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Standing Together (Sermon from Yom Kippur, 2019)

rabbi hannah Oct 11, 2019

            During the summer I asked my friend Kim what gives her hope.  She replied: “Hah!  You are asking the wrong person.”  She told me that she has just about given up on this country and is thinking of moving to Europe. She is not naive. She understands that other countries are not perfect, but as a Black woman she feels the need to get out from under the particularly insidious ways that racism in America affects her life.

            It made me sad to hear that Kim has given up on America. I can’t pretend to know what it is like to live in her skin, but for myself, I could never leave. I tried living in Israel, but it was not my story. My story is here, in this country that is my home, and that continues to struggle to live up to its own ideals. As discouraged as I sometimes feel, I know that I have to try, in whatever ways I can figure out, to move us a little closer to these ideals.

            When I said this to Kim, she said that she loves me for that, but it still doesn’t make her feel hopeful! So, I decided to try a different question. I asked her – What do you want to hear from the pulpit at your church?  And she wrote back: “I want to hear the truth – that we are in a battle against evil.  That evil has many handmaidens.  That we may not win.”

            I thought about what she said, and I knew that this year if I wanted to tell the truth that we are in a battle against evil I would have to talk about the rise of antisemitism.  Many American Jews of my generation have been shielded from antisemitism most of our lives. But this year it became impossible to ignore that one of the manifestations of evil in our world is hatred of Jews, not only in the past but in the present. This was the year that Jews were murdered at their synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway.  This was the year swastikas were found in bathrooms at Summit High School and Middle School as well as other towns in our area.  This was the year that our congregation created a security committee and applied for grants to help keep us safer.  This was the year that we began to keep our doors locked at all times.  This was the year I learned that if there were an intruder in the building, I should not hide in the bathroom where I would be trapped but should try to escape, and if that were not possible, I should barricade the doors of my office with furniture and be prepared to hurl things at an active shooter. 

            This was also the year I began to research my mother’s family history and discovered that my great-grandfather was killed in a pogrom in Russia, and a great-uncle was murdered in the massacre at Babi Yar.  Of course, I knew that atrocities have been committed against the Jewish people throughout history. But now it feels personal.         

I have a deeply held belief that people are not inherently evil.  I do not believe that any child is born with hatred in his or her heart.  I do believe that people can be so hurt and angry and confused that they perform evil acts.  I believe that people can be so broken that they cannot make human connections.  If I am going to speak the truth, I would say that we are in a fight against hatred.  And the hatred is not only against Jews.  We have seen an increase in acts and words of hatred against immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, people who identify as gay, lesbian, and transgender, people with disabilities.  Kenneth Stern who directs the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College cautions that “we need to speak out when any human being or group of human beings is demonized or dehumanized.”  People who are blinded by hate do not make distinctions.  The shooter at Tree of Life synagogue was obsessed with the “invaders” at the southern border.  Nazis in Germany murdered, Jews and Gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities.  Nazis today hate Jews and immigrants, Blacks and Muslims, gays and lesbians.  We are in a fight against hate and we cannot win unless we fight together.

            The day after the shooting at Chabad in Poway, the three synagogues in Summit held our annual Yom Ha Shoah service in remembrance of the Holocaust.  We had invited Eric Ward, Director of the Western States Center in Oregon to speak at the service.  Western States Center’s mission is to “build the power of community organizations to challenge and transform individuals, organizations, and systems to achieve racial, gender, and economic justice.”  The reason we invited Mr. Ward is because he has powerful insights about the relationships between white nationalism, white supremacy, racism and antisemitism.  As it turned out, the timing was perfect. On that morning as we mourned the loss of six million Jews in the Holocaust and reeled from another shooting at a synagogue, we needed someone who could help us understand the ideologies that lead to acts of hatred.

            In 2017 Eric Ward wrote an article called “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.”  Ward has spent years researching White Nationalist movements and even spent time with neo-Nazis.  He writes that as a Black man he spent many weekends among people who regard him as a “subhuman, dangerous beast.”  Hearing what he had to say that day was very helpful in understanding what is happening in our country. His basic definition of White Nationalism, which he says emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is “a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.”

            Ward says that this last part, “antisemitism forms its theoretical core,”  bears repeating because this is not what you hear from most people and organizations involved in social justice movements today.  Eric Ward believes that most social justice movements have not come to terms with the centrality of antisemitism to White Nationalist ideology and that “until we do, we will fail to understand this virulent form of racism rapidly growing in the United States today.”  In Ward’s view, antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism.  He explains that the success of the civil rights movement created a problem for White supremacist ideology – how could an inferior race of Black people have defeated the White power structure?  The only explanation could be that some secret power must be manipulating behind the scenes, using Black people as tools for their own purposes.  Who are these people? Jews.

            Ward goes on to say that “contemporary antisemitism does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White Nationalist ideology Jews are a…different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated.”  What Ward discovered was that “Antisemitism is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people cannot win our freedom without tearing it down.”

