Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Banality of Evil: Why We Must Respond Forcefully to Racism

Watching the reports of violence, hatred, hypocrisy and political turmoil in the wake of the  Neo-Nazi, racist riots on the streets of Charlottesville, VA is especially poignant as I am writing from Jerusalem- where Sue and I have just finished leading a congregational Israel trip. We are staying in Israel for a couple more days to visit family before we return home. News of the riots reached us soon after we visited Yad Vashem - the Israeli Institution dedicated to teaching about, commemorating and researching the Shoah. As we walked through the exhibits that painstakingly traced the evolution of the Nazi genocide, I was overcome by the realization that, as many times as I have taken groups through this sacred place dedicated to teaching the world about the impact of evil, racism is still a disease that impacts us today.

In her seminal work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, historian Hannah Arendt taught us how easy it was for an entire society to reject its humanity and watch as the unthinkable took place beneath their noses. Hitler would never have succeeded in his War Against the Jews if ordinary citizens had not remained silent and complacent. The recent news reports from Charlottesville that detailed Neo-Nazi hooligans marching with torches, displaying the Swastika and shouting anti-Semitic slogans brought to mind the artifacts, testimonials and photographs that graphically documented the step by step progression of Hitler's war against the Jews.  While we can take comfort in the unequivocal denunciations and condemnations that have been posted by many elected officials (including both of our Senators from Colorado) the public pronouncements from the White House have been both vague and troubling.  When the President of the United States speaks of the hatred, bigotry and violence of "...both sides..." that contributed to the violent and murderous outcome of the demonstration, I cannot help but to be appalled that he is using the language of moral equivalency. Adding to this, the fact that he used this opportunity to speak to our nation to tout his administration's achievements adds insult to injury.  Using the language of moral equivalence to contrast White Supremacists with political opposition is inexcusable. We look to our leaders to rise above politics and self-aggrandizement in times of crisis.

My mother, Sophie Black (z"l), died two months ago.  She and her parents left Germany shortly after November 9, 1938 - Kristalnacht - the "Night of Broken Glass" that heralded the beginning of the end for European Jewry. She was a young girl when she fled Germany, but she lived her 91 years in fear as a result of the violence she witnessed.  Although I miss her terribly, I feel a sense of relief that she did not live to see the torch-bearing marchers of Charlottesville.
Our task, as we confront the rise in extremist rhetoric and action that is taking place in our nation is to let our voices be heard in the face of evil. This is not a political statement. Politics should not be conflated with morality.  In Deuteronomy 22:3 we find the commandment:

"לא תוכל להתאלם - You shall not remain indifferent..."

As Jews, as caring citizens of our nation - regardless of political affiliation - we must stand firm against racism and persecution - wherever and whenever we find it.  Now is the time to thank our elected officials for their strong statements of denunciation.  We also must speak out and demand that our president lead us with dignity and purpose in a manner befitting his office.

I look forward to seeing you all upon my return later this week.

שלום מישראל. - Shalom from Israel

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

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