because I really do believe that holding on too tightly to that expectation is a set up for despair and disillusionment.

Yes, this spiritual frame does involve an acknowledgement that we will not literally arrive in the Promised Land; that the Messiah will not actually come. But at the same time, its worth considering that we do indeed enter into messianic time in ways we never stop to consider: when we show up for our fellow strugglers, when we celebrate our victories along the way, when our efforts are infused with our highest values of justice and equity and sacrifice, at those moments we find ourselves dwelling in the world we’ve been fighting for all along. We experience the world we want to see because we create it for one another.

Struggle is hard work, but if we view it exclusively as a means to an end, we will be only that: hard work. However, if we view struggle as an inherently sacred act, we may yet see the face of God in our comrades and those who have gone before us. We may come to understand that the messianic age is not simply a far off dream. We may yet find we are dwelling in the Promised Land in ways we have never been able to realize before.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of “spiritual reboot” for ourselves and our community. In the traditional liturgy we say “Hayom Harat Olam” – it is the birthday of the world! On one level I think this means we never forfeit the ability to view the world with different eyes, through new and different frames. And if we can do this, we may well be able to transform the world itself. Yes, we live in painful, difficult times, but this is nothing new. Yes, there have been significant setbacks to many hard won battles in our country, but the struggle is far from over. In fact, as our liturgy would have it, it may be just beginning.

To all of you in Am Yisrael – and by this I mean all who struggle side by side for the cause of justice in the world – I wish you a heartfelt chazak ve’ematz – strength and courage. May it be a sweet and victorious year for us all.

 

Our Wayward and Defiant Children

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My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, we read:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So what is this, some kind of sick joke?

In fairness, it should be noted that many classical Jewish commentators have properly recoiled from these infamous verses. In a well-known Talmudic passage, R. Judah and R. Simeon went as far as to claim that this law was never actually enacted, stating, “There never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son. (BT Sanhedrin 71a)

Why then, you might ask, was this law included in the Torah? Rabbis Judah and Simeon cryptically respond: “Seek and you shall find reward” – a comment commonly understood to mean parents should study this passage and be appropriately scared enough to set their children on the right path.

In this Talmudic understanding, then, the commandment of the wayward and defiant son thus seems to serve as a kind of parental shock therapy. Whether or not we find this advice “rewarding,” I do think that these Torah verses reflect every parent’s deepest insecurities – and society’s latent fear that it might somehow lose control of its children.

When I think of this week’s Torah portion, I can’t help but think of our own city of Chicago, where the police’s customary response to youth violence too often, is more violence. As Tamar Manasseh, founder of the local South Side organization Mother’s Against Senseless Killings recently wrote:

Putting more police on the streets or sending in the National Guard will not solve the scourge of gun violence in our communities. There will be no reduction in crime; in reality, nothing will be reduced except the number of people who are left in these neighborhoods. That’s what happens when you eliminate schools and allow food deserts to exist: People who can afford to move will do so, and the people left behind will be over-policed.

“Seek and you shall find reward.” Or, as Tamar so wisely noted,

It’s time to invest in our public schools, in job creation and in training programs to give back hope to people who have so little of it left. Chicago’s ghettos are in dire need of repair; they can be healed only when our politicians pursue policies that will raise our communities up instead of keeping us under the heel of the police.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Faith Floods the Desert: Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime

IMG_4568.jpgI’ve just returned from a weekend at the border in the southern Arizona desert where I participated in a delegation of 60 faith leaders from around the country in an initiative called “Faith Floods the Desert,” supporting the of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes. It was a powerful and at times overwhelming experience. I’ll try to do my best to do it justice here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, No More Deaths is an organization that provides humanitarian relief to migrants, mobilizes search and rescue operations for disappeared migrants, and documents how border enforcement pushes migration into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. “Faith Floods the Desert” was an initiative sponsored jointly between NMD, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association in response to the increasing criminalization of migrant relief work by the US government.

Earlier this year Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by US Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing a federal felony charge and eight other No More Deaths volunteers have been charged with federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the US-Mexico border. (Warren’s arrest is particularly suspicious as it occurred eight hours after NMD released a video of border police dumping water and destroying supplies left by relief workers.)

Our delegation gathered last Saturday in Ajo, AZ, a small former copper mining town located 40 miles north of the US/Mexico border. While the majority of clergy were UU ministers, I was honored to be a part of a five-person rabbinical cohort (with my colleagues Rabbis Margaret Holub, Ari Lev Fonari, Shahar Colt and Salem Pearce). On our first full day, we attended a briefing with leaders and volunteers from NMD, who explained the history and context of the crisis at the border. For those interested in learning more, I strongly recommend their report, “Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement is Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis.” Among other things, the report does a thorough job of describing how the US Border Patrol adopted an enforcement strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence” in 1994 – the same year that the US signed the NAFTA treaty.  As the report notes:

With the implementation of this policy, the Border Patrol sought to control the Southwest border by heightening the risks associated with unauthorized entry. To do so, the agency concentrated enforcement and infrastructure to reroute migration away from urban ports of entry and into wilderness areas. By pushing traffic into remote and hostile terrain, the agency speculated that border crossers would now find themselves “in mortal danger” when attempting to enter the US without authorization. The increased danger was intended to then deter other people from considering the journey, with the overall goal of preventing migration….

As a consequence of Prevention Through Deterrence, thousands of people have perished in the borderlands due to dehydration, heat-related illness, exposure, and other preventable environmental causes. Extreme heat and bitter cold, scarce and polluted water sources, treacherous topography, and near-total isolation from possible rescue are used as weapons of border enforcement.

