Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered by Rabbi Shalom Lewis on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the congregation Etz Chaim in Atlanta, Georgia.
The words I am about to share will be riddled with controversy. Some will squirm in their seats and I will squirm here on the bima but they are words I must express. I have never shied away from the truth, even if disturbing, even if risky, even if politically incorrect. Jeremiah many years ago lamented his prophetic appointment by crying out, “Vehaya b’libi ke’ish bo’eret atzur be’atzmotai. … V’niglayti kalcheil, v’lo uchal.” (“God’s word was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones. … I could not hold it in. I was helpless.”) Jeremiah’s messages were blunt and harsh. He was beaten up by our ancestors and repeated attempts on his life were made but his words remain. Though no Jeremiah, I share his irrepressible passion for saying what needs to be said. I am also confident that you will be kinder to me then were the hostile and homicidal Jews of old to Jeremiah. I made a commitment to myself when I began the rabbinate that I would never talk down to my congregation, nor patronize them, nor treat them with disrespect from the bima. You have heard over the years sermons that many thought were hyperbolic, over the top, but we at Etz Chaim have always been ahead of the curve. I am proud of that. So please understand, it is the respect I have for you that compels me to say what must be said and what must be heard.
I had another sermon ready to go for today but two recent events convinced me to change topics. One was personal and the other was public. First the personal.
Things happen to us all in the course of routine and easily slip away as life urges us on to what is next. But then, from seemingly out of nowhere we reach a tipping point, a weightless straw on the back of the camel, that sends us into a fury. We cry out, “Enough. I’ve had it.” We see what has been in front of us all along but now we recognize it for what it is. Not a few seconds easily dismissed but a sinister warning easily overlooked. A tiny growth on what otherwise appears a healthy body.
I play Words with Friends and have about a dozen games going at any one time. Most of my honorable opponents are here this morning. For the unaware, Words with Friends is scrabble played online. And so, a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of a game, I had a great word and a great spot; A and Q that I could place on a triple letter that would reach a triple word square, giving me well over one hundred points. A very respectable score. And so, I punched in the word and it was rejected. I punched it in again and I am told “Invalid Word.” I am puzzled. It’s a legitimate word but maybe my iPhone is smarter than me. I looked it up in my Merriam-Webster Dictionary and sure enough, there was the word. Next, I went to the source of all knowledge, Google, and asked the question. “Why is” — and I provided the word — “why is this word not acceptable in Words with Friends?” The immediate response was, “The word is disparaging of women.” I was stunned. What was the word? “Squaw.” An Algonquin Indian loan word that is part of our vocabulary. It is in books. In movies. On TV shows and a proud Thanksgiving candle that burns on our festive table, next to a pilgrim and a turkey. It means an Indian woman.
I exploded. I was not upset that I could not earn a lot of points. I was not upset that I could have won the game. I was enraged that some flip-flop-wearing whippersnapper, sitting in Portland or Boulder or San Francisco, was telling me what words are kosher and what words are treiff. This distant snit was censoring my vocabulary, our vocabulary, no less than what is done in China. In North Korea. In Cuba and beyond. Not a silly little game. Not the expression of sensitivity, but the pomposity of a dangerous rising class of self- righteous suppressers of the First Amendment. Where do these champions of compassion stop when Noah Webster says go? Should we eliminate from our vocabulary the words Alamo? Pueblo? Fritos? Because they might be offensive to Mexicans? Should we eliminate from our vocabulary the words cotton? Plantation? Ghetto? Because it might be offensive to blacks? Should we eliminate from our vocabulary the words Cadillac? Cruise? Wallet? Because it might be offensive to the poor? Where does this lunacy end? Who makes the decisions?
