Causeless Hatred-and the Inspiring Women who Defy It

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Rosh Hodesh Av 5777

“Are you sure you want to walk with me? -this is the most dangerous part” said Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall as she and I walked alone together to the Western Wall exits. “Why?” I asked. “Because I’m a woman wearing a tallit, and we are at the Kotel.”

I looked at the tallit that Anat was wearing, and it was the very same tallit that she wore a month ago in Westfield, New Jersey when she spoke to my congregation about her struggle for equality in Israel.   At that gathering, she spoke passionately about Women of the Wall, the group of extraordinary women of all denominations who gather monthly at the Women’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray with tallit, tefillin, and a Torah scroll. Anat has been arrested several times, for it is considered a “provocation” for a woman to wear a tallit or read from the Torah at the Western Wall, which is under the rigid control of the ultra-Orthodox. I promised Anat that I would join her at the next prayer service.

So it was that yesterday morning I was standing at the edge of the Women’s section in support of the Women of the Wall, who were conducting a lovely and highly spiritual worship service. I was standing next to a small group of like-minded men, all there in support of women determined to exercise their right to worship in freedom.   Unfortunately, we few men were surrounded by dozens of ultra-Orthodox, men and boys, screaming epithets in Hebrew and English at the women as they prayed. “Reform are worse than Arabs!” “Reform go home!” “Get out of our Holy Land!” “You are not Jews!” are some of the milder things I heard.   Ultra-Orthodox women and men blew whistles and shouted curses. At one point, a young man who came to pray wrapped in a tallit was taunted so harshly he left in tears. A few of us, having had enough, began to confront the protestors, but a male representative of Women of the Wall present amongst us gently asked that we refrain from causing a disturbance. Even when one of the younger ultra-Orthodox Jews tore up a Women of the Wall prayerbook, this gentle man simply took the pieces of the book and asked the stupidly grinning boy to leave.

The service ended as the Women of the Wall sang Hatikvah, which I could barely hear as the protestors screamed and blew whistles. Many of the women were spat upon as they left.

Saying goodbye to Anat and leaving the Western Wall, I spotted two of the most nastily vocal ultra-Orthodox Jews outside the walls of the Old City. I came right up to them and said in Hebrew; “Why do you act with such causeless hatred towards fellow Jews”? They stared sullenly and looked away. As I walked, they shouted at my back, “Go home, American, you don’t belong here”. I stopped, came right back to them and said “Again, why do you act with causeless hatred? And by the way, I belong here as much as you do.”  They walked away without speaking.

The bravery and spirit of these women, determined to pray and sing in the face of such hate, is an inspiration and represents the best of what Judaism can be.


Holocaust Denial and the White House

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For the first time in my memory, a key tenet of Holocaust denialism has been put forth by an official White House spokesman.  Remember please that Holocaust deniers argue that concentration camps were not killing centers, and that there is no evidence that Jews were gassed. (They argue that Jews died from disease, as in any war, and the numbers are greatly exaggerated).    As you undoubtedly now know, Sean Spicer, Press Secretary for our President, has stated that “Hitler did not use gas on his own people”.  After multiple attempts to explain his statement, he has finally apologized, but only after pressure to do so.  The fact that a key tenet of Holocaust denial has been put forth by the official spokesman for the White House should be a cause for concern for every Jewish American, indeed, any American at all.  Recently Dr Gil Kahn of Kean University spoke at my synagogue.  He is a strongly pro-Israel, right leaning politically conservative academic and writer, and an expert on anti-semitism.    He is frankly terrified that for the first time, there appears to be the malevolent presence of neo-Nazi ideology in the highest office in our land.


The Unmaking of Governor Christie


In the movie “Goodfellas” Tommy, the uncontrollable hood that did hits for the mob, is unceremoniously “wacked” when his behavior gets out of hand.  Tommy, we are told, was a “good earner”-and so his behavior was tolerated.  He screwed up once too many, and the “dons” could no longer bear him.  They lure Tommy to his doom by promising to “make” him-and then he is killed.  Once his usefulness ended, so did he.

Our Governor, who has literally ruined our state, has now been unceremoniously  dumped from the Trump inner circle.  Governor Christie succeeded for so long by playing by the unique rules of Jersey corruption-don’t get greedy, and make money for the other guy too. He was also protected by a thoroughly corrupt legislature and a largely ineffective, weak press.

What Christie didn’t realize is that while he was “a good earner” for the bosses, he simply screwed up once too often, and eventually the “Don” would not tolerate his behavior.  Bridge gate, coupled with his insatiable narcissism, was his undoing.  It gives me no pleasure to write this about our Governor. He has decimated our state, and it will take years to rebuild our infrastructure that has degraded and our treasury which he looted for his own ends.