In other words, the US government is responsible for the policy that is knowingly causing the migration of immigrants into “remote and hostile terrain” – as well as the policy that sends the border patrol to literally hunt them down. And now our government is actually arresting those who are trying to keep them alive.

On Saturday evening, our delegation gathered in the Ajo town plaza for a press conference. I was particularly moved by the remarks of Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

We need to recognize that this system of criminalization and cruelty is devastating the lives of children and parents and families here at the border, all over the world, and also in the interior of the United States. These same mechanisms of criminalization are aimed not just at migrants and activists, but they are aimed at the poor, they are aimed at communities of color, they are aimed at people with mental health issues. Everywhere, criminalization is undermining human rights and civil rights here in the United States. Those of us who identify as Americans lose some of our humanity when we allow this to continue.

In my remarks, I made a similar point, connecting the criminalization of relief work at the border with the very same phenomenon in Gaza and Palestine:

I can’t help but be mindful of the fact that just last week there was a boat that was taking humanitarian goods to Gaza that was intercepted by the Israeli navy. The volunteer workers on board were brutalized, incarcerated and ultimately deported. This is the same work that we are doing, ultimately and I think it’s very important for all of us to understand that what’s going on here at the border is going on in Gaza and too many places around the world. As we stand in solidarity here, we need to be mindful that we are standing in solidarity in so many other ways as well.

On Sunday morning, our delegation was split into two groups. One went south to distribute water via the Devils Highway – a well-known and infamous road extending through some of the most remote and desolate regions of the Sonaran Desert. Our group traveled to the Charlie Bell Road, a trail in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge along the Growler Mountain Range. Both of these are among the few entrances to West Desert that are open to the public.

Our group of 20 consisted of faith leaders, media and NMD medics and EMTs and we traveled into Charlie Bell in four trucks. Because our action was well publicized beforehand, we fully expected to encounter law enforcement and as it turned out, several officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife stopped us at the entrance to see our entrance permits (picture below). They also asked to see the ID’s of everyone who was is the lead car. Although it was not entirely a surprise, volunteers from NMD told us this was the first time any of them had been stopped by the “Fish Cops” at the entrance to the refuge.

The day quickly became blisteringly hot – by noon it was already 110 degrees. We walked carrying two to three gallons of water each approximately one and a half miles down the trail along the mountain range. When we arrived at a well marked with a beacon and flag, we wrote messages of hope and solidarity on our plastic jugs of water and set them down. Afterwards, several of us distributed additional bottles at another site close by.

This well, by the way, is not intended for use by human beings – it was constructed by the nature preserve to water a nearby trough for wildlife (picture below). As we peered inside, we could see that the water inside was dirty and mossy, clearly unfit for human consumption. The irony did not need to be pointed out to any of us: those who maintain this area provide water for animals – while water left for human beings is confiscated and destroyed.

We also saw clear signs in the vicinity that migrants had passed through. Among them: slippers made out of carpet worn over shoes to hide their tracks and a wrapper of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico (pictures below). The evidence of the presence of migrants was not hard to find and it all seemed fairly familiar to our NMD guides.

All in all, we spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in the open desert, traveling on foot approximately 3.5 miles. The final 1/2 mile was uphill and though I made a point of hydrating constantly, the heat was constant and overpowering. (It was so hot, in fact, that the glue on the bottom of my shoes literally melted the soles off of my feet.)  I cannot begin to comprehend how migrants to walk 80 to 100 miles through such extreme terrain and hostile conditions – and I cannot consider it anything but a sacrilege that our government knowingly drives human beings into a region such as this under the guise of “deterrence.”

In the evening, we attended a monthly memorial vigil in the Ajo town plaza for migrants who perished in the West Desert region. The majority of names spoken aloud were  “Desconocido” (“Unknown”). According to NMD, at least 128 bodies were recovered just last year, including 57 in the desert where we focused our action. Many of them will never be identified. And many more will continue to remain undiscovered in the wilderness in areas that are inaccessible to relief workers.

At the end of our stay, my colleague Rabbi Ari Lev Fonari wrote the following on his Facebook page:

What I know to be true:

1. Water is life.

2. Migration is an organic part of life, a human right and a tactic of survival.

3. The border is an unnatural divide generating industry and environmental harm.

4. People have been crossing dangerous deserts by the light of the moon seeking safety and freedom, hunted by the state and sustained by their faith, for as long as human beings have been alive.

Ari Lev speaks my head and my heart. I’ve visited several militarized borders now – and I am more convinced than ever that they serve no other purpose than to shore up the power and profit of those who design, construct and maintain them. Now more than ever we must fight for a world without borders, for a world where freedom of movement over our shared earth is respected and honored.

In the meantime, however, we must reckon with the world as it currently is: a world in which nations hunt down those who dare to cross these unnatural lines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. A world in which governments criminalize those who offer migrants life-saving relief and assistance. A world in which the powerful assume no one will ultimately care about the humanity they deem disposable.

In the end, it will be up to all of us to prove them wrong.

I’m deeply grateful to those in the UUA and UUSC for convening this delegation, the volunteers of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, whose work taught us simple but powerful lessons about the discipline of human decency, and the wonderful people of Ajo who opened their community and their homes to us.

Please support the work of No More Deaths by signing this letter to the land managers of the West Desert, demanding that they “acknowledge the gravity and severity of the humanitarian crisis occurring on the lands (they) steward, and take immediate action to protect the lives and dignity of all people on these lands by upholding the right to receive and provide humanitarian aid.”