Charlottesville was an ugly weekend and a shameful event but it was a moment in time, not a trend. Not a resurgence. The thugs were not goons sent by a sympathetic government but beer bellied, tattooed, seig heiling, sheet wearing, Neanderthals. There is no secret, massive network gathering, plotting in the dark the overthrow of America. Planning to bomb synagogues. Planning to lynch blacks. Planning to round up gays and foreign-speaking immigrants. Yes. These are evil people and given the opportunity would do hateful things, but their numbers are insignificant when factored in to a population of three hundred and thirty million people. They are not surging in membership. The Nazis, the skin heads, the Klan, the white supremacists, are marginalized, are demonized, are ostracized, and pose no existential threat to our country nor to us. Period. To claim otherwise is simply untrue.
Curious, I Googled up Nazi marches and rallies in America. The search took me to Charlottesville in 2017, and then to Skokie in 1977. Forty years ago, yes, there were a few other episodes here and there, but do any of us remember them? They were ridiculously inconsequential. 1977 and then this past August. Do we understand how far we have come from cross burnings and Bund rallies in Madison Square Garden? To overreact to these incidents is to empower the corrupt, to inflate their influence, to magnify their numbers. They are not mythical creatures and every so often do emerge from the shadows to parade down Main Street, but the suppression of hate speech is the suppression of all speech. It is the price we pay for living in a free society where even the repulsive must be tolerated. Not so long ago there was panic and fear as scores of Jewish Community Centers and Jewish agencies were paralyzed by bomb threats. Jews were terrified. And then the truth. A disgruntled man trying to frame his ex-girlfriend and a crazy Jewish, Israeli hacker who lived in Ashkelon. There was no epidemic of hate. No outburst of anti-Semitism.
For forty years, I have walked to and from Shul every Friday night, Shabbos morning and yuntiff with a kippa perched proudly on my head. I did not seek quiet, untraveled routes, and shuffle down alley ways. I strolled along the major, well trafficked arteries of our community, an obvious Jew. Never once in all those years was I ever verbally taunted by a passerby on the sidewalk nor by a bigoted hooligan in a speeding car. Our building, in thirty-five years, has never suffered anti-Semitic vandalism. No scrawled epithets of hate. No swastikas. No Jewish stars. Never. This is not Kristallnacht. This is not the state-sponsored pogroms of Czarist Russia. This is not the Ukrainian massacres of Chemelniki nor the Spanish Inquisition. The police are on our side. The politicians are on our side. The government is on our side. The neighbors are on our side. America is the same after Charlottesville as she was before. The danger we face as Americans and as Jews is not coming from the Right. It is a diversion. It is a red herring. We need to look in the opposite direction.
As I venture into a place of possible controversy permit me a brief detour that I hope sets straight the record. In November, we had dismal options. To the shock of all, the underdog won and the slam dunk lost. Let me say it loudly, slowly and clearly: I am no enthusiastic fan of President Trump. There is no presidential presence in the oval office. He lacks dignity and has no filter when he speaks. He panders to his crowd and often falsehoods flow easily from his lips. His campaign rhetoric was inexcusable. His demeanor on the stump, a cringing embarrassment. He is morally inarticulate but that was no excuse for his confused, tepid words in Charlottesville but this is not 1933. There is no “Night of the Long Knives.” No Nuremberg Laws. No consolidation of power. In the nine months of Trump’s presidency he has passed no significant legislation. Hardly the sign of a ruthless dictator and yet, those in opposition call themselves the “Resistance.” Forgive me but that term was used in the war against the Nazis and has no place in the vocabulary of political disputes in a functioning democracy any more then PETA’s shameful “Holocaust on your Plate” campaign. That being said, our president is deeply flawed, but I do not believe that he is a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite. Would I have preferred someone else in the White House? Most certainly. With that out of the way, let me proceed.
