Sign In Forgot Password

Taking A Stand for Unity

03/20/2016 07:21:26 PM

Mar20

Taking A Stand for Unity

March 2016 - This oped originally appeared in The New York Daily News on March 20, 2016

Today we will join 20,000 fellow Jews in Washington, D.C. for the annual AIPAC policy conference. And this year, as in prior election years, the leading presidential candidates - Donald Trump among them - will take the stage to address pro-Israel advocates from across the country.

So what makes this year different from all other years?

This year, we've seen politics turn ugly. Hateful rhetoric cascades through the airwaves, inciting violence and bigotry. The unprecedented tone of the election cycle should give us pause. The Jewish people knows all too well the horrors of individuals using hate as a political platform and deploying language, implicit and explicit, that tears society apart.

As students of Judaism, we often turn to religious texts and our people's long historical experience for guidance. They provide four lessons that Jews and non-Jews alike ignore at our peril.

First, when political leaders speak in the language of demagogues, take their words seriously. That is all the more true when they shun eloquence and clarity in favor of calculated ambiguity used to send a message that breaks with accepted moral and societal codes.

We would not have believed until a couple of weeks ago that any legitimate candidate for the American presidency, on live television, would make blatant sexual references or characterize women and minorities with derogatory epithets that no moral society should tolerate. We expect the public to reject signals that, at this late date in modern history, we know are sent to give permission for bigotry and violence.

Second, a social compact binds leaders and their followers to shared ideals. We all recognize that it takes enormous ambition and self-confidence to run for or hold public office. That has always been true. We give leaders a lot of slack in this regard. Whether a Biblical king who suffers rebuke from prophets and populace alike, or an elected official who rises and falls on fickle public opinion, one has to be immensely sure of one's own abilities to lead, and thick-skinned enough to bear the inevitable criticism.

But it also takes humility to lead. Every Israelite king recognized-or was forcibly reminded-that he was placed on the throne to serve the "King of Kings." American presidents pledge allegiance to our republic, under God, with liberty and justice for all. And so we watch, dumbfounded, as supporters at a political rally in Florida pledge allegiance to a candidate and not a country.

Third - an iron rule of history - politicians who attack one minority will soon go after others. If you don't stand up to them at the start, they will eventually turn their fire on you. It may start with Mexican immigrants or Muslims, but eventually all minorities will be imperiled. Some Jews, ignoring history, will no doubt take comfort in the fact that a candidate has Jews in his family or inner circle. We do not. It has never worked out that way.

Bigotry, like hot air, expands.

Fourth - a particular message to Jews at Purim, a holiday that celebrates the triumph over a plot to exterminate the Jews of ancient Persia. The story of Purim warns us against those who assume the worst can't happen, just because they don't want it to. Good people can be conned, and not everyone is good; the very tolerance and open-mindedness that is sometimes ridiculed by politicians should not blind us to the fact that our democracy may be in jeopardy.

History teaches that those who are outnumbered - whether because of their religion, race, or sexual orientation - need to unite to protect their interests. State power is easily abused. Survival often depends on a combination of hard political work and unbending fidelity to high ideals. It has always been thus and always shall be. Our hope is that the American people, of all backgrounds and political persuasions, will rally to the cause.

 

Professor Arnold M. Eisen is Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary;

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is Executive Director of the Rabbinical Assembly;

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is Chief Executive Officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Update this content.

Wed, December 12 2018 4 Teves 5779