Remarks at Philadelphia City Hall, March 11, 2011
The hearings planned by Congressman Peter King to isolate American Muslim communities as hotbeds of terrorism evoke two memories from Jewish life – one from two centuries ago, in America; the other, far more distant — about 35 centuries ago, in Egypt.
“Now there arose a new king over Egypt… And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us use our wits against them, lest they multiply and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and rise up over the land…. So they made the Children of Israel subservient and embittered their lives.” (Exodus 1: 10-13)
In the other, it was August 17, 1790. The new Constitution had been in effect barely more than a year, and the Bill of Rights — including the First Amendment’s forbidding Congress to invade freedom of religion — had not yet been adopted. But President George Washington had just received a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” asking what the role of Jews and Judaism would be under the new government.
More after the jump.
Washington was no great writer, no great speaker. Yet he wrote back perhaps the most eloquent and ringing words of his life. Though it is clear that his behavior as a slaveholder was ignoble, yet this letter bespoke nobility:
“To bigotry, no sanction;
To persecution, no assistance.”
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid….”
In the minds of Americans in 1790, “the stock of Abraham” meant the Jewish community. Yet two centuries later, millions of American Muslims also look upon themselves as “the stock of Abraham,” and for them Washington’s promise is in jeopardy.
Shall American government and society today lean toward Washington’s or Pharaoh’s vision of society, when it comes to behavior toward American Muslims?
There have been virulent attacks by radio talk “hosts” with millions of listeners against Islam as a religion. Local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of mosques in neighborhoods where churches were warmly welcomed. And where local governments have supported such efforts (as in New York City and the plans to create a Muslim community center/mosque in Lower Manhattan), political vigilantes have whipped up a storm of fear and rage.
Yet the most egregious of these acts of bigotry is the decision by the new chair of the House of Representatives Committee of Homeland Security, Congressman Peter King of Long Island, to hold hearings on American Islam as if it were a hotbed of terrorism.
Leave aside Congressman King’s own hypocrisy: He used to support the Irish Republican Army, twin culprits with the Ulster nationalists in terrorizing Northern Ireland for three decades. Leave aside the real question about homeland security: Why is it taking so long to secure American ports against the clandestine import of high explosives, even nuclear weapons, for use against civilians? Leave aside why the Committee is not looking urgently into the network of incitement against “homeland security” that led to the near murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the actual murder of her staff and supporters and a Federal judge — an event that one might think should occupy the thoughts of another Member of Congress.
Leave all that aside, and we still must ask ourselves what it means for the Congress to be inciting bigotry and inviting persecution of an entire religious community
In two sorts of crises in the past — wars and economic depressions — some Americans have reacted with scapegoating of “the other” and attacks on freedom. These moments include passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts in the 1790s during the half-war with France, the “draft riots” that killed hundreds of Blacks in New York City during the Civil War, the “Red Scare” deportations led by J. Edgar Hoover in 1919, the wave of anti-Semitism during the Great Depression, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the hounding of artists and professors and actors and activists by Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee early in the Cold War.
Afterward, almost all Americans have felt deeply ashamed of these behaviors. But during each episode, some political forces in America benefited from inciting bigotry.
Now, we are in the midst of both mass disemployment and an endless, unwinnable war. For those modern analogues of Pharaoh who rule and support centers of great undemocratic power and wealth while stripping others of public services and servants — teachers, nurses, social workers — indeed, while some lose jobs, homes, lives, and limbs — it is convenient to make scapegoats, just as Pharaoh did.
Indeed, as we look around today we notice that the same political forces that are trying to smash unions, to undermine the health of low-income women by defunding Planned Parenthood, to weaken even the mildest milieux of independent public discussion by defunding NPR, to risk global scorching and the pollution of the drinking water of millions of Americans and the imposition of unprecedented droughts in Russia and unprecedented floods in Pakistan — all for the sake of enormous profits — are the same forces trying to scapegoat Hispanics and Muslims, so as to distract those who are suffering in the present economic, political, and cultural crisis in the US and the world.
This analysis of our situation suggests that addressing bigotry directly is a necessary but not sufficient response to the wave of bigotry. It is crucial to address as well the need to end the endless wars and the economic depression that are exacerbating Americans’ sense of insecurity and anxiety that make scapegoating attractive.
In the present American crisis, there is an even more precise political use for anti-Muslim scapegoating. The second most progressive ethnic voting bloc in the US, second only to African-Americans, is the Jewish community. Efforts to use anti-gay or anti-immigrant or anti-abortion rhetoric to divide various progressive blocs and nullify their progressive instincts have been shrugged off by almost all American Jews.
But anti-Muslim bigotry, because it evokes fears of Muslim and Arab hostility to the State of Israel, has won more support in parts of the Jewish community than any of these other forms of bigotry. At the same time, still other parts of the Jewish community have responded out of strong memories of the treatment of Jews as outsiders, pariahs, and traitors, from the time of Pharaoh to the time of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.
The best of Jewish wisdom, Jewish values, and Jewish historical experience all accord with the best of American wisdom, American values, and American historical experience to teach us that America will “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” as the Constitution promises, if we choose the path of shalom and tzedek — peace and social justice – and the path of President Washington, not the path of Pharaoh as in our generation it is echoed in Congressman King’s diatribes against Islam.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center; co-author with Sr. Joan Chittister and Saadi Shakur Chisti of The Tent of Abraham (Beacon Press, 2006); co-author with Rabbi Phyllis Berman of Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia (Jewish Lights, 2011) – on learning from the biblical story of Pharaoh, the Exodus, Sinai, and the Wilderness how to address the world-wide crisis of today.