When I was in college, I had a professor for a course in Mexican history. She dressed in black, wore dark eye shadow and could best be described as Goth. When she began to teach, she would pull an ash tray out of her bag and place it on the desk. Next, she would light up a cigarette and begin her lecture. The moment the cigarette burned down, she lit another and then another. One day a fellow from the campus police passed by our room and noticed, through the glass panel on the side of the door, that our instructor was smoking. He knocked and slowly opened the door. He pointed to the No Smoking sign on the wall and respectfully said, “Professor. There is no smoking in the room.” “Oh,” she responded, “I didn’t realize. So, Sorry.” She then snuffed out the cigarette in the ash tray. “Thank you, Ma’am. Have a good day.” He smiled, turned and disappeared down the hall. The moment he was no longer visible, she reached into her bag. Put a fresh Chesterfield to her lips, lit it up, made an obscene gesture and yelled, using the full expletive that I will not, “F— you, cop.” The entire class, including me, burst into enthusiastic applause at her defiance. As the years passed and I reflected on that incident I came to realize what infantile jerks we were and that our professor was not heroic but a crude, tobacco smelling, rule-breaking boor. Yes, we were anti-establishment in the 1960s. We protested the war. Hated Nixon. But at some point, we grew up and chose to live in the real world of responsibility, consequences, virtue, rules and truth.
There is something rotten in Denmark, but also something rotten in America and here is the uncomfortable truth. The painful, confusing, disturbing truth. The great threat that we face as Americans and as Jews comes not from the Alt Right but from the Alt Left. Some are violent, rampaging criminals, others wear suits and ties, jeans and t-shirts. Some make no pretense of their disdain for America while others appear loyal citizens. Their tactics are different, but their goals are the same. They do not understand America nor American exceptionalism. We are a dangerously polarized society and have tumbled into a place of binary values that define who and what we are. This cultural divide will also define where we go as a nation. As Americans and as Jews we must pick a side. And though it should be an easy choice it is confusing because the Left claims the moral high ground, wrapped in what they define as tolerance, equality, sensitivity and decency when in truth, their agenda is intolerant, unequal, insensitive and indecent. “We are the champions of all that is good,” they cry out, when in fact they are on the wrong side of benevolence. They are the true bigots. The true oppressors. The true deniers of human rights. The true threat to authentic democracy.
Let me provide a simple test to help us figure out what to do when our hearts take us in the direction of what we believe is tikkun olam, when we are motivated to march. To raise our voices. To donate resources in the hope of creating an improved society. There is no better way to distinguish between what is moral and what is immoral. What is good and what is corrupt than in the Middle East impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. Though neither side is without blemish, the difference between the two is huge and provides us the definition of good and the definition of evil.
The Palestinians have steadfastly refused generous settlements from Israeli administrations, even the sharing of Jerusalem as capital. They still dream and chant of a homeland, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” No compromise. The Palestinians provide tens of thousands of dollars to families of terrorists who were killed. They hold parades to honor terrorists who murdered innocent children. They name parks and streets after barbarians who slaughtered entire Jewish families. They have built playgrounds with rubber toys of Jewish body parts for their children to reenact terrorist attacks. And a new strategy recently introduced: The Palestinian Education Ministry will give any student arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails at passing Israeli cars a passing grade in school.
Meanwhile, a few kilometers from Ramallah, what does apartheid, genocidal, ethnic cleansing Israel do? She has provided medical attention for countless numbers of wounded Arabs fleeing the bloodshed in Syria. Arabs are voting members of Knesset. An Arab sits on the Supreme Court of Israel. In wars with ruthless enemies, Israel warns, as no other army does, of an impending attack so non-combatants can get out of the way. Arabs enjoy full civil rights. They worship as they wish. They shop alongside Israelis. They set up umbrellas on the beaches next to Israelis. They sit in buses next to Israelis. They are cared for in hospitals next to Israelis.
Contrast the two. One is enlightened and civilized. The other is depraved and primitive. And yet, who is vilified by the Left and who is celebrated? Who is demonized by the Left and who is embraced? It is a cliché we have all heard, but it needs to be said here again. “If the Arabs/Palestinians put down their weapons today, there would be peace tomorrow. If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no Israel tomorrow.” The Left likes the latter part of the quote and we who sing Hatikvah, eat felafel and go on Birthright, don’t get it.
