Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Rabbi David Lyon
August 18, 2017
Congregation Beth Israel
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The 21st century was supposed to begin without wars and conflicts that shaped the previous century. If we read H.G. Wells, B.F. Skinner, or Aldous Huxley, the 21st century was supposed to be nearly utopian where technology, ecology, and humanity would merge with globalization and democracy to reveal the future every generation promised their children. The last 17 years have passed without signs of utopia, to say the least; so, it’s to our Jewish history that we must return, again, to be sure that we’ve learned the most enduring lessons on how to restore sanity and humanity, today.
In the late 1970’s, when I was in high school, I lived in the Chicago suburbs; many of my relatives still lived in Skokie, Illinois. If you don’t know about Skokie, it’s a suburb north of Chicago, and at the time, 40% of the population was Jewish, and one out of every six Jewish residents was a Holocaust survivor. It was truly a haven for them. But, in 1977, a neo-Nazi group announced plans to march in Skokie. It was a well-organized effort that the City of Skokie aimed to shut down with ordinances that banned many of the Nazi’s tactics, including their paraphernalia.
Two Jewish reactions emerged. Some Jewish leaders said they shouldn’t grant the Nazis an audience. Stay home, they said, and let them march to empty streets and bleachers. Other Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors argued that that’s what they were told to do in Nazi Germany, and they ended up in concentration camps. They were determined to take their protests directly to the Nazis in the streets.
The case went to court. Defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Nazis claimed the right of free speech while Jews in Skokie claimed the right to live without intimidation. The court case made three distinct arguments in favor of the Nazi’s march, which you can “Google” about later; but, in brief, the court argued that the ruling against the Nazis would have, in effect, constricted the freedom of speech for others in different cases, which was too high a price even under the awful circumstances that threatened residents in Skokie.
In the end, the ACLU successfully defended the Nazis’ right to free speech. But, while the ACLU did win the case, it was a costly victory; 30,000 of its members left the organization. And in the end the Nazis marched in Chicago, instead.
Historians note that Skokie had all the elements of a difficult case: a clash of absolutes, prior restraint of speech, and heated public sentiment. Sound familiar? Today, we have a clash of absolutes as our country continues to be polarized along political, economic and social lines. Today, we have claims of prior restraint of speech by fringe groups even though the first amendment has been generously upheld even for Nazis and White Supremacists. And, today, heated public sentiment remains strong across communities where civility is at risk and demonization thrives.
There’s one difference — maybe more — but one striking difference between Skokie, Illinois in 1977, and Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter was president. In response to the Supreme Court ruling that permitted the Nazis to march, President Carter was not equivocal. He issued a statement in which he made clear:
“I must respect the decision of the Supreme Court allowing this group (the Nazis) to express their views, even when those views are despicable and ugly as they are in this case. But if such views must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. That is why I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens of Skokie and Chicago who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.”
Except in one unfortunate incident, no other president of the United States of America has ever misjudged the role of White Supremacists or Nazis. Only in 1985, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, spoke to but failed to impress upon President Ronald Reagan not to place a wreath on the grave of the SS at the Bitburg cemetery in Germany. Despite the unfortunate event, history records it as one of American Jewry’s finest moment, when in the words of Wiesel, “truth was spoken to power.”
Last weekend White Supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in the streets, again. This time it was in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the outcome was grim. Violent protests led to many injuries and one death, when Heather Heyer fell beneath the wheels of the car driven into the crowd by a White Supremacist.
And, then, unlike anyone before him, this President failed a litmus test of national and world leadership by being equivocal about and complicit with pure evil. White Supremacists and neo-Nazis were granted “moral equivalence” with protesters who came to defend the rights of Jews, blacks, other minorities, and most Americans. I know that some found less fault in his “moral equivalence,” but I am not convinced, nor should any of us be satisfied with his illogical conclusion.
In the aftermath, we don’t have leaders like Wiesel to speak for us. So, we must take a page from Wiesel’s lessons about rescuing humanity from inhumanity. It’s not necessary to quote Wiesel; it’s only necessary to do as he did. We must speak truth to power. We must advocate against unequivocal and complicit speech from the President of the United States and anyone who gives credence to “moral equivalence” between White Supremacists and the rest of us.
So we did. In recent days, faith leaders around Houston joined me in signing an op-ed, which I wrote, and in which I cited judicatory heads, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Please read the article in the paper or online, or in my blog this week. We concluded our joint statement with a call to the people of Greater Houston to:
“’Love your neighbor as yourself,’ [because] faith in such an enduring teaching is the beginning of love between us and all God’s acts of creation. Permission is not granted to human hands to destroy God’s handiwork; to do so is an act of ultimate moral weakness. Rather, defending the poor, sheltering the widow, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and loving your neighbor, are demonstrations of ultimate moral strength.”
And, we left the door open to those who hate today, but who might love their neighbor, tomorrow. The op-ed concluded, “If our nation’s moral authority emboldens White Supremacists against Jews, blacks and other minorities, then we must link arms and hands, and join voices … to labor for a strong and loving nation; the America our forefathers bequeathed to us. We know the difference between good and evil; we have room in our hearts and our homes for those who know or will come to know the difference, too.”
After real leaders speak wisdom, their words echo long after they have spoken. Coincidentally, it was on August 18, 1790, exactly 227 years to the date, when President Washington addressed his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. He wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Washington’s concluding paragraph spoke directly to the Hebrew Congregation, and echoes still in our hearts and minds. He wrote:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
The Jews of Newport felt blessed in a land of blessings. So should we. We don’t need Utopia. We need hope that is America. We need hope that is Israel, too. For Jews of Barcelona, this week, and elsewhere in Europe, and in Cuba, where I visited last May, Israel is “Hativkah,” the Hope of a Promised Land.
When we leave the sanctuary tonight, we must commit to the values of our faith; we must commit to the hopes of our forefathers and foremothers; and we must commit to honor the wisdom of those who walked before us in the places where we walk, today. Tomorrow can’t be the same as it is today or last weekend. Join me in making tomorrow better than today. Only through action and never through silence, will we show our children and our grandchildren that greater and more enduring peace is not just a hope; it is our promise. Amen.