            Eric Ward acknowledged that this perspective has met with resistance from anti-racism leaders and organizations, particularly in the northeast.  The prevailing opinion is that Jews of Ashkenazi descent are white and enjoy the privileges of being white in our society. So, what is the point of addressing antisemitism?

            Ward answers this question by pointing out that antisemitism fuels White Nationalism, and fighting antisemitism cuts off the fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities.  He writes: “Contemporary social justice movements are quite clear that to refuse antiracism is an act of racism; to refuse feminism is an act of sexism. To refuse opposition to antisemitism, likewise, is an act of antisemitism.”

            Eric Ward writes about antisemitism from the perspective of a Black man who wants to fight the racism that continues to plague our society and limit the lives of people of color.  He says, “I developed an analysis of antisemitism because I wanted to smash White supremacy, because I wanted to be free.”

            I share these ideas with you not because I want to let us off the hook from examining our own role in systemic racism.  Quite the opposite.  If people in the antiracism movement have failed to understand the importance of antisemitism, I believe many Jews also fail to understand the importance of combating racism. When Jews do not confront racism, we hurt ourselves. When people of color do not confront antisemitism, they hurt themselves. Antisemitism and racism are deeply intertwined.  

             This message hit home for me on the 40th anniversary of an attempted Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago where many Holocaust survivors lived.  I was living in Boston at the time and was part of a group of young Jews who organized a rally to express our outrage that Nazis were marching openly in the streets of our country.

            Despite my personal involvement, I did not know the whole story until I read an article about the march written for the 40th anniversary.  I learned that an all-white neighborhood of Chicago called Marquette Park was the home of a Nazi organization called the National Socialist Party of America.  This was the neighborhood where Martin Luther King had been struck by a rock while protesting housing discrimination in 1966.  After the demonstration, Dr. King said that even in Mississippi and Alabama he had never seen mobs as hostile and hate-filled as in Chicago.  A decade later, the homes of 50 Black families who moved too close to Marquette Park were firebombed and the residents threatened and terrorized.

            When the Nazi group planned a march in Skokie, the Black and Jewish communities came together to plan a huge counter demonstration.  The NAACP, and other civil rights groups joined with the Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago to oppose Nazi hatred.  A small group of young progressive Jews also formed a coalition of all those who were threatened by Nazi ideology. They showed up with signs against antisemitism held by people of color and signs against racism held by white Jews and Christians.  

            I was one of the speakers at the rally we held in Boston, but I do not recall myself or any of the other speakers making the connection between racism and antisemitism.  Now, forty years later, I am glad to know that there were Jews and Blacks who stood together.  The article I read ends with the words: “This story, told in its full scope, bears a lesson about solidarity…wherever hatred arises it must be confronted by as many people as possible.”  The author closes with the words from a sign at the counter demonstration: “Not in Marquette Park.  Not in Skokie.  Not anywhere!”

When I was writing this sermon, I discussed it with our daughter Bella. She pointed out that the archetypal story at the heart of much of world literature is the story of fighting against insurmountable odds when it seems there is no hope.  She said that the battle in our times is that every group is the target of hate.  Even the people we see as perpetrators of hate feel hated.

            I read about a man who went undercover in several alt-right groups to try to understand what motivates people.  He discovered that there is a lot of nihilism in the movement that he thinks mirrors a contemporary sense of hopelessness in our society, a hopelessness that there is no dignified human way forward. But he disagrees. He said that for all the gloom and doom, there are more promising progressive projects than there have been in his lifetime – movements against sexual harassment, racism, transphobia, xenophobia. He said: “The trick is to engage in these projects in a way that creates a space that doesn’t tell heterosexual white men to shut up and feel bad but allows everyone to fight together for a way forward.”

            The battle against hatred is not going to be easy.  No battle against insurmountable odds is ever easy.  But sometimes there is hope just in looking honestly at our situation.  The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama created a memorial to victims of lynching and slavery in the American South.  Bryan Stevenson, Director of The Equal Justice Initiative was inspired by the memorials to Holocaust victims that he saw in Germany.  In an interview, he said: “I am not interested in punishing our country for our history of terror and violence.  I want to liberate us.  But that means we have to talk honestly about what we’ve done.”

            Looking at and talking honestly about the situation we are in does not mean we have to despair.  Despair will defeat us.  I heard somewhere that the Arabic word for despair is linguistically related to the word for Satan.  Despair will lead us astray.  But there is hope in looking, clear-eyed at where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to go from here.

            I see hope in the people who understand that racism and antisemitism are intertwined. I see hope in people who recognize that we are all in this fight together.  I see hope when my friend trusts me enough to tell me how hopeless she feels.  I see hope in the relationships we have because we cannot face our challenges alone.

            If I am going to stand on the bima and tell you the truth, this is what I want to say: We are in a fight against hatred and the only way we can win is if we stand together.


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