We are good people and are always in the forefront of social action and liberal causes. It’s in our DNA as Jews to feel empathy for the marginalized, the persecuted, the less fortunate. It’s who we are and who we have been for millennia but I suggest that in the complexity of today we use the Israeli-Palestinian crisis as a moral litmus test. Whatever the cause. Whatever the protest. Whatever the rally, if we wish to show solidarity because it appears a righteous event, then we should drape ourselves in the Israeli flag, put on a blue and white kippa and wait to see what happens. Permit me to offer some clues in what the reaction would be in too many of today’s civil and human rights venues. Let’s connect some dots.
This past January many who are here today participated in The Woman’s March. A worldwide protest to advocate for women’s rights, worker’s rights, racial equality and assorted reforms. Nice stuff for sure. Sounds good, but the National Co-Chair of the Women’s March was a woman, Linda Sarsour, who claims that Zionists cannot be feminists, that there is no room in the movement for people who support the state of Israel, that there is nothing creepier than Zionism. Would Golda Meir walk alongside Sarsour? How about, Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman? Sarsour supports the BDS campaign against Israel. Boycott. Divest. Sanctions. But where is her BDS outrage against real injustice in China? Iran? Cuba? North Korea? Venezuela? ISIS? Saudi Arabia? Sudan? Yemen? Syria? Gaza? There, the feminist Left, to its disgrace, is silent.
We participate in the Gay Rights Parade here in Atlanta and are a proudly inclusive community. One of the great moments of my career was bringing two women together in marriage under the chuppa in our chapel. Our credentials are unassailable. We are supporters of LGBTQ rights. Period. Several months back the lesbian community sponsored the “Chicago Dyke March” that exposed the progressives as not being so progressive. Three women who came to participate where thrown out of the event because they were carrying rainbow Pride flags that had Jewish stars in the center. When asked why they couldn’t carry the flags that reflected their gay pride and their Jewish pride, they were told that their flag made people feel unsafe and that the march was anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian and the organizers do not allow imperialistic flags. I am confused. Help me understand what Middle East country has multiple gay pride parades? Gay Neighborhoods? Gay bars? Civil rights for gays? Is it Egypt? Iraq? Libya? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Lebanon? Iran? Gaza? The gay Left, to its disgrace, is silent.
Closer to home. Martin Luther King many years ago, boldly declared with eloquence and authority, “You declare my friend that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely anti-Zionist. And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God’s green earth. When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews. This is God’s own truth... The hatred of the Jews remains a blot on the soul of mankind... So know this, anti- Zionism is... anti-Semitic and ever will be so.” Would MLK be a member of BLM? Would that great civil rights leader be a card-carrying member of Black Lives Matter? Judge for yourself. They accuse Israel of genocide and of apartheid. They support BDS and stand in solidarity with Palestine. Black lives matter, but not if they come from Yemen and wear a kippa. Black lives matter, but not if they come from Ethiopia and speak Hebrew. Jews were in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Jews were on the bridge in Montgomery. Jewish lives were lost fighting for black lives. But none of that matters to Black Lives Matter. Tyrants and tyranny across the planet. The Black Left, to its disgrace, is silent.
Women’s rights is a noble cause. Gay rights is a noble cause. Black rights is a noble cause, but they all have been hijacked by a morally bankrupt Left. It’s as confusing as having a beautiful, succulent brisket in front of us. It looks delicious. Smells fabulous, flowing gravy, smothered in onions but then someone comes along and spits on it. Do we still eat it? We are in Chelm, lost in a wicked place of sanctimonious piety. We have been betrayed by those who we thought were friends. We have been stabbed in the back by those who we thought were allies. We have been abandoned and yet refuse to accept the treachery as real.