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Lunch at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church, Ajo, AZ

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Fish and Wildlife officers at the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge (photo: Ari Lev Fonari)

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Feeding trough that provides water to wildlife in the Cabeza refuge

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Carpet slippers worn by migrants to cover their tracks.

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Rabbi Salem Pearce, holding a used packet of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico .

Seder at the Mountaintop: A Guest Post by Jay Stanton

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Delivered by Rabbinic Intern Jay Stanton at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 4, 2018.

I have been thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today marks 50 years since his assassination, and I have been thinking about how blessed we are by Dr. King. Although his dream of racial equity is not yet realized, King’s vision of a just world and of a beloved community benefits us all. Still on the march to freedom, we shall not be moved. In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

So tonight bothers me. Why are we here? What are we doing here? We could be spending our time in so many immediately effective ways. We could be on the picket line with striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. We could be outside the Israeli Embassy protesting the shooting of unarmed Gazan civilians. We could be praying with our feet. Instead, we’re here, engaged in a ritual that involves praying with our taste buds. Why not abandon the traditional Passover rituals and observe the holiday by working for justice? In familiar words, why is this night different from all other nights?

I found the beginnings of an answer in the speech Dr. King gave the day before he died. Often referred to as the “Mountaintop” or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the remarks he offered on April 3, 1968, on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis are striking (pun intended). The most revisited part chronicles Dr. King’s prophetic sense of his imminent demise. But in the beginning, King imagines the extraordinary opportunity of standing with God.

In Dr. King’s imagination, God offers to take him to any point in time. Martin Luther King says:

I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

Though King’s choice is obvious, his purpose is not. Stopping in liberatory moments where freedom of thought and freedom of action expanded, he brings his listeners on his imagined journey through time. Finally, he arrives at the liberatory moment of the Poor People’s Campaign.

After acknowledging the injustices of his world, King continues:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Dr. King echoes a core aspect of the Passover seder. We say bejol dor vador jayyav adam lir’ot et ‘atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went free from Egypt. This fulfills the verse “You shall tell your child on that day that God freed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

We often take this as an echo of Torah’s most repeated rule. Having been strangers in Egypt, we must be kind to the stranger. But we don’t need a seder to have empathy for the stranger. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have shown that the best way to cultivate empathy is habitual activation of a structure in the brain called the right supermarginal gyrus. We can activate our brain’s empathy structure by focusing on others. Increasing empathy cannot be the effect of telling our story.

Our seder tells us something different, tells us something Dr. King tells us in his Mountaintop speech. For King, humanity is always striving to become free, and God is always liberating the oppressed; today’s freedom marches are the same in sacred time as the Exodus from Egypt. When we see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt, we live in that sacred moment.

Our seder allows us to live through the Exodus mythologically. Then, not only can we have empathy for the oppressed, we can share the joy of redemption and participate in liberation. For those of us currently experiencing oppression, the seder’s ritual journey allows us to memorize a feeling of having been liberated, which we will recognize when we get there.

In his Mountaintop speech, Dr. King details the ways demonstrators remained unfazed by Bull Connor’s violent tactics, stressing that liberation starts in the mind. Tonight, those of us facing oppression remember that Jews observed Passover even while oppressed – in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe and by the double standard of dhimmi status in the Middle East and North Africa. Black Jewish slaves in the American South also observed Passover, even while owned by Jews. (Yes, there were Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners in America – feel free to ask me about it later. Can you imagine slaves serving at a Jewish master’s seder and then holding their own seder during the night?) Tonight, the oppressed among us, and those too oppressed to be here with us, assert that our liberation is God’s objective. Ain’t nobody can turn us ‘round.

For those of us currently experiencing freedom, the seder’s journey cultivates gratitude for our liberation and solidarity with the oppressed. Focusing on the Exodus story allowed Dr. King to emphasize solidarity with the striking workers in Memphis. Desegregation was an important step toward collective freedom for Black Americans, but desegregation did not solve the economic injustices of Black generational poverty and wage discrimination. As King points out in his journey through the history of liberation, our specific liberations, whatever they may be, are only pieces of a greater process of redemption. If we are free while others remain oppressed, we are still living in the bondage of a narrow place.

For most of us in this room, the reality is that we experience both oppression and freedom in different moments and in different ways. Some of us may experience sexual harassment at work but enjoy equal partnership at home. Some of us may be targeted by police because of the color of our skin but know simultaneously that Black is beautiful. Some of us may encounter hate from our family members concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but enjoy the support of our queer beloved community. Some of us may encounter antisemitism from our Congressional candidates or in the newspaper, but benefit from white privilege.

We may be targets of oppression based on class, ability, immigration status, and religious affiliation, to name a few, but none of us are enslaved. We share the freedom of movement that allows us to be in this room tonight. We share the freedoms of religion and free association that allow us to have a seder here tonight. The seder, like our lives, reflects both our oppression and our liberation.

Right now, I invite you to step into this night of transformation. The root of the word “nishtanah” in mah nishtanah is change. What will change on this night, as opposed to other nights? I invite you to open your heart to be transformed by tonight. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you experience sacred time. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you know that you have been liberated. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have gratitude for the freedom you enjoy. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have a sense of history. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you stand on the shoulders of your elders. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you do so in a beloved community. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you are in solidarity with all the oppressed. So that tomorrow, when you take action for justice, you will not be moved.

Once we were slaves. Now we have been freed. How does that change you?

Sermon for Yom Kippur 5778: Another World is Possible – A Jewish View on Police/Prison Abolition

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In 1902, Clarence Darrow delivered a speech to a group of inmates at the Cook County Jail. Never known for mincing his words, he made the following point:

There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now….They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

There’s no record of what the prison administration thought of his remarks, but I think it’s fair to assume they weren’t happy.

