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Rabbi Deborah Waxman Speaks to Faith Leaders on Solidarity

Rabbi Deborah Waxman spoke from a Jewish perspective to faith leaders during a 11/28/2016 call on “Faith and Solidarity during a time of White Supremacy.” Her comments were part of a conference call sponsored by Faith In The Public Sphere.

Broad swaths of the liberal American Jewish community are struggling—with so many others— with the interruption of a trajectory of acceptance, equality, inclusion, justice in America. We are struggling to find a balance between our knowledge of Jewish history—millennia-old and more recent—of persecution, expulsion, even genocide, with our experience and belief in America as different. One reason many of us have believed that America is different is because this is the first place Jews have lived in the past 2,000 years where religion is not the primary fault line. In Europe, where the dominant culture was Christianity, Jews have always been the “other,” and have paid a very high price.

I follow the thinking of scholar Hasia Diner, who asserts that here in America, race has been the major fault line, and this is the difference that has created an unprecedented space for Jews to flourish. But the Jewish people are multiracial, through birth, conversion, adoption and intermarriage, and the Jewish embrace of “whiteness” has been marginalizing for Jews of color. Impelled in part by BLM, segments of the American Jewish community are finally beginning to grapple with the fact that not all Jews descend from the Eastern European Ashkenazi majority who migrated in late 19th and early 20th century. Over the last few years, the Jewish community has begun to move toward substantive changes in behaviors and beliefs around what scholar Eric Goldstein calls “the price of whiteness.”

And then this election…The non-Orthodox Jewish community, which makes up a tremendous majority of American Jews, voted in overwhelming numbers not just against Trump but pro-actively for Hillary. We voted that way out of our own self-interest and out of solidarity and support with other diverse groups across American society, many of whom were maligned during the campaign. We voted out of our belief in that trajectory of equality, inclusion and justice and out of our recognition that we must partner with the divine to bring it to life. And we are struggling now—out of our own anxiety, out of concern for other minority populations, and out of concern for the well-being of American values and institutions.

So we are watching the alarming spike in hate speech directed at Muslims, African-Americans and, yes, Jews. And we are anxious at the appointments and the hints at policy changes, and how they will affect everyone who is not white, who is not Christian, who is not male, who is not straight, who is not cis-gender, who is not able-bodied, who does not have all the right documents.

And we are struggling to discern how to act most strategically and most effectively. How to do the heshbon hanefesh—the soul-searching—that will enable us to learn what we need to learn from this staggering election and undo the damage to that essential and hopeful trajectory. How to respond out of a place of partnership and power and not out of our past trauma. How to raise up Jewish wisdom so that it can help illuminate all of us in this dark time. Remember you were once a slave in Egypt. Take care of the orphan and the widow. Treat your workers justly. Cherish that every human being is created in the image of the divine. 

Even as we are still discerning, I will share that I am heartened at broad trends I see across the liberal Jewish community. Overwhelmingly, there is recognition that other communities are far more at risk than we are and that we must act in solidarity and partnership. Dozens upon dozens of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders are monitoring the possibility of an unconstitutional registry for Muslims and have vowed, as I do here, to sign up if such a horror comes to pass.

Countless synagogue leaders along with many other people of faith are already investigating how to establish themselves as sanctuaries depending on new immigration policies. Intracommunal Jewish battles are, in many cases, decreasing in importance as we focus on the threat to the American values that we all hold dear.

The Jewish community needs non-Jews to understand and repudiate anti-Semitism as a form of oppression—on the right and on the left. Anti-Semitism is old and virulent and is a mainstay of white supremacism. We are working—at times with grace and at times clumsily—to deepen and in some instances establish partnerships on anti-oppression work. We want to be good allies and we want to find good allies in the work of progressive moral and religious leadership.

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