Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Trump and the Massacre

While I have attempted to avoid politics, one week from the midterm election, the world - and the Jewish world especially - is on fire in the wake of the massacre of 11 of our brothers and sisters in Tree of Life Congregation last Shabbat in Pittsburgh, PA.  I have received multiple responses to my letters to the congregation demanding that I (a) loudly condemn President Trump as a purveyor of hate and an enabler of this murder, or (b) stay out of politics. Sometimes both requests come from the same person. 

So here is my take, only because it has been demanded of me.

1)  President Trump is firmly opposed to anti-Semitism, and has been consistent and clear on that topic.

2) #1 is severely undermined by President Trump's other statements about race, immigration and nationalism.

3) #2 not only undermines #1, it empowers those in this country that sow hatred and prejudice, including anti-Semites.

4) That makes #1 a question for your to answer.  Is he lying, and really is an anti-Semite?  Is he telling the truth, but has other hatred and prejudice? Is he neither, but intentionally sows discord for political advantage?  Is he neither, and doesn't intend the empowerment of prejudice? Or is he good, and positive, and his detractors have it all wrong?

What you think is more important than what I think, but here is what I think:

Note my blog post and speeches after Trump equivocated regarding the Nazi march in Charlottesville in August of 2017.  Note my HHD sermon condemning him, and warning that his equivocation was received by white supremicists and American Nazis as endorsement.  Note my year's work teaching and warning about the dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in America, and violent hate crimes based on race or gender identity.  Note my blog post this week, declaring that "wishing we had more immigrants from Norway" panders to and empowers white supremicist racism in America. Note my consistent protection of immigrants, and my speaking against child-separation as contrary to Torah law, and our mandate to protect the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  Yes, President Trump has policies and speeches that are divisive and which have the immediate and prolonged effect of normalizing the field of prejudice, and encouraging racists and haters.  He disavows them, but they are attracted to his camp. His anti-immigrant stands, his "pro-Norway" comments, his call for nationalist identity, and his nostalgia for "Make America Great Again," with the idea that an earlier social and cultural climate is more desirable than the current fabric of America resonates with prejudice and hate.

The murdererous anti-Semite in Pittsburgh specifically lamented in his social profile that "There is no MAGA (make America great again) as long as there is still a (Jewish and immigrant) infestation."  He resonates with MAGA and then determines that his hateful beliefs must be achieved in reality if MAGA is to be achieved.  This is the point: Trump's message resonates with and empowers the minds of hate, to a deadly extent.  Pipe bombs to liberals, bullets to Jews.

This resume that Trump has built for himself on these topics has become the dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. On the one side, his supporters defend him as a champion of policy who shouldn't be accused of the worst deeds of his followers. On the other side, he is seen as the architect of prejudice and division in America with bloody and devastating outcomes that are just beginning and will destroy the fabric of our nation if allowed to continue.  Whoever is reading this right now will mostly identify with one or the other of those two polarities.  We are divided.

There is no doubt in my mind that Trump does not see and/or does not care about the pain that resume causes, because it helps him achieve his goals.  On the other hand, I believe that when bad apples are found in our midst we must condemn them, reject them and oust them publicly.  We are accountable for our "camps" and President Trump has not sufficiently owned that fact.

But when I turned on the news last Saturday night and was devastated in tears at what I was being shown was happening to my people, to my synagogue in Pittsburgh, I immediately looked to hear "What will President Trump say?" I did that in August 2017 and condemned his ignorant and horrific equivocations.  This time he said the right things.  If he had not said the right things, I would have screamed it from the mountaintops.  Given that he did say the right things, it is good and proper to recognize that, which I did - and still do.  For those who can not hear truth when he speaks it, because he is speaking it, I am different.  I will recognize truth from any quarter when it presents itself.

However, he shows an ongoing blindness to the needs of the real people on the ground.  Forcing himself into the synagogue neighborhood before we had even buried our dead is wrong.  Trying to make a political point of a shiva visit with a family who wants to mourn in peace is wrong. Ignoring the local leaders of the Jewish community, the synagogue, the mayor and the representatives in Congress and interjecting himself on the ground so soon was wrong.  He doesn't understand that there is a connection between his past words and this murderer's motivations.  He needs to get that before he can understand why people did not want him there.

Yes, there is a connection - direct and undeniable - between Trump's prior words and actions and this act of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant murder. I do not believe that is Trump's intention.  But the disavowal must happen loudly, publicly and in a sustained enough manner to counter the damage that has been done over time.  Do I believe that will happen? 100% no.

Anti-Semitism, racism, hatred and prejudice are on the rise. When I hear him say the right thing, I will note it with gratitude. Do I give him a pass? Absolutely not.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Anti-Semitic Murders at Tree of Life - How to Stop what can be Stopped

Enough time has now passed - a long day and a half - for us to begin to know the lessons we must learn and actions we must take in the wake of the murder of 11 innocent Jews, in Pittsburgh yesterday morning.

First, you must understand that this is NOT about guns and it is NOT about mental illness and it is NOT about violence in America.  Do you really think he would have killed fewer people with the 3 handguns than he did with the rifle?  This is about Anti-Semitism in its full form: murder of Jews.

Anti-Semitism is a form of hate, that is unique and insipid.  It is not racism.  It is based in a literature of conspiracy, dehumanization and accusation of guilt for whatever wrong the hater believes in.  If the hater is theological, we rejected and killed Jesus.  If the hater is rich, we are communists.  If the hater is poor, we are bankers and greedy capitalists.  If the hater is counter-cultural, we are the media and Hollywood.  If the hater is a racist, we are mongrels. Anti-Semitism is the chameleon of hate, ever changing and adapting and never based in fact that can be rationally countered.

This attacker believed in a form of Anti-Semitism that was based in white purity of race, combined with a sense of American nationalism defined by that racial profile.  Jews, immigrants, blacks, latinos, asians and others are all an attack on the purity of the nation that he wishes existed.  Wishing we had more "immigrants from Norway" panders to and emboldens this form of racism.  The fact that Jews - largely because of our history as victims to anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world - also support the cause of refugees and immigrants is a double offense to this kind of hater.  Killing Jews, therefore, was a logical attack on his perceived enemies.  This is a rational connection, with a logical conclusion, and therefore is NOT the action of mental illness.  It is the form of hate known as anti-Semitism, pure and simple.

This killer is not alone.  He referenced #Qanon on his social pages, a murky far right conspiracy theory that believes in a dark government, run by a Jewish conspiracy's control of liberal politicians, to overthrow government and advance an anti-white hidden agenda.  In the #Qanon world, the list of enemies includes every single person who was mailed a pipe bomb last week.  No, he was not alone.  He is part of a series of overlapping worlds of anti-Semitism on the far right, all of which are primed for violence and murder.

There are lessons/actions that must come from this:

1) Support the Victims in Pittsburgh at this emergency fund. They need it.  They deserve it.

2) Name this as anti-Semitism.  It is not a "tragedy" or a "horror" or "unthinkable" in any way.  It is the normal, logical and inevitable outcome of the oldest hate still alive in humanity and it is not going away.  It now has a literature from the medieval church, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hitler, the Hamas Charter and more - any one of which you may google, find and read easily in the information age.  They now all reference each other to create a world where their lies and hate become self-validating as if they were true. It will not go away.  It needs to be named, called out, and condemned.

3) America is a land of freedom.  You may outlaw one gun or another, and strengthen background checks for mental illness, prior convictions, drugs, alcoholism, domestic abuse and more.  Those may or may not be very good things.  But they will not stop this kind of violence.  Do you want the government profiling unpleasant political voices, and diminishing their civil rights without ever committing a crime?  Do you want freedom of expression outlawed? Please God, no. Since the anti-Semite is neither insane, nor criminal, none of this will prevent him or her from gaining the legal means to kill.

4) The only answer is the harden soft targets.  Period.  Everything else is politics.  Since we know that bad people will try to kill, and we can't prevent it before it happens without undermining our own democracy and civil rights, we must admit that the only thing that stops a shooter is a shortage of bullets or opposing force.  We must be that opposing force.  It is time that the Department of Homeland Security expand its funding to know that anti-Semitism is the single greatest base of bias attacks and terrorism in America year after year. We need hardened buildings, and armed security like the Jewish communities of Europe, South America and Israel. It is naive to simply wish that we don't want to have to see or pass guns when we enter our houses of worship. The question is, what risk are you willing to take?  For me, I love the lives of my congregants too much to accept any avoidable risk, and our synagogue is just like Tree of Life.  I want trained, competent persons on site.  I don't care if they are paid or not.  You do not need to be a police officer to be fully competent, but it sure would help.

5) We need emergency measures, education and drills in our synagogues, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and more.  Everyplace that is visibly Jewish is a potential target.  In france, it was a kosher supermarket. In Pittsburgh, a synagogue.

I do not take this view lightly.  I am a social liberal, with deep feelings regarding civil rights, freedoms, pluralism and peaceful actions. But anti-Semitism is not overcome in a debate, and guns are not stopped by wishful thinking.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Conservative/Masorti rabbis mourn the loss of 11 shot dead at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Congregation

Conservative/Masorti rabbis mourn the loss of 11 shot dead at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Congregation

The peace and sanctity of the Jewish sabbath was shattered today when a gunman burst into Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue and shot 11 people dead.
As rabbis and Jewish leaders, we are reeling in the wake of this tragedy, believed to be the worst attack ever on the Jewish community on American soil. We pray that the families of the deceased may be comforted among the mourners of Zion and that the wounded will recover. We pledge our support to the Tree of Life congregation and its spiritual leader, our dear friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, who is a member of the Cantors' Assembly. We pray that the many people affected, including neighbors, first responders, and the people of Pittsburgh and all the United States will be able to heal spiritually and emotionally from the wounds that such an attack inflicts on all of us.
One of the most important lessons that the Jewish people can teach the world is that an act of hate against one community is an act of hate against us all. This mass murder is a reminder that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America at a rate unprecedented in decades. This vicious hate crime, perpetrated against innocent people at prayer is but the latest in an escalating scourge of hate-based violence in America. 
Tragically, this hatred becomes exponentially more lethal when combined with the epidemic of gun violence that continues to terrorize our nation. Mass shootings have become a far too common occurrence in the United States. Calls for extra security can only accomplish so much when so little is being done to screen gun purchasers and limit the lethality of weapons for sale. 
The Jewish community, proud descendants of refugees who, like all of America's diverse communities, found safety and happiness on America's shores, remain steadfast in our commitment that these tragic losses will be given meaning by our worthy and courageous actions, and that the memories of the fallen will be a blessing to the living. It is not lost on us that Tree of Life appears to have been singled out for celebrating HIAS Refugee Shabbat, an event in which hundreds of synagogues led by our rabbis have participated. 
To quote the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, "The world is a very narrow bridge and so the most essential thing is not to be afraid.

Murder at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, PA and Local Rally Information

Dear Friends,

We are all horrified and struck by the anti-Semitic mass murder of our fellow Jews at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh this morning. As a Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill, nearly every one of us has a direct connection to the victims and the community. We immediately imagine their fear and pain under fire.  We imagine ourselves in, God forbid, such a circumstance. We want to know what happened, what is happening, and what we can do moving forward to help them and prevent such heinous violence in the future.  As of this moment, with Shabbat just ending, we don’t have many answers.

First, we know the synagogue was active and alive with Shabbat services, a bris and religious school - as all of our synagogues often are on Saturday morning and that 11 people have died. Second, we know that the police were quickly and actively involved in return fire against the shooter.  Third, the shooter has a strong history as an anti-Semite, far-right conspiracy theorist, and white supremacist.  Fourth, he is in custody and the immediate and specific danger is evidently passed.

Next, we do not know any details of the horrible task of healing, burial, shiva and mourning.  We will know more soon, and we will want to be of support in any way we can to the Etz Chaim community.  The FBI is the lead agency, as both a hate crime and act of terror, and their investigation will determine the speed at which recovery can take place.

Nationally, we are grateful for the unambiguous comments of President Trump and others condemning the act as an anti-Semitic act of murder. In the wake of the white supremacist mail bomber this past week, we seek broader answers about the rise of hate, white supremacy and anti-Semitism in America.

Locally in West Orange, Dov Ben-Shimon, Executive VP/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has announced a community rally at Temple B’nai Abraham at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow, Sunday October 28.  We are grateful to Police Chief Abbot and Mayor Parisi who immediately dispatched squad cars to our synagogues and Jewish institutions in the town this morning.  They will have increased patrols in the immediate future, and we should all keep an extra eye out for unusual behavior.  Their presence is a reminder of our close ties in the community and our town’s united stance against hate. 

Please also note that as part of our last Department of Homeland Security grant, that our building has installed white police panic buttons at strategic locations throughout the building.  Should a threatening event ever occur, and you push the button, the police will be immediately dispatched to our location.  I will be holding a shabbat drill for our community in the near future to educate us all on the use of and response to the panic button and active shooter events.

While we are shaken and wary, there is no indication of specific threat against our community in New Jersey at this time, and we are open for regular meetings, classes, programs and services tomorrow morning.

Hamakom yenachem et kol avlei Tzion virushalayim – May God grant comfort to all our mourners at this horrible time.

Rabbi Robert Tobin

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Calling non-Orthodox American Jews Ignorant and Non-Jewish: Lies Against our Love of Israel

I don't know why I continue to experience shock, surprise and anger when I read the kinds of lies that Isi Liebler published this week about American Jews and Israel.  Something inside of me still is naive and holds on to the idea that our legitimacy on any level will ever be tolerated by his ilk. Shame on me.

In his article, THE DEVASTATING IMPACT OF AMERICAN NON-JEWISH JEWSPublished in The Jerusalem Post, Israel HaYom and The Forward, he lies and slanders our love of Israel in multiple ways.  His purpose? To make it seem that only Orthodox Jews love Israel, support Israel, and should be supported in return by Israel. 

Mr. Liebler's move is to say that American Judaism doesn't matter when it criticizes the policies or laws of a particular Israeli government.  For those on the inside of that government, that is understandable. After all, we don't pay taxes, vote, live or die in Israel in large  numbers.  Our voice doesn't count as much as Israeli voices, and our voice shouldn't count as much as Israeli voices.  Aliya cures that if you don't like it.  

However, to say that our view of 
American politics renders us as anti-Israel, to say that non-halakhik Jews are "non-Jewish," and to say that we are ignorant of our traditions is false, slanderous and hateful.  To dismiss the non-Orthodox as non-Jewish, ignorant and irrelevant is an unforgivable statement.

His article picture is taken from an unrelated event, an anti-Trump rally.  Evidently opposing Trump means "distancing oneself from Israel." The political idiocy of that is self-evident to American Jewry as a whole.

Contrary to his opening salvo, there is not only "disputing" that American Jews and their leaders are not distanced from Israel, there is overwhelming proof that our engagement is higher than ever. Engaged criticism of the Netanyahu betrayal of the Western Wall agreement, as well as many of our applause and amusement at the political maneuvering in August to create the agreement's main goals through procedural moves proves our closeness on the issue.  You can't argue that we are actively criticizing a leadership decision and then say we are distant from the process.  If I punch you in the nose, I am pretty closely involved with you.