Another anecdote, this one more recent: Two years ago, after the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and several Dallas police officers, Fox News hosted a panel discussion on police violence. One of panelists was a young African American activist and rapper named Jessica Disu. The discussion inevitably started to get heated. Disu didn’t mix in for the most part, but when someone accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the death of cops, Disu finally spoke up.

Speaking over the din, she said, “This is the reason our young people are hopeless in America.” Then she added, “Here’s a solution, we need to abolish the police.” The panel quickly descended into pandemonium.

Disu later commented that she had never previously considered herself to be a police abolitionist. But since that evening, she said, abolition has come to be the only way forward that makes sense to her. “It’s more than a repair, she said. “We need something new.”

It’s safe to say that liberal White Americans are starting to struggle with the deep legacy of institutional racism in our country. There seems to be something of an awakening to the ways that racism so painfully intersects with policing and the prison industrial complex. Of course this is an awakening to a reality that marginalized peoples have long known: that the problems of racism and violence are systemic to American society and always have been.

But while increasing numbers of liberal Americans understand this larger system of oppression, we’re nowhere near consensus on what to do about it. However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that most would not call themselves abolitionists – to say that the prison industrial complex is so incorrigibly violent, it needs to be completely dismantled. Most would likely believe such thoughts to be the product of naive, utopian minds.

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore the contemporary movement for police and prison abolition more deeply. I don’t believe that the contemporary abolitionist movement is anywhere near as simplistic as its critics make it out to be. At the very least, I think there’s a need for real debate on this issue. Should we be seeking incremental or fundamental change? Which approach will ultimately be the most effective? What theories of change have historically yielded results? Whether we agree with them or not, abolitionist arguments have an important place in this debate.

I think it is altogether appropriate to explore these questions on Yom Kippur: the day in which we look out across the year to come and vow that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. This is the day that we stand together and swear that we are indeed better than this. This is the day we imagine collectively what it will take to set the world right.

I’m sure many people struggle with the very word “abolition.” When most hear the term they’re likely to think of the 18th-19th century movement to abolish the American slave trade. The end of slavery however, did not signal the end of racist institutions that oppress black and brown people in our country – on the contrary, they have morphed into different more “socially acceptable” systems of oppression. Michelle Alexander put it very well in her book The New Jim Crow:

Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. (p. 21)

As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s much too easy to assume that since we’ve abolished slavery and dismantled Jim Crow, institutional racism is now a thing of the past. Indeed, the statistics show otherwise: 1 out of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime; black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white women; someone who is black and unarmed is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than someone who is white and unarmed; in the federal system black people receive sentences that are 10% longer than white people for the same crimes. The litany of course, goes on and on.

The contemporary abolitionist movement began in the early 1970s and gained steam in the late 1990s, when the activist/scholar Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that coined the term “prison industrial complex.” According to its mission:

Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages … An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Many may be surprised to learn that number of prominent national organizations are avowedly abolitionist. Two years ago, for instance, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution calling for “the dismantling and abolition of all prisons and of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons.” Last year, the Movement for Black Lives released a platform that stated, among other things:

Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.

Over the past decade, Chicago has become an important hub for abolitionist organizing. This is due in no small way to the efforts of organizer/activist Mariame Kaba, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before recently moving back to New York. During her years here, Kaba influenced a generation of young organizers who now lead some of the most important local organizations that protest police brutality and have created new models for community safety and restorative justice.

In an interview two years ago, this is how Mariame Kaba defined abolition:

(W)hen I talk about abolition, it’s not mainly a project of dismantling, though that’s critically important. It’s actually a project of building. It’s a positive project that is intended to show what we believe justice really looks like…For me, abolition involves how we are going to organize ourselves to be safe. And right now we devolve the authority for keeping us safe to the state. If you were to begin a conversation around abolition, the question is, “How would we, as communities, as autonomous spaces, decide what we would do when harm occurs?” We would have to think those things through together. That’s a collective project.

One of the primary goals of the new abolitionist movement is to shine a light on the vast amounts of wealth we spend on policing, prisons and surveillance – and to advocate for a greater investment in our communities. Currently, the United States spends more than $80 billion annually on our criminal justice system. Here in Chicago, we spend $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. Nearly 40% of our city budget is allotted to the Chicago Police Department (compared to around 1% for Chicago Public Schools).

But it’s not just a numbers game. Examining how we use public funds goes to the heart of the question of what actually creates safety. Is it more police or more community investment? Benji Hart, a Chicago abolitionist activist/educator wrote about this powerfully in one of my favorite blog posts on the subject, “You are Already an Abolitionist:”

Last summer, while working as a camp counselor during the week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castle were both shot by law enforcement, I ended up sitting down with a group of almost entirely wealthy, white elementary-aged kids to talk about the police. One of the questions we asked ourselves was why there was so much violence in certain parts of our city, namely on the South and West sides, and not in others. One student suggested that maybe it was because there weren’t enough police to protect those neighborhoods.

We sat on the floor of an arts studio in Lincoln Square, a majority white and very wealthy neighborhood on the North side, in which many of the students lived. I asked them how often, when walking to camp, they had seen police cars patrolling the neighborhood, or stopping people on the street. Almost none of them had. I admitted that I hadn’t, either.

“If there are so few police in this neighborhood,” I asked, “why do we feel safe here?”

It took a moment for the young people to think it through, but they got there on their own: Resources. There was low crime in Lincoln Square because most people there had places to live and good food to eat. There were lots of stores and restaurants, and people could afford to shop and dine there. There were quality schools, libraries, parks and after-school programs, many of them within walking distance from one another. It was access to the basic things people needed, not the presence of police, that made its residents feel secure.

