The desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the waves of violence targeting Jewish schools and organizations, the burning of Mosques and the murder of Hindu youth…what country and what century are we living in? I have written recently about the rise of Islamophobia and the targeting of immigrants and refugees as a betrayal of the diversity that is America, and a rejection of a global ethic of respect and appreciation of the whole human family. Now the image of grave markers placed by loved ones for their beloveds being desecrated strikes a painful chord in me for Jewish sisters and brothers who continue to endure increasing hateful acts of anti-Semitism – a vile prejudice that has insidiously deep roots in my country and my religion.
As a Christian, I find myself outraged not only at the perpetrators of these attacks, but also at my own religion which continues to fail to look at its culpability in creating and perpetuating anti-Semitism throughout history and today. Long ago, I was fortunate to learn about the Christian roots of anti-Semitism from Krister Stendahl, Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, and Dean of Harvard Divinity School. Stendahl boldly revealed that, from its inception, the Christian church carried within it a deformed dimension of belief based in a prejudice against Judaism and Jewish people that found expression in the early Church. This prejudice continued to infect aspects of Christian theology and practice across Europe and in the United States, eventually becoming tangled with the despotic aspirations of the Nazis, leading then to the Holocaust. Like a virulent disease, anti-Semitism continues to recur as politicians and preachers, knowingly and unknowingly, perpetuate the othering of Jewish people and inciting others to violence.
While there is certainly much beauty in Christianity that fills my heart, there is much shadow as well that too often goes unrevealed.
Filled with all of this sadness and anger, I spent time this week with one of the world’s most extraordinary humanitarians, who also happens to be an inspirational interfaith leader. Rita Semel, 95 years old and standing less than 5 feet tall, has more passion for justice and positive energy for peace than any person I have ever met. This incredibly humble Jewish woman has been honored far and wide for building bridges of understanding between diverse religious and ethnic groups, and bringing people of all religions together to help alleviate poverty, end discrimination and create more peaceful communities. Rita continues to be a leading voice in rallying people against Islamophobia. And for more than 60 years, she has provided leadership for Jewish and interfaith organizations, and inspired generations of people to follow in her footsteps.
As we spoke about the recent attacks on the Jewish community, Rita’s pain and sadness were evident as she shared the ways in which these current events brought back memories of an earlier, horrible time. But the sadness of these memories and the current events seemed to also propel her to a deeper commitment to confront the root causes of these attacks and work for change. Rita collected these thoughts and went on to write the following reflections about this moment in America.
“The desecration of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and Philadelphia has brought cries of indignation, sorrow and despair. For me, it is a frightening reminder of the past: a past I thought was behind me; the past which brought on World War II and the murder of six million Jews. A vision of things to come happened in 1939 through Kristallnacht, the wholesale destruction of Jewish homes, stores, synagogues and cemeteries. I am not suggesting that the cemetery desecration last week and this week was the American version of that awful night, but I am suggesting it may be a wakeup call for those of us who value everything America has stood for since the signing of the Constitution those hundreds of years ago.
Have we always lived up to that Constitution? No, we have not. The history of the African American community in our country provides ample proof of that. But during the last several decades we have proved that we have learned something. We have learned that prejudice against one group or another hurts us all. And the faith community has been at the forefront of that learning, marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Selma, and in many other ways since then.
And with Muslims under attack, the faith community is leading the way in support of their rights. So it must be with every incident which threatens any of us. The first amendment to the Constitution is our safeguard, and we must remain vigilant and protect those rights which are guaranteed under it. We must do it together - all religions, all races - all of us together. We must hold our government responsible - our City, our State and most important of all, our Federal government. We need to speak out loudly and respectfully, but speak out we must. The future of America is at stake.”
Rita Semel calls us all to reflection and to action. She invites us all to look into the eyes of one another - not with fear of the unfamiliar, but with compassion and understanding at the sister and brother before us who, although shaped by different cultures, beliefs and practices, are profoundly connected by a common humanity at the core. She invites us to look within ourselves and our own traditions and to root out the prejudices that infect our minds and hearts, our theology and our practice, our words and actions.
And perhaps most of all, she invites us to stand together, side by side, people of different backgrounds and traditions defiantly insisting that we will not turn on one another out of fear and pain. We will not forget the horrors of history that resulted from the hypnosis and hysteria of populist rage targeting particular communities, and we will heed the words of the Hebrew Psalmist (Psalm 133), “Hineh ma tov u’mana’yim, shevet achim gam yachad – How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to live together in unity.”
One shining example of this unity in action are the Muslim and Christian communities in St. Louis, who raised funds and worked with the Jewish community to help repair the vandalized Jewish cemetery. We must hold up these examples alongside other actions in communities across America and around the world where people of different beliefs stand together in solidarity for justice and peace.
The future of America and the world is indeed at stake. May Rita’s words and actions be our guide to creating a positive future together.