Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon: Remember That You Were Strangers

Kol Nidre Sermon 5776

You may have noticed that on my desk in my study there is a framed picture of me deeply engrossed in conversation with President Bill Clinton. That picture was taken in President Clinton’s second month in office, after he had given a major foreign policy speech at American University, where I was the Hillel director at the time. I had returned from Haiti shortly before Clinton’s speech, and AU’s then-president Joe Duffy had arranged for me to be part of the platform party so that I might get the opportunity to speak with the President for a minute or so.

During his 1992 campaign, candidate Clinton was critical of the first President Bush’s policy of having the U.S. Coast Guard intercept Haitian refugees on the high seas and return them to Haiti. But once he was elected, he announced that he would keep that policy in place. The Washington office of Haiti’s deposed president Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide asked for a delegation of rabbis to visit Haiti and explore the human rights situation there, and I was invited to be part of that group, which went to Haiti shortly after Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.

There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done. We spent several days meeting with clergy, educators, labor leaders, journalists, as well as a representative of the U.S. Embassy. We wrote a report which I was able to present to the President and shortly thereafter, the policy was changed -- I do not know what role, if any, our report played in that decision.

“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?

Jews are a people of memory, indeed memory is commanded in the Torah. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913. Although it is often believed that the ADL was founded in response to the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent from New York who was falsely accused of raping and murdering one of the female workers in the factory he managed, the Leo Frank case took place in 1915, two years after the ADL’s founding. Among the cases of “defamation” that the League was a response to was an article published in 1908 by Theodore Bingham, the Police Commissioner of New York City, in which he asserted that over fifty percent of all crimes in New York were committed by Jews. 1908, of course, was at the height of Jewish immigration to this country from Eastern Europe. Bingham and others of his ilk asserted that Jews brought criminality, low moral character, poor sanitation, were taking jobs away from native-born Americans, etc. People objected to the fact that many of the Jewish immigrants were not literate in English and many never learned it. In this, they were right; my father tells me that his grandparents lived in this country for decades and never learned English, which is why he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, since his grandparents lived with them.

While no one would deny that anti-semitism still exists in American society, the kind of virulent hatred that our grandparents and even our parents grew up with is long gone. I mentioned in my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah that Jews are the most highly regarded religious group in the United States, and tonight I want to share with you some of that data. According to a 2014 Pew Forum report , on a scale of 1 to 100, with 50 being a neutral opinion, Jews rated a 63, followed by Catholics with a 62 and evangelicals with a 61. The three groups that Americans view unfavorably are Mormons (48), atheists (41) and Muslims (40). Jews are regarded favorably by every other group surveyed, with evangelical having the highest opinion of Jews of any non-Jewish group. Evangelicals rate Jews at 69 but we do not return the favor, giving Evangelicals a 34.

Anti-semitism is far from the biggest problem we face; indeed, it is the lack of anti-semitism which has made it much easier for Jews to assimilate into general society and give up their unique identity. But as Mordechai said to Esther, “think not that you shall escape just because you are in the palace .. if you are silent, you and your family shall perish while deliverance shall come from some other place.”