Last week, Tzedek Chicago held an action for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah outside of Rahm Emanuel’s office in City Hall in support of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. This new initiative is protesting the Mayor’s recently unveiled plan to spend $95 million to build a Police and Fire training center in West Garfield Park – a neighborhood that recently closed six schools. The campaign is demanding a redirecting of this $95 million into Chicago’s most marginalized communities. As the campaign’s statement puts it:

Real community safety comes from fully-funded schools and mental health centers, robust after-school and job training programs, and social and economic justice. We want investment in our communities, not expanded resources for police.

While it’s certainly a daunting prospect to organize against a project this massive, it’s important to note that abolitionist organizations have played key roles in some notable political victories over the past several years. We Charge Genocide and Project NIA were integral to the coalition that won a $5.5 million reparations settlement for victims of torture by the Chicago Police Department. Here’s another example: many states across the country use cash bail systems that force poor defendants to remain in jail while awaiting trial – sometimes for months – because they cannot afford to pay their bail. This past summer, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans signed an order which will strengthen the directive to judges to set bonds that defendants are actually able to pay. This victory was due in no small part to the organizing efforts of the Chicago Community Bond Fund – a local organization that raises money for people who cannot afford to pay their own bail. The CCBF and other advocates for the abolition of monetary bond continue to monitor courtrooms to ensure judges are complying with the new law.

Critics of abolition invariably say it’s unrealistic and naive to advocate for something so radical – something we know can never and will never happen. To my mind, however, this claim misses the essential point of this movement. Contemporary abolitionists begin by asking the questions: What is the world we wish to see? How would this world promote real collective safety – through armed policing or community investment? How would it handle transgressive behavior – through restorative or retributive justice? After these questions have been fully explored, local community initiatives are created to demonstrate such a world in action. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of these organizations here in Chicago: the Chicago Childcare Collective, Curt’s Cafe, Circles and Ciphers, the People’s Response Team, the Let Us Breathe Collective and Mothers Against Senseless Killing are just a few examples.

In addition to local initiatives, abolitionist organizations also develop strategies for organizing toward policy change on a wider scale. If you visit the website of the Movement for Black Lives, you will see a plethora of extensive policy recommendations on community control, economic justice, ending the war on black people and more. In the words of the platform: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.”

Abolitionist thinking thus focuses on the world we are trying to create, not merely the individual problems we are trying to solve. For abolitionists, a vision of the world as it should be is always the starting point. And when you think about it, why not? Why not aim for the world that we want rather than the world that we are willing to settle for? If our starting point is “the ideal is not possible” aren’t we automatically rendering it impossible? At this current moment there are forces in our country who have no compunction about abolishing wholesale the institutions that actually protect the public good. If we ever hope to stand them down we’re going to have to be at least as visionary as they are.

Now I realize that there may be some here who aren’t able or ready to go to this place – who feel the concept is just too extreme. And I’m not standing here making a pitch for us to formally become an abolitionist congregation. But I do think these ideas are at the heart of an immensely important debate. And if there is a congregation anywhere in the country that can have this conversation, I believe it’s Tzedek Chicago.

After all, this isn’t only a political issue – it’s a religious one as well. Jewish tradition, like all religions has a great deal to say about “creating the world we all want to see.” Indeed, one of the most important functions of religion is to assert that another world, a better world is possible – and to help us live our lives in such a way that we may ultimately bring it about.

I would suggest that there is a significant tradition of abolitionist thinking in Judaism. The sabbatical and Jubilee years are perhaps the most prime examples, both of which are commandments that come directly from the Torah. The Sabbatical (or “Shemitah”) year is commanded to be observed every seven years, when all debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings are open to the commons and basic staples such as food storage and perennial harvests are freely redistributed and made accessible to all. On the Jubilee (the “Yovel”) year, which comes every fiftieth year, all Israelites who had been enslaved during the previous forty nine years are granted their freedom and any properties purchased during that time are returned to their original owners.

There’s been a great deal of rabbinical commentary over the centuries that attempt to explain how something so economically and socially radical could possibly be have been observed. Whether or not this ever was the case, it’s important to note that these commandments are still read, studied and debated in our tradition’s most sacred text. Moreover, they continue to have political impact centuries after they were written. The Liberty Bell, which became the central symbol of the original American abolitionist movement contains the Biblical commandment for the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” The Jubilee also inspired the debt forgiveness initiative known as Jubilee 2000, which sought to cancel the crippling debts that plague the poorest nations in our world.

I would claim that Shabbat is at heart an abolitionist concept as well. When you think about it, the notion to cease from creative work every seventh day is an exceedingly radical concept. Shabbat essentially commands us to take one day every week to leave the world as we know it and experience the world as it should be. According to traditional liturgy, Shabbat is a day in which there is no “tzarah, ve’yagon, va’anacha” – “distress, pain or mourning.” On the seventh day, the sages teach us, we get to experience a taste of “Olam Ha’ba” – the “world to come.”

In other words, Shabbat is not merely a day of personal rest and replenishment. It’s a day in which we pause from our efforts to change the world so that we may dwell in the world we are praying and working and struggling for: the world as it should be. And when Shabbat ends hopefully we are that much more inspired to make that world a reality.

