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The Beast Is Loose

March 3, 2017

This is ‘Shabbat Across America’ though at this particular time, this particular week, it should really be called ‘The Much Needed Shabbat Across America’ because if you are like me, you are bone tired, worn down, reeling and angry. People have told me that it does not do me any good to be angry. Yes, it does. It helps me focus.

Racism and anti-Semitism have deep, dark historic roots. Like an evil crop, they lurk beneath the surface – and sometimes barely beneath the surface – ready to spring out like voracious tentacles that devour and lay waste the varied harvests the soil nurtures. Those tentacles are strengthened by silence in the wake of intolerance and hatred.

What I am feeling these days…perhaps what many of you are feeling…is that things are spinning out of control, unleashed by the very President who in the opening words of his address to Congress this past week {February 28, 2017} condemned racism and anti-Semitism. His words, while critical to hear, came too late. Much too late.

You will recall the Press conference when a reporter from “Ami Magazine,” an Orthodox Jewish weekly based in Brooklyn, prefaced his question to President Trump by saying, “I have not seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic. We understand that you have Jewish grandchildren. You are their zayde {a Yiddish term for “grandfather” and often a word of great affection}. However, what we are concerned about and what we have not really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish [community] centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to…“ and at that point the President abruptly cut him off saying it was “not a fair question.”

In the wake of bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers and Jewish preschools; city storefronts and college dorms spray-painted with swastikas and the words “Sieg Heil” splashed across walls, the response of the President of the United States of America was to demean the reporter for, in Trump’s words, “get[ting] up and ask[ing] a very insulting question.” He then avoided answering what he had been asked. His response was not about the rising tide of intolerance in America. His response was not to condemn anti-Semitism. His response was, “I am the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life…the least racist person.” Asked about the surge of hatred in America – racism and anti-Semitism – he spoke about himself, finally ending his tantrum by saying, “Just shows you about the Press, but that’s the way the Press is.” This entire lamentable episode is a snapshot of what this President is.

His appointees speak volumes about the direction this Administration has charted for our country’s future. In his first speech as United States Attorney General, Jeff Sessions said that the Federal government would stand down from monitoring police departments throughout America that the Justice Department has said are guilty of systemic racism. That is troubling, to say the least. This does not make Trump a racist, but it makes him indifferent to racism, and the difference between racism and giving it cover is a barely perceptible thin blue line.

When the President finally got around to condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts in his address to Congress, it sounded sincere, but I have a strong “show me” streak when it comes to him. This is the President who, in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, did not mention that the state-sanctioned acts of Nazi Germany resulted in the deaths of six million Jews.

There is his pre-election tweet of an image of Hilary Clinton’s face with a six-pointed star, a pile of hundred dollar bills, and the words “most corrupt candidate ever.” The star was in the shape of a Star of David. His campaign staff said it was a sheriff’s badge.

A month before the election, he gave a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, in which he accused Hilary Clinton of holding secret meetings with bankers in a conspiracy to undermine United States sovereignty. ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ immediately come to mind.

“America First” is a slogan that this President repeats time and time again. It was the name of the isolationist, anti-Semitic national organization – Charles Lindbergh was one of its foremost champions and speakers – that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.

Is Trump that tone-deaf? Is he that oblivious about history? Or is he that cunning?

I don’t know whether you voted for him or not, but it’s impossible to say that we did not see this coming. Now that it is happening – the desecration of cemeteries in St. Louis and here in Philadelphia {the weekend of February 25th-26th}; bomb threats made to Jewish community centers and preschools; a round fired from a BB gun into the classroom window of Temple Adath B’nai Israel in Evansville, Indiana, this past Tuesday {February 28, 2017} – our attention, concern and lamentations which have been directed outward to Europe have now suddenly turned inward to America, and here in Philadelphia. Freedom, meet fear.

Fear, meet faith. I have no faith in this President, but I do have faith in the goodness of many of our fellow citizens of different religions, ethnicities, races and nationalities. Muslim activist Tarek El-Messidi, head of ‘Celebrate Mercy,’ an interfaith-oriented Muslim NGO, started a fund-raising campaign to help clean up the St. Louis cemetery, and he did so again after the attack at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. He said, “I ask all Muslims to reach out to your Jewish brothers and sisters and stand together against this bigotry. We must stand together against these acts of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

Let us echo his words: “We must stand together against these acts of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

I have faith in the people who have reached out to us in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, and in the name of healing. Eloquent letters were written to the Jewish community by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and by Drs. Philip Cunningham and Adam Gregerman at St. Joseph’s University – Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. A forceful statement of support came from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput: “For Catholics, anti-Semitism is blasphemy. As a community, we need to stand up for one another.” We are grateful for Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro’s offer of the full assistance of his office to law enforcement investigating threats against the Jewish community. We are grateful to the police officers of the Cheltenham Township Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Department for their concern on our behalf, and their diligence in pursuing all leads that will hopefully lead to the arrest of those who desecrated the cemetery and assaulted the values of so many people in our community and throughout the country.

Given President Trump’s callous, outrageous statement that anti-Semitic threats are sometimes designed to “make others look bad” – what others? the alt-right? militia groups? Republicans? – the Attorney General’s pledge is all the more important. This is a President who feels no shame, but must be held accountable.

There is much that we must continue to do: write to your elected representatives on both sides of the aisle, pushing for meetings, demanding responses, and thanking them for efforts to re-set; walk, petition, and demonstrate in the name of acceptance, not just tolerance; and connect with Muslim groups in this country because this is their country too.

Carol Nemeroff, Shelley and I – thanks to Carol – are connecting with Nora Elmarzouky, Director of Education of Al Bustan Seeds of Culture in Philadelphia. The Center presents and teaches Arab culture through the arts, language and literature with the stated goal of “promot[ing] cross-cultural understanding among youth and adults of all ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds through artistic and educational programs.”

Imagine Muslim and Jewish children, youth and adults breaking bread together, sharing the rich music of our faiths, and creating artistic visions of a more peaceful world fortified by religious teachings and traditions within our sacred walls and at Al Bustan Seeds of Culture. Imagine building bridges, not walls, and touching hearts and minds through sharing, prayer and song in the quest for peace and understanding.

We do not want for friends and we need not look far for inspiration. In the words of Torah that we read every Yom Kippur, “This mitzvah [this ability to do good] which I [God] command you this day, is neither beyond you nor far away. It is not in heaven, that you might say, ‘Who will go up to heaven on our behalf and get it for us?’ It is not across the sea, that you might say, ‘Who will cross the sea on our behalf and get it for us?’ No, it is in your mouth and in your heart.” {Deuteronomy 30:11-14} It is the words of Isaiah: “The Lord of hosts is exalted through justice, and God, The Holy One, is sanctified through righteousness” {Isaiah 5:16}. It is the words of Amos: “Hate evil, love what is good, and establish justice in the gate” {Amos 5:15}.

That is what we are committed to doing.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin