Erev Yom Kippur 2017: When There Is No Other Hand

It is the iconic shtick of Tevye the dairyman in “Fiddler On the Roof.” Faced with difficult choices, the mild-mannered shtetl-dweller ponders his choices carefully. On the one hand…..on the other hand….on the other hand….until he comes to a decision he can live with, one that balances life in the real world with the need to sustain his small, poor, and often-threatened Jewish community.

Until he reaches his limit. And then Tevye, suddenly and movingly, cries out: “No! There is no other hand!”

Tevye reaches his limit when he is asked to bless the marriage of his third daughter to a non-Jew – something he firmly believes is not only wrong but dangerous. We might not feel that way about interfaith marriages these days. But each of us confronts situations in our lives when we simply reach our limit, when we are asked to betray our basic moral principles. We still have times when we too must cry out: “NO! There is no other hand!”

We reached our limit this summer.

All of us watched with horror the images on television as hate groups of all kinds gathered in a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally under the banner “Unite the Right.”

“Unite the Right” did not represent the traditional right wing of American politics.

Instead, it was a reflection of  the fascist right of Europe, the so-called “alt-right” as it is called in America – a rancid mixture of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racists, anti-semites, anti-Muslims, and misogynists, all committed to opposing multi-culturalism and preserving what they see as an embattled white race.

They marched carrying lit torches. They marched without masking their identities, as the Klan once did. They marched on a city that had been thoughtfully and carefully examining its racist past, and had decided to remove a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee from a public area, which was now to be known as Emancipation Park. They contended they chose the setting to preserve and protect the Lee statue and “southern culture.” But the statue was an excuse. What they were really doing was asserting their inherent right, as white people, to both control and to denigrate anyone who is not.

The sheer ferocity of their expressions of hatred made us all shudder.  The ugliness was shocking. But just as disturbing was the response we heard from the highest level of our national government:  “I think there is blame on both sides.”

Let’s be clear. Among the peaceful protesters who opposed the white supremacist march was a small group that pitched a violent battle with the Nazis in the park before the rally was even was supposed to start. That’s why the city decided to cancel the rally. And that’s when the Nazis and bigots attacked those who were marching peacefully, one of them ramming his car deliberately into a crowd and killing a young woman, Heather Heyer.

But the white supremacists all came spoiling for a fight. Many of them were clad in camo and helmets, wielding bats, and more than a few brandished handguns and even semi-automatic weapons. They were out to hurt people.

The phrase “I think there is blame on both sides” – which was perpetrated on us again, just within the last couple of weeks – this phrase presents a moral equivalency between Nazis and racists, and the people who oppose them. The excuse that, oh not everyone at that rally was a neo-Nazi, not everybody who marched was a white supremacist, presents a moral equivalency between the people who stand side by side with bigots, and those who stand up against them.

So let’s be very, very clear about this. There is NEVER a moral equivalency here. Ever. Nazis and skinheads and white supremacists do not get a pass. Ever.

On the one hand, you have people who spew hatred. And on the other hand: There IS NO OTHER HAND.

And let’s be very, very clear about this: Standing up to Nazis has nothing to do with party politics. If you want to read a classic denunciation of moral equivalency in the cold-war context, read the 1986 essay by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Or listen to the words of William F. Buckley, the founding editor of the National Review, who once explained moral equivalency using this cold-war analogy:

“To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”

Yet that seems to be the argument here.

And it cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. “Mere rhetoric” (air quotes) is what got us from Nazi rallies in the 1930s to Nazi genocide in the 1940s. Avowed racists – including rally speakers David Duke of the KKK and white supremacist Richard Spencer — were overjoyed by that “mere rhetoric.” David Duke and Richard Spencer? Is that who you want in your corner? Is that whose message you are equating with people who are demanding justice and dignity?

It shouldn’t be so hard. Nazis = BAD. That’s it. This is the moral standard that we must demand of ALL of our national leaders. And as American Jews, we have two fundamental reasons why it’s so important. First, because our tradition tells us so. Second, because our history tells us what happens when the world fails to do so.

Let’s get to the crux of this so-called “Unite the Right” rally. What is it that unites the alt-right? The Anti-Defamation League narrows it down to two things: Hate and violence. That is what unites all those identified by the ADL as having been present in Charlottesville:

The Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialist Movement, Identity Evropa, League of the South, Vanguard America, the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Hammerskin Nation, Blood & Honour Social Club, Daily Stormer, and The Right Wing Death Squad. All of them, reports the ADL, are founded on various strains of white supremacist ideology, and all of them seem to be attracting the same demographic: young, white men.

This variety of white supremacist ideology encompasses anti-black racism, hatred of Jews, hatred of Muslims, homophobia, and misogyny. In other words, one type of hate is easily meshed with another. One target of their hate is interchangeable with another. The symbols they wear, and the chants they repeat, cover the gamut of this anti-white conspiracy they see usurping their rightful place atop the food chain. And there’s clearly a thread linking African Americans and Jews.

That’s not new, of course. If you remember back when Rahm Emanuel was chosen as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, the alt-right howled that the Jews were controlling the blacks, who were going to oppress the whites, who rightly should be running the country.

As for the purported purpose of the rally, to defend “southern tradition” and protect the Robert E. Lee statue from removal, Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL summed it up this way:

“This is an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement. And yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolph Hitler.”

And so you had young white men carrying tiki torches, in a re-enactment of the Hitler Youth marches of the 1930s. Chants that segued from “You will not replace us!” to “Jews will not replace us!” On-line threats on Nazi chat rooms to bomb Congregation Beth Israel, where the Temple president described men in fatigues carrying semi-automatic weapons across the street during Shabbat morning worship. Klan leader David Duke telling the crowd: “The extreme right considers many people their threat. But it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”

And quotes like this one, recorded for posterity by Vice News’s documentary: “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers.” Said Vice producer Elle Reeve, “Once they started marching, they didn’t talk about Robert E. Lee being a brilliant military tactician. They chanted about Jews. Like, they wanted to be menacing.”

And that makes sense – because the forces of hatred are a menace, to our society and to our nation. As much as we would like to believe that our nation’s institutions of democracy and liberty are too powerful to be subverted, our experience as Jews tells us otherwise. Demagogues powerful enough to bring the hate mongers together the way they did in Charlottesville are a threat. This is what Jeane Kirkpatrick warned in that essay from the mid 80s:

“To destroy a society it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions so as to detach the identifications and affections of its citizens from the institutions and authorities of the society marked for destruction. This delegitimization may be achieved by attacking a society’s practices in terms of its own deeply held values, or it may be achieved by attacking the values themselves.

“The latter course was undertaken by the fascists and Nazi movements which rejected outright the basic values of Western liberal democratic civilization. They rejected democracy, liberty, equality, and forthrightly, frankly, embraced principles of leadership, obedience and hierarchy as alternatives to the basic values of democracy.”

Today we see the beginnings of this: The delegitimization of a free and fair press, by those who do not like to be questioned or unmasked. The demonizing of political opponents as the devil incarnate. Calls to violence against blacks. Denigration of women. Charges of rigged elections. Silencing of valid options and opinions. All of this plays directly into the hands of those who would seek to undermine our democracy.

Their cause is un-American and needs to be denounced, not abetted, at the highest levels. It is also anti-Jewish.

Tomorrow morning, we will read from the Book of Deuteronomy, as Moses delivers this charge, and this warning, to the people:

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.

We have a choice in how we behave in this world. Life or death, blessing or curse. We protect our land or we lose it. And we protect it by choosing life. Life and blessing, Moses tells us, requires that we follow God’s laws and commandments. And what do those laws and commandments teach us? The haftarah of the prophet Isaiah reminds us:

ו הֲלוֹא זֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים וְכָל־מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ: ז הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי־תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם:

“Is this not the fast that I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

On this Yom Kippur, we are reminded that our fasting and atonement count for nothing if we leave this sanctuary tomorrow night with hands unopened and hearts still chained. We will not be cleansed in God’s eyes if we still hold fast to sinat chinam, senseless hatred, or tolerate it in others. We know what bigotry can do, to a people and to a country. We have witnessed, first hand, what happens when ordinary people fail to stand up and say, clearly and powerfully: No! There is no other hand!

God has placed this responsibility within each of our grasp. Torah teaches us that this task is not impossible. But it is achievable only if we choose to do it. As Rabbi Bradley Artson has written:

“”Freedom and dignity are indivisible. Either they include all of us, or we are all in danger. Those who would judge or are judged by the color of their skin, by their gender, by their faith or their lack of faith, by their looks, by their orientation, by their abilities or by some people’s perception of disability, need to remember that we are already the way God would have us be, with one exception: God cannot force us to love ourselves or each other. We have to do that ourselves.”

Let us choose goodness, life, and blessing, as God calls on us to do – that we, and others – those of every race, religion, gender, and nation of origin – may live long in this magnificent country that has been granted to us as our possession, and our responsibility. There is no other way. There is no other hand.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

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