Just as Shabbat is much more than a long litany of prohibitions, abolitionism is so much more than dismantling of oppressive institutions. In the words of Mariame Kaba, “You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want. The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”

I’d like to end now with my new version of Psalm 92 – the Song for the Day of Shabbat – to give you a sense of how we might understand these values in spiritual context. We’ve already used this Psalm several times at Tzedek Chicago Shabbat services. I offer it to you now in honor of this Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778:

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.
They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.
Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.
See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.
So tonight we raise the cup;
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

May this be a new year in which we find the strength to affirm that another world is possible. May that vision keep us going – and may it inspire us to do what we must to make it so.

Amen.

Guest Post by Jay Stanton: A Piyut to End Police Violence this Rosh Hashanah

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This piece was written and read yesterday by Tzedek Chicago’s rabbinical intern Jay Stanton for our 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah action at Chicago City Hall (above). It is a re-imagining of a well-known medieval Sephardic piyut (liturgical poem) traditionally chanted on Rosh Hashanah. In this new version, Jay connects the theme of the Binding of Issac to police violence in Chicago.

Our ritual at City Hall was a call to action in support of the recently launched #NoCopAcademy campaign. (Read here for more information). 

Jay’s commentary follows.

In the season of open gates

In the season of open gates
When you blow the shofar
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abraham got up early that day
picked up his partner
packed the tear gas and riot gear in the trunk
loaded his gun and gassed up the squad car.
He felt good about his mission
to serve and protect our city
driving west, looking for some kid to call son
before putting in the ground
Bear in mind how we got here,
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abe drove past a church with a sign on the lawn
A list of shot children, already gone
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Unfazed, Officer Abraham began to recount
how his wife got so mad at him
he had to send his first son and his baby mama clear across town
“To a neighborhood like this?” gasped his partner, astounded.
I wouldn’t know, haven’t talked to Hagar since.
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

The dash cam caught Abe joking around
Gun already cocked while driving through town
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

He pulled to a corner not unlike many others
BK, McDonald’s, and Family Dollar
Where his partner saw a drug deal take place
With a boy who doesn’t yet shave his zit-covered dark face.
Seeing the squad car, the boy started to run
Abe thought, “What’s he holding?” and lifted his gun
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abe shouted, “Stop!  Hold it right there.
Drop your weapon; son, and please come with me.”
The boy thought of his mother
The tears she would cry
He wished her solace
As his life passed before his eyes.
“Abraham!  Abraham!  Put down your gun!
It’s just some pot; I’m unarmed.”
Knees on the ground, hands in the air
Young Isaac pleaded, “Officer Abe,
don’t shoot me, please.”

While the Biblical Abraham took this chance to relent
Officer Abraham hardly noticed till his cartridge was spent
Later he’d say he feared for his life
He felt for the family but
Our safety needed this kid sacrificed
And the chief and the mayor would join in assent
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

In Chicago, we have
Too many Isaacs
And the list starts with
Cedric Chatman, 14
Laquan McDonald, 17
Roshad McIntosh, 19

In Chicago, we have
Too many Officer Abes still being paid.
And way too many modern-day Sarahs.
We still cry “Abraham!  Abraham!”
with every blast of the ram’s horn

Stop. Killing. Isaacs.
Beat your pistols into shofars, your AR-15s into trumpets, your M-16s into trombones.
Use your riot shields as drums.
Use the $95 million to turn
The FOP into a city-funded brass band
playing fanfares declaring #blacklivesmatter

Abraham!  Abraham!  Put down your gun!
Will this be the year the mayor listens to the shofar’s call?
When will Rahm repent?
When will he say “Hineni – Here I am.”

In the season of open gates
when you blow the shofar
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Author Commentary:

The penitential poem עת שערי רצון was written by the medieval poet Yehuda Ibn Abbas, who was born in Fez, spent time in Baghdad, and died in Aleppo.  It connects the story of the sacrifice of Isaac with the blowing of shofar.  The sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac is regarded as the origin of the shofar, not only by Ibn Abbas, but starting with our early rabbis, who explain in the midrashic work Pesikta deRav Kahana that the shofar blown during revelation at Mount Sinai was one horn of the ram Abraham sacrificed instead of his son and that the other horn will be used as the shofar when the Messiah comes.

Ibn Abbas’ version of the binding of Isaac doesn’t attempt to shield the reader from the gruesome nature of sacrificing one’s son.  It includes a verse of Isaac, bound and ready to be sacrificed, envisioning his mother’s grief.  Other poets were so inspired by Ibn Abbas’ poem that it started a genre of ‘aqedot, poetic retellings of the binding of Isaac, including one purportedly by Maimonides.  In pan-Sepharadi communities, from Morocco to Baghdad, from Curaçao to London, עת שערי רצון is sung on Rosh Hashanah before the blowing of the shofar.

I wrote the poem above for Tzedek Chicago’s Rosh Hashanah action at City Hall.  At our action, the shofar was blown to wake the city and its mayor up to social justice.  This year, we sought to highlight the injustice of spending $95 million on a luxury building for police training in West Garfield Park, which saw six of its schools close in 2013 because the city supposedly did not have money to run them.

At Tzedek, we endorse the #nocopacademy campaign, which seeks to have those $95 million reinvested in schools and social service agencies in disinvested neighborhoods including West Garfield Park.  I was thinking about all the Black and Brown “Isaacs” living in our city whose lives are viewed, especially by the police, as needed sacrifice to keep our city safe.

This is my ‘aqeda for 5778, dedicated to those working on the #nocopacademy campaign and dedicated to Cynthia Lane, mother of Roshad McIntosh, a sister-in-grief with the Biblical Sarah.  Lane recently succeeded in getting further review of her son’s murder by CPD Officer Robert Slechter.  Though the original investigation did not interview any civilian eyewitnesses (but did interview officers who didn’t see the shooting) and did not include a forensic investigation, eyewitnesses say that contrary to original police testimony, McIntosh was unarmed, and, in fact, was in surrender posture when Officer Slechter shot him.

