There is No Hiding from Difference

chanukiya-1584A rabbi named Francine Green Roston recently moved with her family from New Jersey to Whitefish, Montana, in search of a slower pace of life.  As you can imagine, there are not many Jews in their new small town (although with a name like “Whitefish,” you’d think…) but Rabbi Roston has found a small Jewish community.

She also discovered that her neighbors include the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.  Last week, ignited by the emerging white supremacy movement, a neo-Nazi website issued a call to take action against the Jews of Whitefish.  The site listed the names, pictures, contact information, and addresses of alleged Jews in town, and photo-shopped pictures of Rabbi Roston with a Nazi-era yellow star.

Here in Philadelphia in recent weeks, we have witnessed swastikas, racist texts targeting African Americans at Penn, and news like that shared at our Men of RS Anti-Defamation League presentation last week, of targeted hate speech against Jews, Muslims, immigrants and other vulnerable groups, here and in other areas across our nation.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has raised its voice, and last month issued a statement that included these excerpts: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is deeply alarmed at the hateful rhetoric at a conference of white nationalists held on November 19 just blocks from the Museum. Richard Spencer, the leader of the National Policy Institute – a white nationalist think tank – that sponsored the conference, made several references to Jews and other minorities, often alluding to Nazism. He spoke in German to quote Nazi propaganda, implied that the media was protecting Jewish interests and said, “One wonders if these people are people at all?” He said that America belongs to white people. His statement that white people face a choice of “conquer or die” closely echoes Adolf Hitler’s view of Jews. The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.

The targeted hate speech in our nation and the tolerance of bigotry among many citizens and leaders, is horrendous, and it is our obligation to take it seriously, to call it out, make each other aware, and to bring love-speech into the rhetoric so that our vulnerable neighbors know that we stand with them.

And I want to suggest caution, in the way we choose to describe the hate speech.  Although I can understand the temptation to compare current bigotry to the Holocaust, we ought to be careful to reflect in our words the fact that we understand, this is not Nazi Germany.

For a moment such as this, our historians are instructive.  Temple University history professor and director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, Dr. Lila Berman explains we need to be clear: the factors are different and Eichman is not here; but history equips us with key characteristics and phenomenon that produce forces of group hate… these tools of history should guide us.

Among the key lessons that have captivated me this season, is the notion of resistance.  I cannot stop thinking about Pastor Martin Neimoller’s 1946 poem, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist… 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.”  Neimoller’s cautionary words urge us to understand that when one vulnerable group is unsafe, we are all unsafe.  And he warns us how dangerous it is to be silent, to hide our difference, to disconnect, or to allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.

What is the opposite of being pitted against each other?  Certainly not silence and not hiding.  The opposite of being pitted against each other, is the embrace, the expression and the understanding of difference.  As fulfilling as it is when we discover things in common with other groups, the opposite of being pitted against each other, is the creation of a world where I proudly express my background and beliefs, and I encourage others with a different experience to do the same– I don’t cover up my difference.  It is an interesting message in the American holiday season.

Historian Simon Schama teaches: In the days just before the Hanukkah story, it was not a problem to be a Greek-Jew.  He says: “I think what we’re actually celebrating is the difficulties of pluralism which could not be more resonant in the contemporary world.  How do you stay faithful to one kind of religion while living as a part of a much broader religion which may not agree… but without the obligation to exterminate each other?”

The lessons of Jewish history and the lessons of Hanukkah urge us to honor pluralism while staying faithful to our own practice and identity, to ask our neighbors about their different celebrations, as we proudly celebrate the Hanukkah mitzvah–the sacred obligation– of pirsumei nisa, of publicizing the Hanukkah miracle by displaying the Hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah.

For several years, in partnership with the Center City Kehillah–a network of Jewish organizations, congregations and start-up’s–we have engaged in the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa/publicizing the Hanukkah miracle, with a public space Hanukkah candlelighting in Rittenhouse Square.  When we began to plan for next week, one of the Kehillah leaders wondered if this year, we should hold it indoors, in a less public, more secure space.  Indeed, Jewish law teaches, if there is danger, do not put your Hanukkiah in the window.

I encouraged the Kehillah to be outdoors for two reasons.  First, as much hate speech as we are witnessing, we are also seeing extraordinary love speech, and efforts to protect vulnerable groups.  In Montana, the citizens responded to hate by creating an anti-bigotry group called Love Lives Here.  Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Secure Communities Network and the Holocaust Museum are raising voices, dollars and friends who are ready to stand with all who embrace difference.

The second reason we need to be outdoors is because history teaches: there is no hiding from difference. When we fail to express our difference and to understand others’ differences, we do not come closer together, and we do not become safe.  Without being reckless, our history and our Hanukkah story charge us to publicize the miracle and to publicize who we are.  So on Wednesday evening, the Center City Kehillah will be in Rittenhouse Square to publicize Hanukkah.

Tomorrow night, we place our Hanukkiah in the window, and kindle the first candle.

Light the candle in celebration of the miracle.

Light the candle, in invitation to your neighbors to ask you about your practice.

Light the candle, with intention to ask your neighbors about their practices.

Light the candle, to defy hate and fear, and the pitting of one person against the other.

This Hanukkah, may we light the candle,

because darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).