Parashat VaYikraLabels, Libels, and Lies

by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, March 16, 2017

Last year, at the inspiring Women’s March, a woman, older than I by at least ten years, carried a sign as she was pushed in her wheel chair…the sign echoed a sentiment with which I related.  It read:  “I Never Thought I’d Have to Do This Again!”  Me too, I never thought I’d have to do this again…to march, to protest, to publicly call out leadership, to engage in civil disobedience.

Like many of you, I was raised with a sense that it was incumbent upon all Jews to help repair the world, l’takein et haolam.  From an early age, I took that personally and seriously.  Now, I don’t think of myself as a troublemaker (you may disagree), but when something is wrong, especially something that affects children, women, minorities, and/or the Jewish people, I’ve never been able to stay silent.  “Ein breira”…there was no choice, but to raise our voices when civil rights were being trampled in the 60’s, when Soviet Jews were being denied exit visas in the 70’s, and when women were rightly asserting their rights at the same time.  I remember marching in front of the Russian consulate in Chicago, with a toddler on my back and an infant in my arms.  I remember bringing my 70-year-old mother-in-law to her first NOW rally at the state house in Springfield, Illinois.  I remember writing letters, making calls, and staging sit-ins…in my teens and twenties and thirties.  And I thought I’d never have to do that again…certainly not at this point in my life, but the world is far from repaired.  As the anthem of my youth proclaimed “Somethin’s happening out there.  What it is ain’t exactly clear…”and it isn’t exactly clear, but it doesn’t portend well.

As if the school shootings, sexual harassment issues, and racial tension were not sufficient, the insidious rise in anti-Semitic violence over the recent months has taken back-page headlines and, all-too-slowly, is creeping into our consciousness.  While our leadership is, for the most part, silent on the matter, Israel is seeking open dialogue with Poland regarding its recent approval of a law making it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.  Why would Poland vote for a bill that would fine or jail people who blamed Poland or Polish people for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp?  Tens of thousands of Poles marched last year in Warsaw, but they were representing the far right movements…and suddenly historical black is being white-washed.  True, they were Nazi camps on Polish soil, and, yes, there were Poles who fought back through underground movements and resistance armies, but, as the Washington Post reported (1/28/2018) “between these broad strokes of Nazi genocide and Polish heroism, some Poles also turned on Jews—or at least helped Germans kill them.”  Israel is furious about the pending law, and we should be too. Many historians are warning against trying to simplify Poland’s role in the Holocaust and state that while the term “Polish Extermination Camp” was indeed an historical misinterpretation, Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center states that “restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”

In mid-February, the Polish attempt to dissociate itself from Nazism was set on its head when Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister whose right-wing nationalist party took power in Poland two years ago, was asked about the law by a journalist at a conference of world leaders in Munich.  He responded, “You’re not going to be seen as criminal [if you] say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators—not only German perpetrators.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Polish Prime Minister’s comments “outrageous” and, according to the Israeli newspaper “HaAretz”, schooled Morawiecki on the Shoah, reminding him that “the Holocaust was designed to destroy the entire Jewish people…” and informing him that his wife’s grandfather was betrayed by Poles and then murdered by Germans.  Morawiecki and the Polish government have since gone to great lengths to deny being Holocaust deniers and to stem accusations of Holocaust revisionism.

And just this week, in a somewhat surreal interview of Russian President Vladimir Putin by NBC journalist Megan Kelly, Putin suggested that the 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been manipulated by Russian Jews.  Referring to who might have been behind the election interference, Putin told Kelly, “Maybe they’re not even Russians; maybe they’re Ukrainian, Tatars, Jews—just with Russian citizenship.”  While he even speculated that France, Germany or Asia might have interfered with the election, his remark about Jews (which seemed to infer that a Russian Jew was not really a Russian), his remark about Jews was particularly jarring to those of us who remember Russia’s long history of anti-Semitism, including the infamous pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th  centuries, and the notorious purges of the Stalin years.  Anti-Defamation League chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, issued the following statement: “It is deeply disturbing to see the Russian president giving new life to classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that have plagued his country for hundreds of years, with a comment that sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  (For those who may not remember, the “Elders of Zion” was a fabricated Russian 1903 publication that proclaimed that Jews were plotting to take over the world.  It helped fuel violence against Jews across Europe and influenced Hitler’s rise to fame.)

In fact, according to “HaAretz”, in January, a pro-Kremlin website published a 5,000 word essay that blamed Jewish groups for chaos around the world…And suddenly the word “globalist” is code for a Jew involved in the Jewish cabal apparently running the world.  Do I hear echoes of  ”Elders of Zion”?

With so many issues grabbing headlines, it would be easy to miss the creeping anti-Semitism.  With so many issues begging for our attention, it would be understandable to focus on those getting the most media play.  With so many, many issues tearing at our hearts, it would be easy to be overwhelmed, but to be aware of something and not do anything? Well, we’ve read that playbook before.  Elie Wiesel famously said, “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.”

And so, I ask you to look into your heart and do something.  March in the ADL March Against Hate, April 29 at Spring Preserve.  Write our Congressmen and Senators.  Send letters to the editors.  When you hear the labels, the libels, the lies…speak up!

Pirke Avot reminds us:  Im ein ani li, mi li; If I am not for myself for who am I.  Im ani l’atzmi, mah ani; if I am only for myself, what am I; and im lo achshav, eimatai; if not now, when?

Shabbat Shalom