What kind of America will our children inherit? The day after the 2016 presidential election, I flew to Michigan for the semi-annual leadership gathering of Humanistic Judaism in North America. While trying our best to focus on the future of the movement, I heard unanimous concern among our board members for the future of the United States and its role in the world. The question was not whether we’d experience a setback in the strides made on essential social issues like LGBTQ, racial or gender equality, but just how far back we’d be set, and if it would be measured in years or decades.
Let me be very clear what this is not about. This is not about one political party or another. Our movement includes Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Greens, and others, and as a nonprofit we do not endorse candidates. This is not about one economic philosophy over another, or a foreign policy approach including stances towards Israel, all of which have a robust spectrum of viewpoints and (usually civil) debate among our membership.
What this is about is the attempted mainstreaming of hate, giving hate groups a seat at the table and making racists in society feel empowered. What this is about is scapegoating, the pitting of one group against another, which cannot be tolerated by those of us who believe in equality and community.
As Jews, we carry a long history of persecution. When we gave the world the concept of scapegoating in Leviticus, we were talking about actual goats! The blaming of innocent people for problems beyond their control was applied to us repeatedly with devastating cruelty for centuries. We learned in the hardest way possible that, when someone has spent years promoting and enacting bigotry and hate, you don’t then “just give ’em a chance” to see if they change their stripes after ascending to the pinnacle of power.
We applaud the many organizations and voices in the Jewish community calling for the exclusion from government of professional hatemongers, and we add our voices to theirs. And we’re dismayed by those claiming communal leadership who are cowed into silent acquiescence, or worse, offering accommodation and cover.
As Forward editor Jane Eisner wrote, “The Jews in America who are the target of anti-Semitic threats and harassment…must make common cause with other minority groups who are experiencing this and worse in today’s toxic political environment…. If, instead, Jews excuse the far right’s hateful behavior because some of the people doing it happen to favor certain policies in Israel…then they’ve abandoned the natural allies in the fight for a more tolerant America. And even worse, they’ve abandoned their fellow Jews.”
The rise in anti-Semitic vandalism, rhetoric, and online harassment over the past year is deeply disturbing. Yet Jews are not at the top of the current target list. We were not the only targets in Nazi Germany either, as the famous quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller reminds us. I hope in the coming years we do not have to update that quote to read:
First they came for the Undocumented Mexican Workers, and I did not speak out—Because I was not an Undocumented Mexican Worker.
Then they came for the Muslim Immigrants, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Muslim Immigrant.
Then they came for Family Planning Providers, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Family Planning Provider.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
As Jews, we must speak out against hate. As Humanists, we must speak up for equality and reason. Secular Humanistic Jews share a core set of values that we must now fight harder for than we have in recent memory.
Men and women are equal.
True egalitarianism has never been achieved and American misogyny was on horrific display throughout the campaign. If there’s any positive at all, it’s that the dialog was amplified by many women sharing their own stories of harassment or worse. As someone who will only ever be an ally in this fight, I pledge to keep learning what I can do differently and better. The Society for Humanistic Judaism stands with all those working to ensure that women have control over their own bodies, full economic equality, and freedom from harassment.
LGBTQ people are equal.
Great strides have been made in the past decade toward full equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people, but discrimination continues and too many places in our country remain hostile and unsafe for LGBTQ people. Forces in our government are working hard to instill legal “protection” — not for LGBTQ people but for the discriminators themselves based on “religious rights.” We must reject this Orwellian approach to whose rights need protecting and continue to work toward full equality.
People are equal regardless of race or ethnicity.
Race relations in America continue to be the open wound through which the diseases of hatred and discrimination infect us all. Most Jews have been accepted as “white” since World War II, and therefore we have an important role to play in trying to move the country past its debilitating racism. While we may remember what it was like to be hated immigrants, we still have the responsibility of examining our own biases and privileges rather than presuming we have already transcended them. And we should use our advantages to help others rather than slamming the door shut behind us.
People are equal regardless of religion, or no religion.
As a movement serving the emotional, cultural, and “spiritual” needs of atheist, agnostic, and non-religious Jews and their families, Secular Humanistic Jews know that our exclusion and marginalization may get worse before it gets better. Yet we also know that a growing percentage of Americans no longer identify with a specific religion, especially among younger Americans. We join with other liberal denominations in all religions, as well as other secular and humanist organizations, in calling for both the freedom of religion and freedom from religion that our Constitution guarantees.
How can we get to a better future? Short term we must engage on these very issues, making our voices heard and our values clear. Long term, we must acknowledge and address the challenges in our society that allow for demagoguery to turn people against one another.
It’s difficult not to feel like we just took a fork in the road that leads backwards to a time of repression, to an era that those of us in racial, ethnic, or religious minorities have never referred to as “the good ol’ days.” Too many Americans were duped into blaming one another for complex challenges that require us to work together now more than ever. Will we recognize it before it is too late?