Less than a week ago at a rally in New Hampshire, a supporter posed the following question to presidential candidate Donald Trump:
Q: We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one.
A: Right.
Q: You know he’s not even an American.
A: We need this question. This is the first question!
Q: But anyway, we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of ’em?
A: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying that, and you know, a lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Trump has been roundly criticized for not “defending” President Obama from the accusation that he is a Muslim. But that criticism misses the point entirely. The questioner wasn’t asking Donald Trump if President Obama is a Muslim. He seemed, rather, to be asking Donald Trump when America will get rid of its Muslims. Trump's response --  “we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
In fairness, that is the kind of answer that, as one columnist put it, a car salesman would give to a potential customer who said something outrageous. And as a rabbi I have on occasion had people say outrageous things to me, or in my presence, and rather than confronting them and getting into an unpleasant argument, I’ve simply smiled and nodded and said “uh-huh, uh-huh.” But here was someone advocating at best mass deportations of citizens and legal immigrants who are Muslims, and at worst genocide.
Conor Friedersdorf writing in The Atlantic gave what would have been the correct answer which should have been given by someone who aspires to lead our country: “Sir, President Obama is not actually a Muslim. He is an American. There are no known terrorist training camps in the United States, and if one was discovered, the Obama Administration would aggressively shut it down. And there is never a time when the United States will get rid of American citizens with inalienable rights to life and liberty, nor would I want to get rid of Muslim Americans even if it was totally legal. They are my friends, neighbors, and business associates. Some put on uniforms and fight for this country. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding patriots.”
I hasten to add that I don’t think Donald Trump actually supports “getting rid of” American Muslims. But he has tapped into a reservoir of nativism and racism in our society and I have no doubt that some of his supporters would endorse those measures. And I know that some of my Muslim friends and acquaintances whom I have met over the years through my interfaith work, are convinced that the time is coming when they are going to be rounded up and put in camps as we did to Japanese-Americans during World War II.
It’s not only Donald Trump. Over the past Dr. Ben Carson, a person I admire, made the statement that Islam and the US Constitution were incompatible and that no Muslim American should ever be allowed to be elected President. Proving, I suppose, that being a person of color and having fought hard to overcome bigotry does not immunize one from oneself being a bigot. And of course, John F. Kennedy went through something similar when he became the first and so far only Catholic to be elected president, and had to address fears from some Protestants that if a Catholic became President he would take his orders from the Pope.
President George W. Bush faced a tremendous challenge after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, in fighting against Islamist terrorism while respecting American Muslims and their liberties. Here is what he said in a speech in 2002: "America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith. America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we're one country. Race and color should not divide us, because America is one country." Later that same year he spoke at the Islamic Center in Washington DC and said: "Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace."
President Bush got it right. There are Muslims who are dedicated to our nation’s ideals of liberty and justice and there are Muslims who are not. The same can be true of adherents of any other religion or of no religion at all.
Jews and Muslims in America actually have a lot in common. We are non-Christian religions in a mostly-Christian society. Jews and Muslims follow similar dietary practices and there are a number of colleges and universities which have a dining hall that is certified as both kosher and halal. Neither Judaism nor Islam recognizes a civil divorce as sufficient to end a religious marriage and both religions have their own courts to adjudicate disputes within the community as well as personal status -- so if you support a law making so-called Sharia courts illegal, understand that this makes a criminal of every rabbi who has ever participated in a conversion or overseen delivery of a religious divorce since any such law to be remotely constitutional would also have to criminalize Jewish Batei Din as well as Catholic canon law tribunals.
Muslims do face a challenge in learning how to live in a multicultural, multireligious secular democracy. Jews are used to living as a minority while Muslims on the whole are not. But there are many American Muslims, some immigrants and some native-born, who are aware of the challenge and are working on all kinds of ways to counter any tendency towards extremism and help integrate Muslims into American society. Many European societies have serious problems of home-grown Muslim extremism because they have neither encouraged nor permitted Muslims to integrate. When a society tells the Muslims who live in it that they can never really be full participants, it takes away any incentive for them to do so. We must not repeat that mistake here. The bargain that America has always offered, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is that you learn to live by the same norms as everyone else does and we will treat you like we treat everyone else. It’s got to be a two-way street; we can’t reasonably expect Muslims to be loyal Americans and then tell them that they will never be true Americans, their religion is contrary to the Constitution and no one of their faith should ever be permitted to attain the highest office in our land.
That’s why the case last week of Ahmed Mohammed, the 14 year old science nerd who brought a homemade clock to his suburban Dallas school and was arrested, handcuffed, and held for several hours without being permitted to see a lawyer or his parents is so disturbing.
Let’s be clear -- if the school administration thought there was even the remotest possibility that the young man had a bomb, they absolutely had a duty to investigate. But the administration quickly realized it wasn’t a bomb. If you suspect there is a bomb in the school, you evacuate the school and call the bomb squad. They did neither. You don’t bring the suspected bomb into the school office and take pictures of it, and you don’t transport a suspected bomb in a regular squad car to the police station. What Ahmed was originally charged with was bringing a “hoax bomb” to school, a device which could reasonably fool people into believing it was a bomb and cause panic. Once it was clear that the device was not in fact a bomb, there was no danger, and even if it was necessary to question the young man there was no need to handcuff him, perp walk him out of the school, and violate his legal rights under both Federal and Texas law to see a lawyer and his parents. You will never convince him that this didn’t happen at least in part because he is a Muslim. You cannot tell him that the very fact he is a Muslim makes him perpetually a suspect and then expect him to love this country the way that you or I do.
This is not about Jews in the narrowest sense but rather about what kind of country we aspire to be. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka had an Orthodox Jewish conversion; she, her husband and their two children are active members of an Orthodox shul in Manhattan and are traditionally observant. Many of Donald Trump’s staff both in his campaign and in business are Jewish. I know less about Ben Carson’s attitude towards Jews but he is strongly pro-Israel and belongs to a denomination, the Seventh Day Adventists, whose members feel a strong affinity with Judaism.
Nevertheless there are two reasons that Jews need to stand up to any manifestation of hate speech and stereotyping. The first reason is that our tradition demands it; we are taught to love the stranger and to respect the tzelem elohim, the divine image, in every person. The second reason is that once unleashed, you never know where the demons of racism are going to go next. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote: “When you gain politically by demonizing ethnic groups, or by pandering to those who do, you go from arguably likable eccentric to villain. You go from having kids who think “my dad’s a bit embarrassing, but he means well” to kids who’ll feel ashamed of what you stirred up for years after you leave politics. Those are the best case scenarios. The worst-case scenario is remote, but horrific: that’s where you’re the careless fool who ends the legacy of mostly responsible behavior on this issue, loses control of the forces you’re enabling, and watches in horror as your actions harm a lot of innocents.”
That’s the reason that the Anti-Defamation League on Monday condemned the words of both Trump and Carson, writing that  “we urge all presidential candidates to avoid innuendo and stereotyping of all sorts, including against people based on their faith, particularly American Muslims and, instead, to confront all forms of prejudice and bigotry. Remarks suggesting that all Muslims follow extremist interpretations of Islam have no basis in fact and fuel bigotry.  Whether directed against Jews, Muslims or others, such baseless comments breed hate and have no place in a presidential campaign or in public discourse.” And that is why the ADL earlier condemned Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and other immigrant groups.
Martin Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor. He was a political conservative and initially supported Hitler, but by 1934 he had turned against the Nazis and was one of the founders of the Confessing Church, an anti-Nazi Christian group. For his activities he was imprisoned and spent 1937 to 1945 in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, narrowly escaping execution. After his release he wrote a poem which many of you know:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Never again. Never.

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