To say that "most" of us are trying to "discard an outdated nationalist identity" is patently absurd.  Every single Reform and Conservative religious school and day school curriculum, every single prayer book and camp curriculum in our movements, teaches and supports the idea, fact and desirability of Israel as the homeland of our people.  We all teach Dreyfus, Hertzl, the declaration of Independence and the story of Israel's continued ethos under fire from within and without.  To see a liberal concern with human rights as hateful towards Israel is to misunderstand the classical articulation of Zionism which created Israel as the greatest creation in modern nationalism that the world has ever seen.  It is to turn our ideals into self-reflective, self-justifying xenophobic myopia rather than noble truths that can withstand the pain of anti-Semitism as expressed in Israel hatred today.

2/3's of American Jews are Democrats.  True.  Being a liberal does not make you anti-Israel.  Though I am reasonably sure that Mr. Liebler would have the same dismissive anti-democratic view of the Labor Party, HaTenuah, Yesh Atid and definitely Meretz, those parties comprise 40 seats in the Knesset.  They are (or have been) pro-peace, pro-two states, anti-settlement expansion, and all expressed many of the same concerns regarding the nation state law that some American Jewish leaders have expressed.  When Mr. Liebler calls us 'non-Jews,' is he including 1/3 of his own Knesset?  Are they all "distanced" from Israel for these views?

He quotes a number that 42% of Reform Jews opposed the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, as the greatest proof and example of the distance of American Jews from Israel.  First, 42% is a minority. Second, if you were to ask them why, you would hear that it is because they think that it is not best for the future and security of Israel.  That is their love and their concern.  I disagree with them.  I agree with the majority of Israelis and with President Trump on this (See my blog on that topic).  How can something that a minority of liberal Jews believe, and who believe it because of their concern for Israel, be a proof of their distance?!

When he says that American rabbis are "often urging their constituents to vote in order to defeat the purported “enemy of democracy,” the “anti-Semantically inclined” Trump" he is fanning flames of rhetoric with no basis in facts.  Name a single rabbi who called Trump an anti-Semite from the pulpit this year.  Name a single rabbi who said Trump was an "enemy of democracy."  it simply does not exist.  On the other hand, the active engagement of the left in the face of our November elections he is calling "Anti-Trump Hysteria."  Really?! Someone needs to go back to civics 101 and learn about how our democracy works.

Here's a treat which I don't even need to debate.  He writes: "The sad reality is that today, the bulk of youngsters from the non-Orthodox sector are what should be described as non-Jewish Jews because their sole link to their people is through Jewish descent – frequently, from only one parent. They have little or no conception of Jewish values or interest in their Jewish heritage."  So let's get this straight.  The million children in Reform and Conservative Religious Schools, Day Schools or summer camps are non-Jewish, ignorant, have little or no conception of Judaism... and therefore are what?  He says they are negligible, that they shouldn't count, that their identity and knowledge are lacking and false. Jews actively engaged in social Justice as Jews don't count.  So let's see... even if his false claims of Jewish ignorance were correct, would that be a reason to dismiss them? Remember the Soviet Refuseniks?  Anyone?  Is it because our youth have freedom of speech and action that he doesn't look at them with love of Israel? Would he love them more if they were in a Stalinist prison?

So what is his conclusion?  Obviously, self-servingly, divisively and predictably, it is "give me all the money, all the power and all the legitimacy because only Orthodoxy is the truth and the way.  Or as he puts it, "We must now focus on the significant number of American Jews who are Orthodox and traditional and the considerable number of others who recognize Israel as a crucial factor in their Jewish identity and concentrate on encouraging and strengthening them."

It would be too easy to call this kind of thinking pure idiocy.  Unfortunately, it is echoed in the highest levels of the Israeli government, and universally accepted as true in Orthodoxy and in much of Israeli society today.