Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On Bread Bag Shoes and Insulting the Poor

It's time for the unpopular prophetic voice. Friends, partisan politics aside: Please explain to me why we're making fun of Joni Ernst because she grew up poor in rural Iowa? Policies, argue away. Don't like her choice of camouflage footwear or "making them squeal," criticize away. You want to complain about Ernst playing up her poverty as a child, if she is, go ahead. You don't have to agree with her or like her.
I have to take exception with making fun of the fact that Joni Ernst's mother, wanting to protect her shoes because they couldn't afford new ones, had her put bread bags over them in bad weather. Anyone who cares for the poor shouldn't be making fun of that. Are we now going to make fun of which plastic soft drink bottles poverty stricken people in India or Africa tie around their feet? We're going to have jokes about Mountain Dew giving them a greater lift? "Hey, wonder if that guy knows he can get a pair of shoes 2 for 1 at Hy-Vee this weekend?" This whole meme about bread bags is highly elitist and offensive. If you wouldn't walk up to a homeless person and insult their clothing, heaping insults on Ernst because she shared a memory of being a poor kid is probably not an appropriate thing to do. It isn't a Jewish thing to do either.
Proverbs 17:5 "Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their maker."
Here endeth rant.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Clarion Call - The Death of Liberty

We do our best to be tolerant of religious sensibilities. Tolerance indeed requires a willingness to avoid offense. Yet, we cannot be tolerant of those who resort to violence because someone offended their sensibilities. Freedom requires the ability to say what others, and especially those in power, do not want to hear: the criticism and the challenge. Let's just recall a few quotes shall we:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. - George Orwell
If Freedom of Speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. - George Washington
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
(Special message to the Congress on the internal security of the United States - August 8, 1950) - Harry Truman
Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear! - Catherine of Sienna, 14th Century
We have been warned time and again.

We can neither ignore the fact that we face active threats from violent Islamists nor the threat that fear will additionally produce in limiting liberty. We know that:
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. - Benjamin Franklin
We now see the world's major media outlets refusing to offend. Oxford University Press is now discouraging the use of pigs in children's books because that might offend Muslim sensibilities. So prepare yourselves for the "Three Little Chickens and the Huffing and Puffing Wolf." Yes, we know with absolute certainty that there are people who are intolerant and even those who will engage in violence against those who challenge and disagree. Their goal it is to overthrow our liberty. Should we simply concede our freedom because the way we use it offends some?

François-Marie Arouet's philosophy fueled the American and French revolutions. He is better remembered by his nom-de-plume used so as to avoid persecution by those eager to silence him. Perhaps, his words will motivate us today:
I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. - Voltaire
Let me add my own statement and my own warning to the list of those who spoke before:
Our freedoms are based on on our willingness to fight and die for them against those willing to fight and die to limit them.
We can watch freedom slowly erode and cower in fear under threat with Jews gradually or rapidly leaving for safety in Israel from all over Europe or we can accept the reality that the one thing the west cannot tolerate is a willingness to abdicate freedom to avoid offending those who disagree with how we put it to use.

On Sunday, January 11, hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Paris for the sake of freedom and in support of those who are threatened. Many others in France did not rally because they do not value the defense of freedom and support the threats. Today, France and truly all of Europe face a stark choice:

  1. Stand up and act against the growing tide of oppression that has developed because of toleration of the intolerant or 
  2. Watch liberty overthrown.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and The Jews - A Sermon for Shabbat Shemot

On Wednesday morning, three men, who are said to have claimed connection to Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Al Qaeda of Yemen, attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, killing a dozen people and injuring eight more. The four prominent political cartoonists working for the controversial satirical magazine were all killed. Among them was Georges Wolinski, a French Jew born in Tunisia in 1934 to a Polish Jewish father and a Tunisian Jewish mother, whose family had come to Tunis from Italy. After his father was murdered in 1936, he and his mother moved to France where he became a political satirist and cartoonist.

Other victims of the terrorists included two unarmed police officers on patrol to prevent attacks against the previously attacked Charlie Hebdo offices. One of the officers executed by the terrorists was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim. In the attack, the perpetrators killed a cross-section of France: Jews, Christians, Muslims, secularists, native born and immigrants.

