Our virtuous civic observances serve to remind us of distinguished Americans who have faded into history. This past Memorial Day, speakers recalled Rabbi Roland B. Gittlesohn. The first Jewish chaplain in the Marine Corps, he was awarded three combat ribbons for his actions during the battle of Iwo Jima.
This admirable circumstance was merely preface to an even greater story of character. The head chaplain asked Gittlesohn to deliver the memorial sermon for the fallen of every faith being laid to rest. Nearly all the Christian chaplains strongly objected to a ceremony mixing religions. Incredibly, several objectors errantly contended that not enough Jewish men in uniform were killed to justify this honor. Though the controversy was not of his making, Gittlesohn graciously withdrew. Separate ceremonies became the compromise.
Gittlesohn delivered a sermon titled “The Purest Democracy.” He drove home the message there was no discrimination in battlefield sacrifice and the burial of heroes. It was so powerful and moving that three Protestant chaplains in attendance started circulating the text. Even today, this should be required reading. It ranks with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in terms of stirring words and transcendent wisdom.
This came to mind when I read about swastikas being spray painted on stones in Jewish cemeteries. It is hard to account for the resurgence and rise of anti-Semitic words and actions in the past few years. It is hard to fathom those who are pro-Israel in world affairs and biased against Jews here at home. Even taking into account the disturbing ignorance and antipathy directed toward Muslims post-9/11, the hard fact is 3 out of 5 religious hate crimes are aimed at Jewish citizens. The appalling shooting in Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is testament to the tragic results of enduring virulent hatred. Synagogues, by tradition open places, are now forced to install security and even lock doors. America is diminished and disgraced every time we succumb to separation, segregation, and demonizing the other.
We talk earnestly about acceptance and tolerance. We debate vigorously about the means and necessity of reducing violence, especially the deadly violence resulting from the misuse of weapons. But unless we are willing to attack the root causes of hate and prejudice, our communities will not be safer.
Why, when we have staggering amounts of information available about the makeup and heritage of our universe and different peoples, do we find so much reprehensible discourse and conduct based on superstitions, myths, and malice from the Dark Ages? How do the despicable and preposterous tropes of anti-Semitism that spurred pogroms survive across centuries of civilization and enlightenment?
In church and in the home, I was taught and shown the virtues of tolerance. A Jewish family lived across the street. We interacted constantly, and it did not seem to trouble anyone. No disparaging words, no destructive acts, no discriminatory isolation. Tolerance has always struck me not as a high ceiling of conduct, but as a minimum. In our pluralistic society that is expanding rapidly in ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity, our higher goal is to learn about and engage with others. Understanding and acceptance spice our endeavors and our continuing education in life.
I have on several occasions been honored to attend Shabbat services. To see the traditions of religious expression that were in place centuries before most other religions were established, to see the belief unshaken by the devastation wrought by others, to see the emotional and lyrical beauty in a service different from ours but drawn from the same God, makes a deep and lasting impression.
My perspective was broadened while working for a Jewish state Senator – Robert C. Jubelirer – for thirty years. I saw almost daily expressions of bias, large and small, intended and unintended, from people who should have known better. It is real and hurtful, rather than attributable to oversensitivity or a persecution complex, as is commonly alleged.
Two pilgrimages to Israel provided highly emotional and edifying experiences at key Biblical sites, Crusader-era sites of religious conflict, and the many places that mark the trials and tragedies of establishing and defending the modern state of Israel.
We must in our own ways recognize and reconcile the wrongs of the past. Members of the Lutheran church must wrestle with the anti-Semitism of the elderly Martin Luther, his writings and his stirring up of mobs. Even great leaders – religious, political, military – are fallible and capable of grievous misjudgment. To deny painful truth is to abet the lamentable descent into tribalism.
In the present, it is too glib to blame any one individual for instigating and greenlighting hateful words and awful deeds. The problem really is in the hearts and minds of people who hate, and who seek an excuse or justification to act out on their biases.
In a recent op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Naomi Adler of the Jewish Federation offered two effective remedies: Educate ourselves and others, and speak out as individuals. This makes eminent sense.
While the trend in our schools runs toward deemphasizing or deleting civics education, it is among the best weapons for fighting back against hate born of ignorance. The push to require Holocaust education is a meaningful step. A visit to the Holocaust Museum should be a staple of the requirement.
At the same time, there are people who seem to be uneducable, those chasing repugnant celebrity as Holocaust deniers. It is beyond comprehension. How cannot we be awed and inspired by a faith sustained, the candles burning, the scrolls replaced and the synagogues reestablished, after 6 million perished and 5,000 communities were obliterated? To participate in the reading of the names each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, to see four generations of families wiped out, to see how many names of children are on the list, shocks the conscience and roils the soul. Yes, we must speak out, to use our voices on behalf of right, justice, freedom, tolerance, and truth.
There is frequent assertion that ours was established as a Christian nation. Yet, America, with the rights and privileges and opportunities we treasure, would not have secured independence without the financial wizardry of a Polish Jew, Haym Salomon. Freedom of religion was not a casual insertion in the First Amendment. The founders, some of whose families fled Europe to escape religious persecution, had now witnessed discrimination and abuse in the colonies that sanctioned a single religion. As they met in constitutional convention, they were struck by the religious diversity prominent in Philadelphia, from Quakers to free blacks. Survey our history, and every field of endeavor was strengthened by the intellect, inventions, and contributions of those of Jewish faith.
In our land of religious freedom, individuals may embrace whatever theology and means of worship they choose. But we should never forget that Christianity and Islam were derivatives from Judaism established many centuries before. Without the Jewish people and their faith, without their endurance through centuries of tribulations and torments, there would have been no spiritual foundation on which to build these other great faiths. For this and many other reasons, the Jewish communities among us should be treated with respect rather than rejection, and seen as a blessing rather than a curse.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.