As Jews, we must take sides

As Jews, we must take sides

Last Sunday, hundreds stood in the rain in Manhattan for a rally in support of refugees that was organized by HIAS. (Josefin Dolton)
Last Sunday, hundreds stood in the rain in Manhattan for a rally in support of refugees that was organized by HIAS. (Josefin Dolton)

On January 21 I took my ritual prayer shawl — my tallit — and my sign, reading “Orthodox Rabbi Against Trump” with “Hate” outlined in the background, and left my home.

With hundreds of thousands of fellow New Yorkers around me, the street became my synagogue. I thought of the blessing recited upon seeing such a large mass of people, where tradition blesses God as the “knower of secrets.” What brought each of us here? Were we marching for an ideal or against a leader? The answers were varied, the secrets unknown.

“The glory of the King is magnified by the multitude of people,” say the sages of the Talmud. This felt appropriate as I saw countless people of varying ethnicities and backgrounds, with posters and chants just as diverse. Still, there was a unity, not conformity, in this conglomeration.

As the week went on and the president announced his executive orders on immigration, I was thrust backward in time, looking through my grandparents’ photo albums and reading their stories. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and refugees, I often think about the world’s silence and America’s delayed intervention during World War II. While FDR and the Allies knew of the heinous war crimes being perpetuated against the Jews of Eastern Europe, the press failed to report these atrocities — though the Yiddish newspapers kept their readership informed. I remember as a teenager wondering “what if…” while reading “While Six Million Died” by Arthur Morse, and feeling full of shame. I have felt that same stomach-churning uneasiness over the past years of the Syrian genocide, but the latest announcement delivered a new blow.

I imagined: how might I resist, if I were an innocent Syrian fleeing persecution? As a native Yiddish speaker, I never accepted the claim of the “weak shtetl Yid,” the idea that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter, that they should have done more to protect themselves. I knew my grandparent’s friends were smugglers, couriers, and fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and that they were partisans and poets. I was deeply knowledgeable about the rich cultural life that thrived amid such persecution. I was raised to believe in people’s inherent spiritual strengths, as opposed to thinking I understood why they deserved whatever suffering that had befallen them.

Where were we then? We, who by chance and luck, found ourselves in positions of power and places of privilege in our country, which sings “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Where are we now? As a rabbi, I think of the rabbis and community leaders before me, who pleaded with the president and powers that were, who organized and took to the streets to protest and demand action. There must have been voices, like there are today, that implored rabbis to stay away from politics, not to ruffle feathers, not to overly politicize. But there also were rabbis who accepted their mantle, who knew that they were part of a prophetic tradition that valued the sanctity of human life and were unafraid to rise up for the vulnerable.

I see my family and community today — my Jewish community — so protective of the memory of the Holocaust, of Hitler, of the exceptionalism about the barbarism of Nazism that allows them blinders stopping them from bearing witness to the suffering of today. I see my community as so confident in its own mythologized sense of its own uniqueness that it forgets the charge of serving as a light unto the nations and fails to show up on behalf of those suffering besides themselves.

I see my people spiritually stuck in a place of fear that does not allow them to fulfill the sacred commandment of loving the stranger, the foreigner.

Over the last weeks I have looked inward and at my religion, practicing my tradition, imploring my God, studying my history and staring at my people as I ask: How did we arrive here?

I am not a policy expert, political pundit, or lawmaker. But as a Zionist and religious Jew, I am compelled to push my Orthodox community and Jewish Trump supporters: How do we account for the president failing to mention Jewish deaths in the Holocaust? How do we come to terms with House Republicans who avoid voting on a resolution stating that the Holocaust targeted Jews? How do we justify banning an entire religion from entering the United States who come from countries that have not produced a terrorist on U.S. soil in decades? What do we make of Trump’s countless tweets that do not include even one announcement of the dozens of bomb threats against Jewish institutions? How do we rationalize the president’s obsession with his own persona? The Talmud teaches that one who is arrogant is like an idol worshipper. What then do we say of the man who builds towers to the sky with his name emblazoned on them?

As Jewish parents, what do we say to our children, especially our daughters, when they discover we have elected a man accused dozens of times of sexual misconduct, who has said the most misogynistic and vile things about women, who rates women on their physical appearance alone? Is this the Torah value of walking humbly with our God, of treating each human being with dignity and respect, and acting as if we believe that each person carried the image of God in them? How do we explain the twittering bully-in-chief’s childlike behavior?

And what do we say to the prime minister of the State of Israel, who strives and claims to represent Jewish people all over the world, when he enthusiastically congratulates and aligns himself with a man who has emboldened a new generation of anti-Semitism?

I carry my family and people within me wherever I go. I accept that there is a time for war and a time for peace. I hold the dissonances that shaped my identity and believe them integral to my spiritual DNA. I pray for the welfare of this United States government and all its elected officials. That is why I cannot accept the president’s rhetoric, behavior, language, or executive orders as being aligned with normative religious values or stay silent.

This is a deeper divide than Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative — it is about moral decency. In Hebrew, it’s derech eretz.

For all the creative and provocative signs on Saturday, January 21, and at the rallies since then, God hasn’t made it onto very many cardboard posters. But I felt God with me then as I do now, emboldened by the outpouring of love for the most vulnerable in our society, touched by the community that forms itself within hours, even moments, after learning of a new damning decree. I feel God as I encounter a Trump supporter and demand to understand why the newest form of blatant racism feels acceptable to him. I feel God in these moments of dissonance and despair, and I believe wholeheartedly that light will prevail amid this invasive darkness.

We must wake up, as the prophets demanded, rise up, and speak out. As Elie Wiesel once said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” So, Jews: Which side are we on?

Rabbi Avram Mlotek grew up in Teaneck, where his parents still live. He is the grandchild of Holocaust refugees and a founder of Base Hillel, a new model for Jewish engagement..

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