The Avodah Blog

A Time for Moral Grandeur

I just got home from one of the largest conferences in the institutional Jewish world.  I ran into a lot of prominent friends and colleagues there—executive directors, presidents and vice-presidents, fellow rabbis, heads of boards of Jewish communal organizations and institutions. I arrived on Monday, the day after Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, known for his ties to the white supremacist alt-right movement, to be his chief strategist and senior counselor.

The President-elect’s campaign promises have violated, according to the ACLU, no fewer than five Constitutional amendments.  He appears to be moving forward with his plans to register Muslims and deport up to three million immigrants.  Hate crimes have spiked since the election.

“How is your organization planning to address the consequences of this election?” I would ask my acquaintances as we made small talk in the lobby.

Some leaders of small, nimble nonprofits or left-leaning denominations had quick answers and were already springing into action.  The bigger the organization, though, the more likely it was that my interlocutor would begin to mumble. “Dig a hole and hide in it,” one of them responded.  Another wondered whether they might be able to say anything at all, given the risk of angering right-leaning funders.  Still another noted with concern that Trump’s support of Israel might put their organization in an awkward position.

The Zionist Organization of America has invited Bannon to its awards dinner; the Republican Jewish Coalition has defended Bannon’s character and statements. Other major organizations sent emails stating how delighted they would be to work with Trump.  Many more have been, simply, silent.

One of the most oft-quoted phrases in the Jewish educational lexicon is, “Never again.”  It refers to the Jewish determination that the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the abuses leading up to it, should never take place again, anywhere in history.  Our kids learn about the Holocaust as early as kindergarten, and are taught about the “righteous among the nations,” the non-Jews who risked their lives on behalf of Jews. We also highlight the Jews who were Freedom Riders and note with pride that the great theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. We quote Elie Wiesel, who swore “never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.”

Now, the silence is somewhat deafening.

Even if Trump’s campaign tweets and ads hadn’t had anti-Semitic overtones, even if Bannon himself wasn’t a notorious anti-Semite, we would have a moral obligation to raise our voices.  As it happens, it’s not even in our own self-interest to be short-sighted and fearful.

Of course, some Jews and Jewish organizations have already spoken out against the Bannon appointment, have been co-sponsoring protests, developing interfaith alliances, organizing on behalf of those likely to be vulnerable in the new administration. I’m glad that Avodah is one of them.

But it’s not enough. And what’s more, Trump isn’t just taking advice from Bannon; his other advisors include Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney and Kris Kobach, author of draconian immigration laws. Given our history, the entire Jewish community should be speaking out on these issues. And they’re not.

In 1963, Rabbi Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in anticipation of an upcoming meeting. He wrote, in part, “LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION… PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY….THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.”

Moral grandeur involves real personal risk.  We may know this intellectually, but it’s different when one’s own work is on the line. Taking a stand may cause friction with key stakeholders; it may make some people angry.

It does not seem that Jews would be the first or even the second group formally targeted by a Trump administration—but all the more that we should be using our relative privilege on behalf of those who are.

“Never again” is now. It’s time for the Jewish community—and the rest of the country—to speak clearly against Trump’s plans and appointments, and to actively resist racism and intolerance every step of the way. If we witness a verbal or physical attack, we should put our own bodies on the line to protect those targeted.  If Trump does try to deport immigrants, we should make our homes and synagogues and communities places of refuge.  If he tries to call for Muslims to be registered, we should be first in line to register along with them.  And now, while things are merely scary, we should thicken the bonds of solidarity and sow the seeds for what may be a long fight ahead.

For, as Heschel—himself a refugee whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust, himself a man who knew all too well what was at stake—once noted, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of the people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Danya Ruttenberg is Rabbi-in-Residence at Avodah and author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.

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