When Jews Forget Who We Were – And Who We Are

A long time ago, our people, enslaved and broken, struggled to survive the harsh treatment of their Egyptian oppressors.  God heard our cries and “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” as the Bible puts it, delivered us from slavery to freedom.

It is through God’s grace that this nation is freed from the shackles of servitude, not because they intrinsically “deserve” to be free. If anything, the contemptible behavior of our ancestors after the Exodus causes God to rethink the redemption of the Israelites more than once.

Ever since then, we sing our thanksgiving to God for our liberation every day. It is, along with the Creation, a leitmotif in Jewish prayer and study and celebration. This experience of freedom continues to deeply reverberate in the hearts and the souls of the Jewish people.

Passover is the time when Jews all over the world get to sit around a table and extol God for our salvation. We sing, we eat, we pray, we celebrate. There is much joy in recalling our experience. But there is also time spent remembering the bitterness of our servitude. Saltwater, bitter herbs, the matzah itself! – all deepen the meaning and messages of Passover with memories of oppression.

Of course, we recall our suffering in Egypt and then over the subsequent millennia. Of course, we recognize the ways in which Jews still experience hatred and prejudice, even in our own cities. But it’s never been enough at any seder I’ve attended to speak only of the oppression of the Jewish people. In the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Or as the late, great Solomon Burke sang it , “None of us are free/ if one of is chained/Then none of us are free.”

We know the degradation of slavery. We know the fear that comes with powerlessness. We know the insecurity of being disenfranchised. We know the degradation of prejudice, of being the Other, the Outsider. And with that knowledge comes an obligation. It says so many times that we must treat the stranger justly because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. But there seem to be Jewish people in the Newton community who do not want to honor the very Jewish mission to work for the freedom of all people.

Mayor Setti Warren called a meeting held last night to address various antisemitic and other racist incidents in Newton. He spoke of understanding each other’s differences, and of moving forward as a community to set the stage for a future where people with different backgrounds can feel comfortable.

Today’s Boston Globe reports that “… some in the audience had other ideas, wanting only to talk about anti-Semitism.

At points, it devolved into a forum where Jewish activists heckled an African-American woman who spoke of her son being called a vulgar racist slur at school, where the superintendent of schools was booed and needed a police escort to his car, and where a woman held a sign reading: “It’s not prejudice, it’s anti-Semitism.”

People who did not identify themselves got up to say they were put off by the speakers who talked about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and marriage equality.

“This was not supposed to be about equal values; it was supposed to be about anti-Semitism,” one man said, as police officers in the War Memorial at City Hall stood and moved into the crowd of more than 150 who packed the auditorium.”

I am outraged that there are actually members of the Jewish community who would mock a black woman recounting her son’s experiences of racism. I am sickened by the politics of a small group of attention-getting hate mongers who seek to make everything about them by targeting the Other. I am heartbroken to imagine that there are non-Jews out there: black folk, people from the GLBT movement, Moslem-Americans, immigrants, and others who now wonder about what always seemed to be a strong alliance between Jews and the battle for equal rights for all.

When Jews fail to remember that we were once strangers in Egypt, that we are always on call to right the wrongs of racism and intolerance, then we are betraying our history and betraying God.

What are we to do with this small group of nattering navel gazers? How should we, the vast majority of Jews who in fact care about the stranger, the oppressed, the victim of racism and ignorant hatred, how shall we respond? This is a question being asked all over the Newton Jewish community today. I am certain that Jewish leadership from CJP will rise to the occasion as will the JCRC. We will work with them to be assured that the response is clear. Expressions of ignorance and hatred from within the Jewish community will not go unanswered. We will work with the city in any way that we can to help Mayor Setti Warren, a good man and a friend of our congregation, to reach his goals of a city of greater harmony. Beth Avodah will keep a close eye on the situation as it develops. It’s fair to say that we will be willing to do what must be done to ameliorate this awful situation.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a dvar Torah, one that the people in attendance at last night’s meeting should read carefully. “Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart … I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says God – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

As Passover approaches, let this message ring out from our homes. Let’s reaffirm our commitments to justice for all. Let’s take this obligation to the Other seriously. We once were slaves in Egypt and now we are free. But none of us are free when one of is chained.

Shabbat Shalom






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