Below is my sermon for Friday night, April 14, 2017. It was the Shabbat of Passover and also happened to fall on the day the Christian world observed Good Friday.
Today Christians around the world observed “Good Friday”. They read from their Bible the account of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and re-enact it by walking the 14 Stations of the Cross. After being sentenced to be tortured by Romans by crucifixion, Jesus had to carry a wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem from the court at the Fortress Antonio adjacent to the Temple Mount to Cavalry the spot where he would be hung on the cross and die. This spot today is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which was built over the last several Stations of the Cross, the traditional site of his death and burial. Today in Jerusalem in the old city, thousands of Christian pilgrims walked the Via Dolorosa—the street of suffering as they do every year tracing the final footsteps of their messiah and some even carrying large wooden crosses as they imagine Jesus to have done.
The Christian bible’s account of the story of the death of Jesus has been the source of tremendous anti-Semitism. Today’s reading in particular blames the Jews for Jesus conviction rather than the Romans. In fact, our local Lutheran Bishop Guy Erwin sent a pastoral letter to his ministers in this region to remind them that this year in light of all the Anti-Semitic acts that have occurred that they must be careful in reading this passage so as not to fuel further Anti-Semitism like we have seen arise in recent months. He said:
I want to encourage, even urge you to consider carefully the impact of the words you use in worship this week. Starting with Palm Sunday, we use scripture readings this week and next that often refer to the opponents of Jesus and the disciples simply as “the Jews.” In the context of the earliest Christianity, when it went without saying that Jesus and his closest followers were themselves Jews, the listener would know that what was meant were “those who opposed Jesus” or, more narrowly, the religious leaders. I want to tell you that I believe it appropriate and proper for you to alter the readings if you need to, to make this point more clearly and avoid misunderstanding.
Bishop Erwin understands the nature of both overt and covert Anti-Semitism.
This Shabbat in Jewish history in Europe was always a dreaded Shabbat because this was a night of fear. Of overt Anti-Semitism, fueled by the anti-Jewish hatred fomented in Church services against the Jews who killed their Christ, and often fueled by alcohol in their celebration of this Easter weekend, Christians often violently went after their local Jewish community. Pogroms, riots, torture, rape, and murder were the traditional pay back for this greatest of sins the murder of Jesus by the Jews in his day in Christian eyes.
That is why when the Catholic Church as part of the Vatican II Council in the early 1960’s disavowed their own teaching that the Jews killed Jesus it was such an historic moment in Jewish –Christian relations.
This Shabbat was always a Shabbat of great danger. And when it fell like it does this year during the Shabbat of Passover it was doubly dangerous because along with the blame for Jesus’ death, the ancient horrors of the blood libel made this an especially difficult Shabbat. The blood libel was the charge that Jews used the blood of infant or young Christian babies in the making of matzah. The blood libel is still around in many forms and not limited to only right wing extremist Christians who predict the end of the world and the coming once again of Jesus, these days, but ISIS and other radical Islamic warriors have picked up on traditional blood libel against the Jews and have used it for their own propaganda to justify their attacks on Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.
That is why what happened at the White House by Press Secretary Sean Spicer was particularly alarming. Although he has apologized I think it is worth examining the insidious nature of his comments and why they were so offensive and why we as a Jewish community must not ever be silent to call out such language wherever it occurs. I also think that for many of us his apology rang hollow given the numerous times he and many in the current administration have been associated with anti-Semitism such as Trump advisor- Sebastian Gorka who has ties to a Hungarian neo Nazi Jobbik Party. And Steve Bannon of Brietbart News fame who has been associated with right wing anti-Semitic rhetoric. Couple this with the omission of the mention of Jews in the proclamation on International Holocaust Remembrance Day against the backdrop of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents from bomb threats to cemetery defacements.
Spicer in speaking about the Syrian chemical attack against its own people made the analogy that between Hitler and Assad. And said that Hitler never used gas attacks against his own citizens and that Spicer then said Hitler took Jews “into the Holocaust center” but that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing.”