Much of what Charlie Hebdo printed on its pages was offensive. It was not offensive in the way that National Lampoon or Saturday Night Live might offend. It was offensive in the way that the old Totally Tasteless Jokes books, for those who are familiar with them, could offend. It was offensive in the South Park sort of way, from the social and political left, but with explicitly graphic cartoons. Yes, Charlie Hebdo’s pages offended Muslims. They also offended Jews, Christians, and just about anyone else whom the magazine’s authors and cartoonists thought they could target.

The response to the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo has been significant.
The French Islamic community, fearing a backlash because of this week’s attacks, has responded very strongly. The French news service AFP stated today that:
French imams condemned the violence committed in the name of Islam during Friday prayers as the country reels from the double hostage dramas that followed the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine on Wednesday.
The same message — distancing the country’s five million Muslims from the jihadists responsible for the attacks — was relayed at more than 2,300 mosques across France.
“We denounce the odious crimes committed by the terrorists, whose criminal action endangers our willingness to live together,” says the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur.
He also appeals to “all the Muslims of France” to take part in demonstrations planned for Sunday to pay homage to the 12 victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the bloodiest in France in more than half a century.
Muslim theologian Tareq Oubrou, an imam in Bordeaux, in the southwest, said Muslims were furious that their religion had been “confiscated by crazies… and uneducated, unbalanced people”.
Numerous foreign leaders have said that they will attend the huge rally in Paris set for Sunday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Spanish Prime Minister Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose countries have suffered major terror attacks in the past decade, were among the first to say they would attend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said they would also come.
President Obama stated today, “I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow,” and described France as America’s “oldest ally.” “We fight alongside you to uphold values that we share,” the President said.
Most of us who have offered our support for the value of free speech over the past few days would not also support the content of that speech as offered by Charlie Hebdo. In fact, most of us would decry much of it. Yet, we also must be concerned when the opportunity for us to become offended by the views of others is silenced, when protests and criticism that rattle us and disturb us are declared illegal or silenced by threat of violence. That is the highway to oppression. The hangman may well come for Charlie Hebdo first, but when the hangman comes, we know that there are others on the list as well, including us- selected for what we believe, what we say, how we look, where we're from... And in fact, in France this week, first they came for free speech and then they came for the Jews.

This morning we awoke to the news that two new people, Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddienne, were wanted in connection with the robbery of a gas station and murder of French police officer that occurred yesterday. This afternoon, Amedy Coulibaly entered a Kosher Deli/Supermarket with two AK-47s. He took nineteen hostage. Coulibaly called FBM-TV in Paris this afternoon and stated that he chose the store because he was targeting Jews. Furthermore, he claimed to be part of the Islamic State, stating that he had orders from the Caliphate.

Four hostages eventually were killed along with Coulibaly. Of the fifteen survivors, four were critically wounded. Meyer Habib, a Jewish Member of Parliament in France, said that among the dead was his best friend and that he knew two others who were also killed in the store.

No few synagogues around Paris chose not to hold Shabbat services this evening and to close for the weekend out of fear: not all of them, but no few of them. Many members of the Jewish community are simply too afraid to go to Jewish places tonight. For the first time since World War II, synagogues in France have shuttered their doors on Shabbat out of fear.

While many proudly declare “Je suis Charlie!” It will be interesting to see how many also declare “Je suis Juif!” What sort of support will the Jewish community of France receive in the aftermath of this attack, an attack that comes in a year following a dramatic upsurge of Antisemitism in France complete with numerous attacks against synagogues, a year that saw the highest emigration of French Jews to Israel in many years. It is two years after an attack on a Jewish day school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and three children were killed by terrorists. It is also merely months after a Summer that saw mobs marching through the streets of France shouting “Death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right.”

My friend Rabbi Audrey Korotkin pointed out today in answering the question, “What has changed?” that it is simply that the target of such violence and hatred is no longer just Jews. France did not say, “Je suis Juif” then, nor did it the numerous other times when Jews were attacked and killed as Jews, and it probably will not now. Charlie Hebdo, the magazine filled with hate and derision, deserves love simply because the French cherish freedom of speech. Do the French cherish the lives and freedom of Jews? So far the answer seems to be silence.

