Can It Happen Here?

Parshat Vayigash
January 7, 2017—9 Tevet 5777

When I first got to our shul 20 years ago, at Kiddush one of our long-term members shared his reaction to the sermon I had given that morning.  He said: “All too often, a sermon is a long answer to a question no one is asking.”

I said: Thanks a lot.

I don’t have that problem this morning.  My sermon today is about a question a lot of people are asking.  Anti-Semitism.

To be honest, I don’t like talking about anti-Semitism.  It is my least favorite sermon topic, which is why I almost never address it. I would much rather talk about subjects where we are in the driver’s seat, where we are driving the action, not where we are the object.  Not where we are hated.

But I can’t duck the topic anymore. Not only because many people are asking for a sermon on it. Also because of the news of the day.

Can it happen here? Just this week, on Cape Cod, Jewish tombstones were desecrated. The graffiti was so hateful that the television reports said it was too obscene to show on television.

Can it happen here? It happens on college campuses. Like Oberlin, where assistant professor Joy Karega posted on Facebook that “Israeli and Zionist Jews” were responsible for the terrorism on 9/11 and for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last year. While Karega was belatedly fired, she embodies perfectly how old-fashioned Jew hatred so often masquerades on college campuses as anti-Israel animus.

Can it happen here? As always our weekly Torah reading is the place to start.  We are at the climax of the Joseph story.  The Jews are maximally protected and at peace.  Joseph is number two in all of Egypt, Pharaoh’s right hand man.  He creates a safe space for Jews in Goshen, the richest land in Egypt. Comfortable. Protected. Safe. Happy. Until, two weeks later,  we are not.

We go from protection and peace at the end of Genesis to slavery and servitude at the beginning of Exodus.  Same people. Same country. Total and harsh reversal of fortune.  If Israelites at the time of Joseph looked around at their wealth and power in Goshen and said “it can’t happen here,” they were wrong.

Tragically, the Torah here presages a pattern that recurs throughout Jewish history.

In golden age Spain the Jews were protected. It can’t happen here. Until it did, and they were expelled.

In medieval and early modern Eastern Europe, in Poland, in Vilna, the Jews were protected.  They supplied the capital. They were useful to nobles and princes. Jewish learning and scholarship thrived. It can’t happen here. Until it did, with massacres, Cossack attacks, and of course the Shoah.

Same story in Germany. Same story in France. Jews were protected. They served their country, in peace and in war, with honor and with distinction. It can’t happen here. Until it did.

The most civilized countries in the world have literally been killing fields for our people.  Amoz Oz calls it “fabulous, lethal Europe.” And if no longer killing fields, even today, Europe is cold and uncomfortable for Jews.

Last week, before going to Israel for my mother in love’s unveiling, Shira and our children and I went to London.  Now England is the best of Europe for the Jewish people, which is not saying much.  Unlike Germany and France, England did not massacre its Jews. Indeed, England even accepted Kindertransport children who otherwise would have perished.  And yet even in England, even today, Jews lead closeted lives, as I discovered first-hand.  I say Kaddish every day, so I went to three different synagogues in London, one reform, and two orthodox.  All three had something in common.  They were all profoundly depressing.

All three shuls where I said Kaddish did not present themselves to the public as shuls at all.  They were in commercial areas, and you would have no idea, from looking at the buildings, that they were shuls.  We have a menorah on our building.  We have a We Stand with Israel banner on our building.  We proudly proclaim to the world that we are a shul. In London, no menorah. No Israel banner. No proudly proclaiming that we are a shul. The shuls are hidden shuls.  All three times I had the same experience.  I looked at the building, confused and confounded.  Is this the right address? Is this even a shul?  I was outside the building at the published time for services, yet I could see no people milling around.  No life. No energy. No evidence of a Jewish community.  Each time, just about as I was ready to give up on this empty office building, a security guard came out.  I had to show my passport to a security guard, who  buzzed me in.  Outside an office building. Inside a shul. Marranos. Hidden Jews. That is England, the best of Europe for Jews, today.

Which brings us to America. Can it happen here?