Many of the lines allude to specific incidents of murder by police in the city of Chicago, though they are taken from far too many murders. Structurally, I attempted to maintain similarity, where possible, with the original piyyut.  The refrain “the binder, the bound, and the altar” comes from Ibn Abbas, and there are several other allusions to the original poem.  Every line Ibn Abbas wrote rhymes.  That is a poetic feat I have not achieved, though I have used many end rhymes and approximate rhymes, as well as internal rhyme and alliteration to attempt to create the type of connections through lines Ibn Abbas creates.

In this new year, may the shofar be heard in our city as the call to end police shootings.

Recommitting to Solidarity in the Face of White Supremacy: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5778

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Members of Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue, form a protective circle around the Imdadul mosque on February 3, 2017, following an Islamophobic shooting at a mosque in Quebec City.  (Photo: Bernard Weil / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Crossposted with Truthout.

When Temple Beth Israel — a large Reform synagogue in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia — opened for Shabbat morning services on August 12, 2017, its congregants had ample reason to be terrified. Prior to the “Unite the Right” rally held in town by white supremacists and neo-Nazis that weekend, some neo-Nazi websites had posted calls to burn down their synagogue.The members of Beth Israel decided to go ahead with services, but they removed their Torah scrolls just to be safe.

When services began, they noticed three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from their synagogue. Throughout the morning, growing numbers of neo-Nazis gathered outside their building. Worshippers heard people shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” and chanting, “Sieg Heil!” At the end of services, they had to leave in groups through a side door.

Of course, this story did not occur in a vacuum. It was but a part of a larger outrage that unfolded in Charlottesville that day, and part of a still larger outrage has been unfolding in our country since November. I think it’s safe to say that many Americans have learned some very hard truths about their country since the elections last fall. Many — particularly white liberals — are asking out loud: Where did all of this come from? Didn’t we make so much progress during the Obama years? Can there really be that many people in this country who would vote for an out-and-out xenophobe who unabashedly encourages white supremacists as his political base? Is this really America?

Yes, this is America. White supremacy — something many assumed was relegated to an ignoble period of American history — is, and has always been, very real in this country. Now white supremacists and neo-Nazis are in the streets — and they are being emboldened and encouraged by the president of the United States.

While this new political landscape may feel surreal, I believe this is actually a clarifying moment. Aspects of our national life that have remained subterranean for far too long are now being brought out into the light. We’re being brought face to face with systems and forces that many of us assumed were long dead; that we either couldn’t see or chose not to see. Following the election of Trump many have commented that it feels like we are living through a bad dream. I would claim the opposite. I would say that many of us are finally waking up to real life — a reality that, particularly for the most marginalized among us, never went away.

It is certainly a profoundly clarifying moment for American Jews. With this resurgence of white supremacist anti-Semitism, it would have been reasonable to expect a deafening outcry from the American Jewish establishment. But that, in fact, has not been the case. When Trump appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon to a senior White House position, there was nary an outcry from mainstream Jewish organizations. The Zionist Organization of America actually invited Bannon to speak at its annual gala.

Israel’s response to this political moment is no less illuminating. During a huge spike in anti-Semitic vandalism and threats against Jewish institutions immediately after the elections, it wasn’t only Trump that had to be goaded into making a statement — the Israeli government itself remained shockingly silent. This same government that never misses an opportunity to condemn anti-Semitic acts by Muslim extremists seemed utterly unperturbed that over 100 Jewish institutions had received bomb threats or that Jewish cemeteries were desecrated across the country. (More than 500 headstones were knocked down at one Jewish cemetery alone in Philadelphia.) And when neo-Nazis with tiki torches rallied in Charlottesville proclaiming “Jews will not replace us,” it took Prime Minister Netanyahu three days to respond with a mild tweet. Israel’s Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, whom one would assume should be concerned with anti-Semitism anywhere in the Diaspora, had this to say:

We view ourselves as having a certain degree of responsibility for every Jew in the world, just for being Jewish, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the sovereign nation to defend its citizens.

This is a clarifying moment if ever there was one. Support for Israel and its policies trumps everything — yes, including white supremacist Jew hatred. Just this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu said this about Trump’s speech at the UN:

I’ve been ambassador to the United Nations, and I’m a long-serving Israeli prime minister, so I’ve listened to countless speeches in this hall. But I can say this — none were bolder, none were more courageous and forthright than the one delivered by President Trump today.

Why would the Israeli Prime Minister call a president who panders to anti-Semitic white supremacists “brave” and “courageous?” Because Trump pledged his support to Israel. Because he called the Iran nuclear deal an “embarrassment.” Because he vowed American support to allies who are “working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists.”

Historically speaking, this isn’t the first time that Zionists have cozied up to anti-Semites in order to gain their political support. Zionism has long depended on anti-Semites to validate its very existence. This Faustian bargain was struck as far back as the 19th century, when Zionist leader Theodor Herzl met with the Russian minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, an infamous anti-Semite who encouraged the Kishinev pogroms that very same year. Plehve pledged that as long as the Zionists encouraged emigration of Jews from Russia, the Russian authorities would not disturb them.

This Zionist strategy was also central to the diplomatic process that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced his government’s support for “the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” Although Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people. When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that Israeli leaders are loath to condemn the rise of white supremacy. After all, they have a different enemy they want to sell to us. They want us to buy their Islamophobic narrative that “radical Muslim extremism” is the most serious threat to the world today. And you can be sure they view Palestinians as an integral part of this threat.