A while back I had lunch with a local clergyman at Ted’s Montana Grill. He is senior pastor of one of the largest churches in our community. The conversation was easy and pleasant. Retirement time tables. Theology. Biblical interpretations. We shared pulpit experiences, when we both looked at our watches and realized that hours had passed and we needed to get back to work. As I prepared to leave the pastor asked if I might answer one more question for him. “Sure,” I replied. He said this is a question asked of him by his congregation more than any other. I looked at him and said, “I know what that question is.” He looked back and asked “How do you know what question my congregants most ask me?” I said again, “I know.” He stared at me. Folded his arms. Sat back in the chair and said, “OK, what’s the question?” I smiled and said with total confidence, “The question your congregants ask more than any other is...’Why are Jews Democrats?’” His jaw dropped. He was dumbfounded. He laughed. “You’re right. How did you know?” I responded, “Whenever I have a serious conversation with a non-Jew, that is the question they always ask.” I understand why historically we gravitated to the Democratic Party. It was comfortable. Its agenda was social justice. Minority rights. It stood for the prophetic and rabbinic dream of “letakein olam bimalchut Shadai” (“to repair the world in Godly fashion”). We could never see ourselves sidling up to cigar smoking, pinky-ring wearing, over fed corporate executives. The right was wrong. A Jewish Republican was a family embarrassment. Well friends, we now live in different times. I report. You decide.
In the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the insertion into the platform of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel met with resistance and loud opposition from delegates. Twice in two days it was brought up and twice it was yelled down. A voice vote was finally called and after three close votes the pro-Israel position was pushed through. When announced, it met with boos and jeers throughout the hall.
In the 2016 Democratic National Convention Israel fared no better. Or should I say an authentic democracy fared no better against terrorist benefactors and celebrants. Inside the convention hall, delegates waved Palestinian flags to the cheers of many. Signs were waved reading, “I support Palestinian human rights” and pro-Palestinian positions were adopted at Israel’s expense thanks to the progressive agenda of landsman Bernie Sanders.
One more piece. Keith Ellison, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota appeared a shoo-in to chair the DNC this past year, effectively making him the senior ranking Democrat in the country. He was narrowly defeated in a nail-biter, but was made deputy DNC chairman as a gesture of Democratic unity and goodwill. I have no problem with Ellison because he is Black. I have no problem with Ellison because he is a Muslim. I have no problem with Ellison because he is a Democrat. But I have a problem with Ellison, because when Hamas attacked Israel with Grad and Kassam rockets, Kaibar-1 and Fajr-5 rockets rained down on half the country, he voted against Iron Dome. He did not just vote against rearming Israel with a defensive weapon but effectively voted in favor of allowing thousands of Hamas rockets to annihilate and kill Jewish children in playgrounds. Pregnant mothers taking a stroll. Families sun bathing on the beach. Seniors sipping tea. Jewish innocents who would be killed because they were unprotected, in the wrong place at the wrong time. An American congressman saying, Jewish Lives Don’t Matter. This man was only thirty-five votes away from being the head of the Democratic Party. Good Democratic liberals who get it, are hanging on by their fingertips but they are becoming an endangered species in an increasingly progressive Democratic Party that has lost its way and is doubling down on the madness of the Left, not the sanity of the center.
It is told that a Hasid once approached his master, confessing that he had problems dealing with a particular Talmudic text. “My son,” asked the rebbe, “is your problem with the text that you have trouble believing in; is it that the existence of the world to come is real?” “No,” replied the Hasid. “My trouble is believing that this world is real.”
The Greatest Generation had clarity and destroyed an enemy that threatened Western values. There were no apologies for Dresden nor Hiroshima. They got the job done. Today, those magnificent values are once again under threat by forces that span the spectrum of the Left, from the masked Antifa fascists to Brooks Brothers radicals and an assortment of others in between who never made it out of nursery school. By nature, I am an optimist, but I am deeply unnerved by the inroads made by those who claim democratic principles but are redefining morality and freedom with the doublespeak of an Orwellian nightmare. It is no less sinister and disastrous then termites chomping away, until suddenly, everything comes crashing down.
