The Shabbat (on Oct. 26) was designated by the American Jewish Committee as Show Up For Shabbat in remembrance of the massacre that occurred a year ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
That week was my father, Mordecai ben Raphael’s 33rd yahrzeit. It was also the yahrzeit of my maternal grandparents Reuven ben Nuta and Mindel bat Pesach, and my maternal aunt Sarah bat Reuven who perished at the Treblinka death camp. My father was a holocaust survivor. Together with my mother they were immigrants to this country, greeted by the Statue of Liberty on Thanksgiving Day 1949. I believe the merging of my immigrant parents’ ordeals with what occurred last year in Pittsburgh share something in common.
During our recent observance of Yom Kippur we had several opportunities to remind ourselves of the various sins we are guilty of. I’d like to focus on one, the sin of rhetoric or evil or hateful speech and the consequences of hateful speech.
What is this link between my yahrzeits and the Tree of Life, and what does it have to do with hateful speech? My understanding is that the members of Tree of Life decided to hold an immigration Shabbat on Oct. 27, that would call attention (a) to the desperation of today’s immigrants trying to come to the U.S., (b) to the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society which actually helped my parents settle in America, and (c) to honor immigrants or their descendants, which included their entire congregation –probably just like ours.
In the immigration rhetoric today, we hear of the hordes of worthless people, of diseased animals coming to our southern borders and being a threat to our country. The Statue of Liberty is no longer to be a welcoming beacon to the oppressed. We hear that people who don’t come from Nordic countries are worthless. The perpetrator of the massacre heard and believed this nonsense, heard about the Tree of Life Shabbat, and decided that these Jews must be an enemy of his white America, and took the ‘law’ into his hands. When taken into police custody he stated that, “Jews were committing genocide against his people.” The sin of hateful rhetoric has consequences. But what does this have to do with my father, who died 33 years ago, and my grandparents and aunt who were killed 77 years ago?
There was a person named Madison Grant. He was the director of the New York Zoological Society, also known as the Bronx Zoo. While he was associated with those who saved the American bison from extinction, he had problems. In 1906, and despite complaints, he put a male human African Pygmy in a cage for display at the Bronx Zoo. In 1916, he published his seminal work, “The Passing of the Great Race” which recently appeared in its centennial edition. Grant warned that the country was in danger of a “replacement of a higher type by a lower type … unless the native American (meaning white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) uses his superior intelligence to protect himself and his children from competition with intrusive peoples from the lowest races of Eastern Europe, carrying diseases, whereas Germans and Englishmen were considered desirable.” Grant warned of the dilution or mongrelization of the American master race of Nordic peoples by inferior stock of Eastern and Southern Europe. These worthless individuals should be sterilized. Adolf Hitler read Grant’s book, admired what he had to say about the Nordic race, and wrote Grant a letter, calling his book, “my Bible.” And the U.S. Congress similarly bought into this rhetoric and passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which was devastating to Jews, in particular. To quote Senator Reed, “the melting pot as a refuge of the oppressed of all nations, which America had become, was over. Unless immigration was restrained the U.S. would fall like Rome, the U.S. would be overwhelmed by a vast migration of alien and barbaric foreign hordes from the war-stricken countries of Europe.” Sound familiar?
The 1924 law and its interpretations called for immigrants to prove mental and physical health and literacy before embarking to America. The immigrant had to prove he would not be a public charge, that is he would have a good job waiting for him on arrival. He was required to prove a clean police record for 5 years, birth certificates, and all copies of public records. The consequence of these restrictions was that total immigration to the U.S. from Europe fell from 360,000 in 1924 to 35,000 in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power. Of course, obtaining the required documents under Hitler was virtually impossible.
In the spring of 1939, my 34-year-old father feared that war was coming to Poland. Polish nationalism and anti-Semitism had been rising leading to violence and a boycott of Jewish owned businesses. My father had nowhere to take his wife and 2-year-old son. The gates of America were closed. The gates of Palestine were closed. After the war, he returned to his hometown Lodz, to discover that he had no family, no wife, no son, no parents, none of his five siblings and their families.
It was only when President Truman came to power, and at his insistence, that our attitude toward refugees changed culminating in the Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 which allowed 200,000 refugees to enter the U.S., which included my parents. America was finally trying to do right. My parents, as most immigrants, were forever grateful to the U.S.. They would never experience life-threatening fear again. And it goes without saying, that Thanksgiving was always very special in our home, as well in most immigrant homes.
The sin of hateful rhetoric that we try to own up to five times during Yom Kippur has consequences. And, as the Rabbi shared on Yom Kippur, we, as individuals, are responsible for everyone’s hateful rhetoric.
Never in my life, did I imagine that we in this synagogue, in our vibrant Jewish community, a community of immigrants, would have armed guards on Shabbat, would have earthen and concrete barriers to protect our synagogues and Jewish schools, would have secret codes to enter these institutions. And this is all just in the last few years. Anti-Semitism has come out of the closet into the mainstream as a direct result of a strange acceptance of hateful rhetoric.
What are we to do? Maybe we have to turn off CNN or Fox News or Rush Limbuagh, and disable Facebook, and disregard conspiracy theories. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that all human beings are created in the image of God and because of that, all human beings have sanctity. The immigration issues are complex. In these discussions, especially as Jews, we should never forget the most frequently mentioned term in our Chumash, “remember the ger/stranger (meaning immigrant) living in your midst, for you were once a stranger in a strange land.”
What else can we do? I think of Eli Wiesel. He would challenge his audience asking, what is the opposite of love? The common answer is hate, but it’s not correct. Both love and hate require emotional currency. And with interaction there is always the hope that you can convince someone to love rather than hate. The opposite of love is indifference, it’s not caring, it’s being left alone. That was the worst feeling of Jews in the concentration camps, and frankly among all victims of prejudice.
So what is a Jewish response? The first response is to recognize and double down on our commitment to Yiddishkeit that we just experienced during Simchat Torah, when we were together as a community, to praise Hashem, to be unified. To watch our children and grandchildren learn and celebrate the joy of being Jewish. And while we’ve been on the train called galut for 2,000 years and have made various stops along the way, we know what our destiny is. And, there is another response.
While we may be under assault now, we must recognize that we can’t fix this alone. We are a small minority, about 1% of the American population. And that’s where the work of the American Jewish Committee comes in. Not just in building support for Israel on the world stage, which it does, but in building bridges and cultivating alliances among other religious, political, and likeminded communal groups here in America, to remind all people that attacks on immigrants and all minorities is an attack on Americanism and to remind us to reject conspiracy theories and expose the cynicism of demagogues who indulge in and exploit them.
Am Yisrael Chai. Shabbat Shalom