Give Bigotry No Sanction | Congregation Beth Am

Give Bigotry No Sanction

By Rabbi Sarah Weissman on
March 15, 2019

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance[,] requires only that they who live under its protection should [conduct] themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”[1] 

So wrote President George Washington in a famous letter to the members of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790.  President Washington affirmed to Jewish Americans that here, unlike in nearly every other country in the world, Jews would be treated equally, given full protection by the laws of this country and by the government of the United States, which “gives to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance.”  It is a bold statement for President Washington to make, and more than a little ironic, considering that in his day slavery was legal and over half of America’s citizens couldn’t vote.  But the ideal -- that the United States government has an obligation to protect its citizens from bigotry and persecution -- was built into the very founding of this country.  It is the ideal that has allowed Jews to live in unprecedented safety and prosperity in the US for over 200 years. 

That is why it is particularly troubling when leaders of our government betray this ideal and traffic in racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism.  We are all well aware of the recent rise in anti-semitism around the world and in our own backyards -- reports of Nazi salutes at schools, swastikas painted on synagogues, and threats and attacks on Jewish Americans have become all too common.  But when it is members of our government who express or encourage anti-semitic sentiments, it is even more concerning.  Consider the following examples, all public statements made by current elected officials referring to Jews, Israel, or the Jewish community:

“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election!”[2]

“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”[3]

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”[4]

We are not going to debate each speaker’s intention or the context of these comments tonight.  What I want to point out is that it has become too common for politicians to use anti-semitic tropes that are not just hurtful to the Jewish community, but downright frightening.  We know what can happen when anti-semitism is given sanction by those in power.

We know because anti-semitism is almost as old as Judaism itself.  Next Wednesday night, when we read the Book of Esther, written sometime over 2000 years ago, we will see Haman’s description of the Jews:  “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (3:8)  The description is scarily familiar: The Jewish people are not like us; they have strange laws and customs.  They don’t obey the laws of the land; they are not loyal citizens.  They are scattered among us, secretly undermining us; their allegiance is to a foreign nation.  The Jewish people are a dangerous threat and cannot be trusted.

Fast forward two thousand years, and we read the questions that Napoleon put to the Jewish community in 1806 as Jews began to gain the rights of citizenship in France: “In the eyes of the Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren or as strangers?...Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as French citizens, consider France as their country? Are they bound to defend it?  Are they bound to obey the laws and to follow the directions of the civil code?”[5]  These questions demonstrate the same suspicion that Haman stokes in King Ahasuerus, the fear that Jews are not loyal to their home country or leaders and are likely to betray their neighbors.  That is why today, the mention of “allegiance to a foreign country” in a discussion of American support for Israel is troubling; it draws from the same well of fear about Jewish loyalty to our country. 

A question that many of us are asking in light of these and other examples of anti-semitism and bigotry in politics is: what can we do?  How can we combat hate in our communities and our country, not to mention the rest of the world?  There are no easy answers, of course, but I do think our Megillah offers a few ideas to consider.

After Haman convinces the king to issue the decree to kill all the Jews, we see the reaction of both the city of Shushan as a whole and of Mordechai in particular.  As we read, “The city of Shushan was dumbfounded” (3:15).  When we hear of anti-semitic incidents today, it is easy to be dumbfounded, shocked that there is still such hatred today and confused about how to respond.  But we cannot remain like the people of Shushan, paralyzed by shock.  Instead, we look to Mordechai, as we read, “When Mordechai learned all that had happened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes.  He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly” (4:1).  Mordechai’s acts of mourning might seem to be useless hand-wringing, but notice that he’s not sitting at home weeping to himself; he is crying out throughout the city.  As biblical scholar Adele Berlin points out, “It is actually a kind of public protest.”[6]  We too can loudly and publicly protest anti-semitism in our government and our society, by speaking up when we hear anti-semitic comments and by supporting organizations that fight bigotry like the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Second, Mordechai appeals to Esther to help.  At first, Esther resists and tries to silence Mordechai, sending him clothes to replace his sackcloth and reminding him of the great danger of approaching the king without being summoned.  But Mordechai insists that she use her powerful position to advocate for the Jewish people, saying, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (4:14).  Like Esther, we can use our positions of power, and like Mordechai, we can call on our allies in positions of power, to publicly and forcefully denounce anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry, and demand that other government officials and community leaders do so as well.  

And finally, we read, “And many of the people of the land identified themselves with the Jews” (8:17).  That is, the non-Jewish community stood with the Jews against the hatred and violence that Haman tried to perpetrate.  Like the Jews in the Book of Esther, we too draw strength from the support of our non-Jewish neighbors who are willing to stand up against anti-semitism.  After the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall, Jews in this country were comforted by the hundreds of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and people of all backgrounds who sent messages of help and support.  And just as we have known the power of having allies, so too are we called on to stand in solidarity with other communities when they are threatened by bigotry and persecution. 

Tonight, we mourn the senseless murder of 49 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, and we condemn the Islamophobia, white nationalism, and hatred that motivated the murders.  Like the citizens of Shushan, we stand with our Muslim brethren and say, as Americans and as a Jewish community, that we will give bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.  I hope you’ll write a note of condolence and support to our Muslim neighbors after our service or attend the interfaith vigil that is being organized over the weekend.  May our acts of love and solidarity overcome the enemies of violence and hate, and may we one day see, as the Jews at the end of the Megillah saw, that our days of grief and mourning have been turned into days of celebration and joy (9:22).  Lay’hudim hay’ta orah v’simchah v’sason vikar.  And there was light and gladness, happiness and honor” (8:16).  Ken y’hi ratzon - May it be God’s will, and may it be our own will as well.















[5] “Napoleon’s Instructions to the Assembly of Jewish Notables” in The Jew in the Modern World, ed. by Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, pg. 126.

[6] The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther, pg. 45.

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