Sunday, March 22, 2015

Silence is Complicity: A Lesson from the Talmud for Maine and Israel

      This past week, I was invited by the Maine NAACP's Rachel Talbot-Ross and Democratic Leader, Justin Alfond (who became bar mitzvah at Beth Israel Congregation) to speak out against racist comments posted on the facebook wall of a Maine State Senator.  There were many who claimed that an apology issued by this individual was sufficient, and that the body politic was not required to speak out on the record against his comments. We disagreed.  When asked to speak from a Jewish perspective, there was one quote from the Talmud that stood out to me time and time again, 

"שתיקה כהודאה דמיא" 
(יבמות פז ב, פח א)
Silence is the same as agreement

When we do not call out sin and publicly condemn it, it is as though we have committed the sin ourselves.  From an ethical and legal perspective, when we do not publicly distance ourselves from what is wrong, we are implicitly agreeing with it.
           The Jewish community has a long tradition of standing up against racism and intolerance.  The picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching at Selma is historic, and exemplifies an era of active Jewish involvement in the civil rights era.  That legacy continues until today with Jewish organizations and leaders who combat hate speech and activity directed toward a wide array of minority groups.  However, many of our representative organizations fall silent when it comes to racist speech in the world's only Jewish State, led by a Prime Minister who claims to represent all of world Jewry.  I claim that when we do not speak out against racism everywhere, especially in our homeland, we lose all moral credibility to speak out against bigotry anywhere.
            On the day of the Israeli election, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, released a video on his facebook page that implied that Arab citizens of Israel voting was a threat to the Jewish state.  Much of the world was outraged, and Arab citizens of Israel certainly took note.  The most heartbreaking response came from Lucy Aharish, a famous Israeli newscaster, Muslim citizen of Israel, and the woman chosen to light the torch on Israeli Independence Day at Har Herzl, Israel's national military cemetery. 

You can view the video here:

The most important thing she said was, "The next time that there is a murder of an Arab citizen, it will be as though [the murderer] was given a certification of kashrut from the Prime Minister that it is ok to hate Arabs."

When it comes to evaluating whether or not Netanyahu's words were racist, it is her opinion that carries the most weight with me.  I also take heart from Israel's incredible President, Ruby Rivlin from the Likud party, that was quite clear in his denunciation of the Prime Minister's statements:

"In [Rivlin's] meeting with representatives of the Joint List, he said, 'Everyone must be careful with their remarks, particularly those who are heard around the world...We experienced a turbulent, impassioned campaign,' said Rivlin. 'We heard Jews say harsh things about the Arab public. We cannot ignore equally harsh remarks from the Arab side. There is no room for such comments. We share one reality in the state in which we all live, and citizens cannot discriminate against one another.' Rivlin went on to say, 'Israel is defined as a Jewish state, and we cannot forget that it is democratic at the same time. I call on Jews and my Arab brothers to avoid incitement. It's clear that remarks from a head of state are heard differently and more clearly than someone else."

The President of Israel understands his responsibility as a representative of the entire State of Israel, and all of its citizens, Arab and Jewish, right-wing and left-wing.  He not only defends the values of Israel's Declaration of Independence, but also of Revisionist Zionism's founding father, Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinksy (the ideological father of Likud), who wrote this about his vision for the Jewish State:

"In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice-versa. Proportional sharing by Jews and Arabs both in the charges and in the benefits of the State shall be the rule with regard to Parliamentary elections, civil and military service, and budgetary grants… Both Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in Parliament, in the schools, and in general before any office or organ of the State… The Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law… 

After all, it is from Jewish sources that the world has learned how ‘the stranger within thy gates’ should be treated.” (The Jewish War Front 1940)

             Not all of the racism of this election came from the Israeli right, though it received more attention because it came from a sitting Prime Minister.  Likud is a party supported largely by Mizrahi Jews and there were some in the left-wing that expressed their outrage with the party in racially charged, repulsive terms.  The derision of religious Jews and Jews of color by many in Israel's left-wing is a moral outrage and has hobbled it politically for decades.  Progressives in Israel cannot be surprised that they have failed to win the hearts and minds of those whom they hold in contempt. 
             There are those who believe that a Jew in the Diaspora has no right to comment on anything inside Israel.  When the Prime Minister of Israel asserts that he represents all Jews, we are both allowed to speak out and duty-bound to do so.  Personally, as someone who consistently stands up for Israel in the public sphere, invests in Israel, and loves Israel deeply, I feel an even greater responsibility to acknowledge and condemn the racism that mars the soul of the Jewish State and its public image.  I do so by publicly standing in agreement with Israel's President and its founding fathers -- both right and left wing.  I will not be silent, I will not stand idly by, and I will not give the appearance of agreement.  I am proud that my professional union, The Rabbinical Assembly, has done the same.  I hope that more of the Jewish world will follow suit.

Shavua Tov.