It is time to say it. It is 1938 and Trump is…..


At a meeting of the Federations General Assembly a few years back, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “It is 1938 and Iran is Germany”.  American Jewish supporters of Israel enthusiastically cheered his comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany and Mr Netanyahu continues to use this analogy to this day, as do many who support Israel against the Iranian threat.

If such comparisons to Nazi Germany are appropriate when discussing the threat posed by Iran, it is now time to abandon any pretense that it is inappropriate to use such analogies when discussing the rise of Trumpism.  Anti-semitism has become a regular meme of his supporters, and Trump himself has been condemned by the ADL and other Jewish groups for using anti-semitic language.  Now there is this at a Trump rally yesterday.

The campaign condemned the remarks, but I don’t recall such behavior at a Ted Cruz or John Kasich rally.


“I fear Assassination”

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I was in Israel during both the Republican and Democratic conventions.  During one Shabbat dinner, a close friend and colleague remarked about the nomination of Hillary Clinton for President-“I fear assassination”.  At the time, I thought his comment was reflecting excessive concern.

Now that Mr Trump has called for Second Amendment supporters to potentially remedy a Clinton Presidency (He was calling for action after the election not before as his supporters have claimed) I wonder if my friend was not right.  That same month, I visited the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.  Devoted to the late Prime Minister and his life, it was a somber reminder of the tragic effects of intemperate rhetoric.  (You may wish to see Tom Friedman’s piece in today’s Times for a sobering analysis.  The fact is that in the months leading up to his murder, there were heated calls for assassination, including rhetoric clearly and unambiguously spouted in the presence of his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.  The Likud opposition did not tamp down the heated jargon, and all it took was one sick individual to be influenced by the atmosphere and take action.

At what point will the American people, and American society in general recognize that this is not about politics but simple decency?

I’m sorry-No thanks for the hate

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Many years ago, I read a collection of essays written by black and white authors in the wake of the school decentralization crisis in 1960’s New York.  The movement to return control of school boards to local parent groups engendered a significant amount of tension between many black residents and a very large Jewish teacher population that served the inner city schools.  I truly think the “knee-jerk” fear of so called “Black Anti-Semitism” was overblown, but it was true that for a terrible period there was genuine animosity between the African-American and Jewish population in New York.   Many liberal Jews felt betrayed, feeling that their overwhelming support for Civil Rights deserved acknowledgment.  Many Black residents resented the feeling of being patronized by Jewish teachers who lived largely in the wealthy suburbs.  It was a bad time.

One of the essays in the book was written by a young liberal Jewish activist.  He titled his piece “No Thanks for the Bullet” and he discussed the violent rhetoric directed against Jews by some African-American leaders in the community.  He asserted his complete devotion to Civil Rights, his sacrifices in the name of that cause, but drew the line at passively accepting hateful rhetoric directed against him, refusing to see himself as somehow deserving of threats and opprobrium, and holding his Black allies fully accountable for their actions.  What  struck me was how clear he was-he would literally give his life for the cause of Civil Rights and equality, but would not accept being treated with anything but respect himself.

I was reminded of this as I read my colleagues’s anguished responses yesterday to the anti-Israel rhetoric in the “Black Lives Matter” manifesto.  Many of my fellow Rabbis have marched side by side with African-American activists, and many, including myself, have made no secret of our belief that racism is the defining issue of our time.  Some of my colleagues, whom I respect deeply, have chosen to excuse the anti-semitic rhetoric, others to overlook it, others to condemn while still supporting BLM in principle.

The BLM Movement has chosen a certain narrative to understand the Israel-Palestine situation.  It is the narrative of Palestinian as eternal victim.  This is understandable.  This is the narrative the Palestinians often share about themselves.  BLM has also chosen to see the Palestinians as fellow people of color oppressed by a colonial white power.  This is far more problematic-and does not reflect in certain crucial ways the manner in which Palestinians see themselves.  BLM has chosen to ignore entirely the Jewish narrative-that we have returned to our ancestral homeland and that the blood of the Land flows in our veins.  BLM has also chosen to ignore the incredible complexity of the situation-and the fact that there is virtually no one who is willing to talk genuine peace on the Palestinian side.  The majority of Israelis support peace-but see no viable partner.   As one Palestinian negotiator said, “We are willing to be blind as long as we can make you (the Israelis) one-eyed”.  Victim narratives do not lead to peace.

So-to my BLM friends and colleagues-and there are many-I ask you to do this.  Just as I strive to understand you-understand me.  I understand your struggle for dignity, safety, and your rage at the unending violence directed against people of color here.  All I ask is that you understand my struggle as a Jew for self-determination in a complex and difficult world.  But-no thanks for the hate.