Many of us have been following the story of Rabbi Francine Green Roston and her family in Whitefish, Montana.  Rabbi Roston is a Conservative Rabbi. I know her. She was in my class at the Seminary.  She was a rabbi in South Orange, New Jersey, feeling somewhat burned out by the demands of the rabbinate, when she and her husband Marc, parents of two teens, decided: “Life’s too short.  Let’s create the life we know we want.”

Off they go to Whitefish, Montana, named for its ski mountain.  Lots of nature. Not so many Jews.  In Whitefish and the adjoining small town, there are about 100 Jewish families.  Rabbi Roston’s husband Marc, who has a flexible schedule as a financial services consultant, will hike or ski the mountains of Montana in the middle of the day like the rest of us might go to the gym, as he put it.

How perfect is that. Nature. Beauty. Hiking. Skiing. Family time.  There is only one problem.  As you all know, Whitefish also happens to be the home of a neo-Nazi and white supremacist named Richard Spencer, and neo-Nazis have taken to social media to publicize and ostracize and persecute the few Jews living there.  They have posted hateful, scary, violent rhetoric against Jews, like Rabbi Roston and her family.  And they are planning to march, with guns, importing skinheads and neo-Nazis from other states, next week on Martin Luther King Day.   There are mixed reports about whether this march will actually happen, but a small community of vulnerable Jews is being targeted. Hatred is here.

What does all of this mean for us now? 

We can all agree that anti-Semitism is evil.  We can all agree that we dare never be complacent about anti-Semitism.  But what, exactly, is the best way to combat it?  Here there is a machloket l’sheim shamayim, a principled disagreement.

Some argue that the best way to fight anti-Semitism is to name it and isolate it as its own problem.  We are not talking about hatred in general. We are talking about anti-Semitism in particular. The best way to fight anti-Semitism is to fight anti-Semitism, and not confuse things by amalgamating it with other forms of hatred.  This view would argue that joining a march against all hatred is not directed enough to our problem of anti-Semitism.

Others argue that it is a big and cold world out there, and we Jews are a small people.  We need friends and allies.  The best way to fight anti-Semitism is to fight hatred wherever we find it.  It is the right thing to do. It also happens to be effective because we build alliances with other people of goodwill.  

Which approach is more cogent?  What do we learn from the fine people of the state of Montana?

The full weight of the leadership of Montana, state and federal government, has come out squarely, passionately, and unequivocally against anti-Semitism and against hatred of any kind.  Two U.S. Senators, one Representative, the Governor and Attorney General, among them two Democrats and three Republicans, none of them Jewish, all signed a letter stating as follows:

Dear Fellow Americans,

As we close out this year and look toward the future, we as Montana’s elected leaders are focused on the values that reflect our true character. Therefore, we condemn attacks on our religious freedom manifesting in a group of anti-Semites. We stand firmly together to send a clear message that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation.  We say to those few who seek to publicize anti-Semitic views that they shall find no safe haven here.

We offer our full support to the Jewish community, Montana families, businesses, faith organizations and law enforcement officers as they ensure the security of all our communities.  We will address these threats directly and forcefully, putting our political differences aside to stand up for what’s right. That’s the Montana way, and the American way.

Rest assured, any demonstration or threat of intimidation against any Montanan’s religious liberty will not be tolerated. It takes all Montanans working together to eradicate religious intolerance.

But it was not only elected leaders doing the right thing. Ordinary citizens of Montana, overwhelmingly non-Jews, invited all citizens of Montana, Jews and non-Jews, to hang a menorah in their window.  Huge numbers of non-Jewish Montanans, according to one estimate half the windows in some neighborhoods, had menorahs outside their front door with a sign that said Love Lives Here.  In fact, in an ironic unanticipated benefit, some Jewish citizens of Whitefish were inspired by their non-Jewish neighbors to light their own Hanukkah candles this year.

What does this teach us about combating anti-Semitism? Is the right way to combat anti-Semitism to focus only on anti-Semitism, or is it to oppose all forms of hatred and bigotry?  One of the Montana volunteers put it this way: “If you’re from the human race and somebody gets targeted, then everybody gets targeted.”

Can it happen here? No, it cannot happen here, so long as we all work together with our neighbors to act on the truth of what Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Shabbat shalom.