Silence…a silence that brings us to this week’s Torah portion.
The Israelites were fertile and prolific. They multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. Then new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
It has been four score years since a great evil took hold in Europe. In August of 1934, Germany came to have a Fuhrer. In September of 1935, it passed the Nuremberg Laws. We are of an age that has forgotten. It is not the good Joseph that we have forgotten, but the opposite, the evil, how it came to pass, how it grew and prospered. Europe has forgotten what allowing hatred to flourish in its streets can produce. We are the king who forgot.
The Nazis spread fear and hatred. They did not stand for enlightened modern values, but for contempt of many of them. Those Muslims who support and encourage participation in Al Qaeda, who seek the growth and spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who advocate for the ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab nations through violent means also seek to spread fear and hatred. They do not support those values cherished in the west of Freedom of Speech and Religion or many others advocated by majorities in western nations. Many of them have as goals the completion of Hitler’s work in the genocide of the Jews and the domination of the globe.
There are voices seeking to bring change. My friend, Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy has spent much of the last three days being interviewed on national television. This is a link to one such appearance in Phoenix.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who took power by ousting the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, who appears by all evidence to be a successor to Hosni Mubarak as a military strongman, is also the one leader in the Muslim world who perhaps is positioned to speak out in condemnation of religious radicals with whom he and his government are at war.
Last week, on New Year’s Day in fact, Al Sisi spoke at Al Azar University, one of the leading Sunni religious institutions in the world. He stated:
“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (multinational community of Muslim believers) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking – I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible! … I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Canadian Muslim women’s rights activist Farzana Hassan, yesterday offered words in the Toronto Star that we all should hear:
Muslim organizations have naturally denounced the attacks.
However, the attitudes of many Muslims remain steeped in an ancient mindset that is anathema to the secular West, and the usual rationalizations have diluted these so-called condemnations.
The implied argument is that the victims have in a sense helped to bring the tragedy on themselves, because if they offend the sentiments of over a billion people, there are bound to be some who will take up arms.
In other words, this terrorist outrage deserves to be condemned, but the West needs to understand that Islamic sensitivities need to be respected; how can so many non-believers just not get it?
Yet, Westerners do get it.
It is just that they quite rightly repudiate it.
It may sound trite to say that freedom of expression is the cornerstone of Western liberal democracy, but it is true. Mockery, satire, even blasphemy form a part of this.
Of what use is the right to say only what everyone wants to hear?
It is only in challenging many so-called sacred values that the West has made progress towards formulating the best of societies where rights are guaranteed — ironically, even the rights of religious people who would deny those rights to others…
We are now faced with a sad and stark dichotomy where two worlds, one that cherishes individual freedoms, the other that suppresses them at every opportunity, are constantly pitted against each other.
The West must defend its liberties.
Cowering under Islamist intolerance would dilute some of the most treasured aspects of its civilization.

Rabbi Korotkin notes, using the words of Martin Niemoller:

First the Islamists came for the Jews. But the world by and large did not speak out, because they were not Jews. Now the Islamists have come for the satirists. Does the world stand by, because most of them are not satirists? Do they think that the cartoonists of “Charlie Hebdo” are in a different category, because they, like Zionists, were asking for it?

As Rabbi Korotkin essentially asks, “Is Europe ready to confront a hangman that has come for the Jews and the satirists?”

This year will almost certainly see a dramatic increase in the number of Jews leaving France for safety in Israel. Will it be a year that sees Europe care about that fact? Or be less than happy about it if they do care? They will march, but will they only march? Will they watch the hangman come, and even, in the words of Maurice Ogden, serve him faithfully? Or will they, and we along with them, stand against him in public square?

Our thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with our Jewish brethren, once again facing both tragedy and ongoing threats. May light and not darkness come into the City of Light tonight and in the days and nights to come. May we support those who seek to bring light into the darkness of hate-filled minds and be successful in our efforts. May the prayers and songs for peace and comfort that we and Jews around the world have offered tonight bring strength to our people everywhere.

Tonight, Nous Sommes Juifs Francais. We are all French Jews. Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazeik, be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Shabbat Shalom.