We cannot underestimate how important this narrative is to Israel’s foreign policy — indeed, to its own sense of validation in the international community. Netanyahu is so committed to this idea in fact, that two years ago he actually went as far as to blame Palestinians for starting the Holocaust itself. In a speech to the Zionist Congress, he claimed that in 1941, the Palestinian Grand Mufti convinced Hitler to launch a campaign of extermination against European Jewry at a time when Hitler only wanted to expel them. This ludicrous historical falsehood was so over the top that a German government spokesperson eventually released a statement that essentially said, “No, that’s not true. Actually, the Holocaust was our fault.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is pursuing an alliance with the anti-Semitic populist Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. When Netanyahu recently traveled to Hungary to meet with Orbán, leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community publicly criticized Netanyahu, accusing him of “betrayal.”

If there was ever any doubt about the profound threat that white supremacy poses to us all, we’d best be ready to grasp it now. White supremacy is not a thing of the past and it’s not merely the domain of extremists. It has also been a central guiding principle of Western foreign policy for almost a century. To those who claim that so-called Islamic extremism is the greatest threat to world peace today, we would do well to respond that the US military has invaded, occupied and/or bombed 14 Muslim-majority countries since 1980 alone — and this excludes coups against democratically elected governments, torture, and imprisonment of Muslims with no charges. Racism and Islamophobia inform our nation’s military interventions in ways that are obvious to most of the world, even if they aren’t to us. It is disingenuous to even begin to consider the issue of radical Islamic violence until we begin to reckon with the ways we wield our overwhelming military power abroad.

So, as we observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, where are we supposed to go from here? I would suggest that the answer, as ever, is solidarity.

Let’s return to the horrid events at Temple Beth Israel in Charlottesville. As it turned out, the local police didn’t show up to protect the synagogue that Shabbat — but many community members did. The synagogue’s president later noted that several non-Jews attended services as an act of solidarity — and that at least a dozen strangers stopped by that morning asking if congregants wanted them to stand with their congregation.

Another example: Last February, when Chicago’s Loop Synagogue was vandalized with broken windows and swastikas by someone who was later discovered to be a local white supremacist, the very first statement of solidarity came from the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Their executive director, Ahmed Rehab, said:

Chicago’s Muslim community stands in full solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters as they deal with the trauma of this vile act of hate. No American should have to feel vulnerable and at risk simply due to their religious affiliation.

Here’s another example: last Friday, protests filled the streets of St. Louis after a white former city policeman, Jason Stockley, was found not guilty of the first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black 24-year-old whom he shot to death on December 20, 2011. The St. Louis police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators retreated to Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, which opened its doors to the protesters. The police actually followed them and surrounded the synagogue. During the standoff, a surge of anti-Semitic statements trended on Twitter under the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue. (Yes, this actually happened last week, though it was not widely covered by the mainstream media.)

Just one more example: last January, a 27-year year-old man entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire on a room filled with Muslim worshippers, killing six men and wounding another 16. The following week, Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue organized an action in which multifaith groups formed protective circles around at least half a dozen mosques. It was inspired by the “Ring of Peace” created by about 1,000 Muslims around an Oslo synagogue in 2015, following a string of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

This must be our response to white supremacy: that a threat to any one of us is a threat to all. That we are stronger together. This is the movement we need to build.

However, even as we make this commitment to one another, we cannot assume that oppression impacts all of us equally. This point was made very powerfully in a recent blog post by Mimi Arbeit, a white Jewish educator/scientist/activist from Charlottesville, so I’ll quote her directly:

Jews should be fighting Nazis. And — at the same time — we White-presenting White-privileged Jews need to understand that we are fighting Nazis in the US within the very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism. I have been face to face with Nazis and yes I see the swastikas and I see the anti-semitic signs and I hear the taunts and I respect the fear of the synagogue in downtown Charlottesville — AND please believe me when I say that they are coming for Black people first. It is Black people who the Nazis are seeking out, Black neighborhoods that are being targeted, anti-Black terrorism that is being perpetrated. So. Jews need to be fighting Nazis in this moment. And. At the same time. If we are fighting Nazis expecting them to look like German anti-Semitic prototypes, we will be betraying ourselves and our comrades of color. We need to fight Nazis in the US within the context of US anti-Black racism. We need to be anti-fascist and anti-racist with every breath, with every step.

To this I would only add that when it comes to state violence, it is people of color — particularly Black Americans — who are primarily targeted. While white Jews understandably feel vulnerable at this particular moment, we still dwell under an “all encompassing shelter of white privilege.” We will never succeed in building a true movement of solidarity unless we reckon honestly with the “very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism.”

I’ve said a great deal about clarity here, but I don’t want to underestimate in any way the challenges that lay before us. I realize this kind of “clarity” can feel brutal — like a harsh light that reflexively causes us to close our eyes tightly. On the other hand, I know there are many who have had their eyes wide open to these issues for quite some time now. Either way, we can’t afford to look away much longer. We can’t allow ourselves the luxury to grieve over dreams lost — particularly the ones that were really more illusions than dreams in the first place.

On Rosh Hashanah, the gates are open wide. This is the time of year we are asked to look deep within, unflinchingly, so that we might discern the right way forward. We can no longer put off the work we know we must do, no matter how daunting or overwhelming it might feel. But at the same time, we can only greet the New Year together. We cannot do it alone. Our liturgy is incorrigibly first person, plural — today we vow to set our lives and our world right, and we make this vow alongside one another.

So here we are. We’ve just said goodbye to one horrid year. The gates are opening before us. Let’s take each other’s hands and walk through them together.

Shanah Tovah.