Let me provide more dots and you decide if I am a paranoid Paul Revere with a yarmulkah or a legitimately alarmed American and Jew. We are all familiar with the famous poem by German pastor Martin Niemoller. “First, they came for the Catholics and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” This was a powerful indictment of the craven Germans who ignored the rise of Nazi fascism. The poem, an eloquent warning of moral procrastination in the face of rising malevolence. Look away as many of us do. Ignore the facts as many of us do. Make excuses, as many of us do, but we are all in the crosshairs of despotism. The Founding Fathers are holding their breath.
We must open our eyes to the dishonesty of the Left. We must open our ears to their unholy rants. We must open our minds and discredit their unprincipled, ruinous ideology. With uncompromising courage, we must assert the real meaning of liberty, not the nonsense peddled by an arrogant left. Let our voices be raised and let our fists pound, as we take back our country from these seditious villains.
Forgive the rambling screed but I must vent. Listen and connect the dots.
Window smashers. Car burners. Rioters. Highway blockers: You should be arrested, tried and thrown into prison.
Kaepernick, stand up and thank America for making you a multi-millionaire for simply throwing a ball in a game.
Gray lady of Times Square, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, Taliban are not militants nor freedom fighters, they are murderous, savage terrorists.
Lois Lerner, innocent bureaucrats do not plead the Fifth.
Google, shame on you for firing James Damore for speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Sean Penn, next time you get sick don’t go to the Cleveland Clinic. Don’t go to Johns Hopkins. Don’t go to the Mayo Clinic. Check yourself in to a Cuban hospital.
Snow flakes and cream puffs, be prepared to be crushed in the real world of competition.
Snowflakes and creampuffs, be prepared to be traumatized in the real world that is not fair. Has trigger words and no safe places in which to cower and whimper.
HR, you are to hire employees based on talent and skill, not gender, not color, not ethnicity.
Madonna, Johnny Depp, Kathy Griffin, stick to singing. Stick to acting. Stick to screeching. You are unfit to be the moral conscience of America.
Yes, Stop and frisk profiles, but it works and protects your neighborhoods.
Stop whining and thank the boys in blue.
Don’t preach the environmental danger of cheap fossil fuels to the poor in the midst of a shivering winter.
Don’t claim to live a carbon free life as you fly in private jets to climate conferences.
University presidents and deans (present company excluded) grow a spine and expel the rioters and the occupiers from your campus.
Mr. Carter, you are cancer free, alive today because of Israeli medicine, not because of Palestinian wonder drugs.
YouTube, shame on you for restricting the video “Israel, the world’s most moral army,” claiming it is a sensitive topic not suitable for all audiences.
Don’t preach that there are limits to what a person should earn and then take 3.2 million dollars for a 90-minute speech.
Fraternities, if you wish to host a Greek toga party, put on the togas, drink ouzo, dance the kalamantianos and tell the cultural appropriation police on campus that Zorba said it was ok.
ESPN, Robert Lee is a sportscaster. General Robert E Lee was a Confederate general. You are morons. Stalin murdered 20 million. Mao murdered 45 million. Will you picket the embassies and demand their statues be torn down?
Salute the soldier. Salute the flag and thank God Almighty for a powerful American military.
Connect the dots. There is a pattern. A direction. An ugly revolution churning in this country.
America has done more uplifting of humanity and promotion of freedom than any other country in the history of this planet. We Jews have been blessed beyond our wildest fantasies, enjoying her gifts, her bounty, her grace but we must step away from what is happening and not be seduced by a deceitful, pandering mirage. The Left is not our friend, not as Americans and not as Jews.
Freedom courses through our blood. It throbs in our soul.
It is no accident that on the Liberty Bell are written the words from our Torah, “Ukratem dror ba’aretz” (“Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof”). The treasure that is America and the poetry that is Judaism are joined together in a hallowed union that rang across spacious skies, fruited plains and majestic purple mountains.
We are good folks and must see beyond the moral bankruptcy, the hypocrisy, the lies, the hatred and the calamity of an ascendant Left.
My friends, Charlottesville is the price of freedom and squaw is a real word.