It is a combination of the worst of anti-Jewish statements. Using Hitler analogies like this diminishes the horrors of our people at the hands of the Nazis. It minimizes the 6 million lives. And it doesn’t do justice to the half a million Syrians who have died at the hands of a brutal dictator. Evil is evil. Comparisons are unnecessary. Made on the first day of Passover ostensibly the holiest of the week, this isn’t just mere ignorance of history; this is immoral in its content. Has he heard of Zyklon –B the gas that was used to murder millions of Jews? Secondly to call concentration camps, death camps by the doublespeak of Holocaust centers? And to imply that the victims of Hitler and the Nazi regime weren’t German citizens? In only a few short words, the Press Secretary managed to touch on many of the modern day blood libels against the Jewish people. Minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust against our people.
This kind of talk is Dr. Deborah Lipstadt would call ‘Holocaust Denial’. Formerly a professor at UCLA, now the Dorot Professor of Jewish Studies at Emory University, Dr. Lipstadt is the foremost scholar of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and those who would deny the Holocaust happened. You might have seen the recent movie “Denial” that portrayed her story of going after one of the world’s greatest Holocaust deniers, David Irving, and the court case in England that proved that the Holocaust happened. Holocaust Denial is a unique form of a kind of reverse blood libel that says Jewish blood wasn’t spilled by Hitler, it was all made up, a Jewish lie perpetrated on the world. Holocaust denial tries to minimize and say that the Jewish people didn’t really suffer, or the numbers were inflated. Dr. Lipstadt’s work and courage brought out into the open the heinous lie and denial. That is anti-Semitic at its core.
In an article this week in The Atlantic magazine Lipstadt calls for “call for an end to this misuse of history”. n linking the anti-Semitic words this week of Spicer as well as England’s Labour Party Leader Ken Livingstone and France’s Marine Le Pen, Lipstadt says: “This instrumentalization of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich blinds people to another danger. Making someone such as Hitler, an exterminationist anti-Semite, the preeminent model for anti-Semitism, makes it harder to see other kinds of anti-Semites.”
Spicer’s words too could be classified in this same way. To say that Auschwitz, the death camp, designed for genocide, was a Holocaust Center is to make it sound as if the Welcome Wagon was part of the Nazi regime.
Spicer trivialized the murder of millions of Jews in his comments. And also because of the nature of it trivialized the murder of over 500, 000 Syrians who have died in this horrible Syrian war these last 6 years. Assad is a brutal dictator, every bit as bad as his father who has destroyed Syria and its people causing 4 million Syrians to leave and who are now living as refugees outside of Syria and murdering his own.
Sean Spicer’s comments also must be taken in context of all that has happened in the last year. The far right wing anti-Semitic Christians have been given new life, resurrected from dark corners of the American electorate as they were openly courted by President Trump. They troll the internet no longer in obscurity but their unique venom has unleashed anti-Jewish actions including increasing hate crimes. Even the President’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner has not escaped their aim. The cemetery desecrations, the bomb threats, the multiple defacements of Jewish institutions with swastikas and bullet holes create an environment that shows our own country is not immune to anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic rhetoric. And when the Press Secretary of the White House engages in such language as Sean Spicer did this week of Passover, we all should speak up and demand his resignation. Apology or not, there are some things that are so offensive that person should not be in the public eye.
One of the dangers of Spicer and his antics is that each time something happens, each outrageous statement and outright lies that gets repeated and repeated, like “Holocaust centers” or Assad is worse than Hitler because Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons, or the implication that the greatest victims of Hitler weren’t citizens reinforces the anti-Semitism so prevalent now. It reinforces the lies. Because the more you repeat it the less outrageous it seems and human nature is that we become inured to the offensive nature of these kinds of statements. We come to expect the worst, the bungling and the danger is that we stop taking whatever he says or in the name of the President, seriously.
This friends, is the greatest danger of all.
Words matter. Our tradition, Jewish tradition teaches us this. We have whole sections of Jewish law that deals with vows, the words we say, because ultimately the words we use convey ideas and meaning and relationships. The world in our tradition was created with the words! We Jews believe words have power. And therefore we must be thoughtful and careful in the words we use.
It is up to each of us to use our words carefully and to remain vigilant against any rhetoric that invokes the Holocaust or tries to minimize what happened to our people. It is up to us to demand better of our Administration and all of our elected officials. It is up to us to thank leaders like Lutheran Bishop Guy Erwin as I did this week when he cautioned his regional leaders in their reading of the Passion of Christ and its traditional anti-Jewish words. It is up to us to live not in fear as many of our grandparents, great grandparents and ancestors did on this Good Friday, but it is up to us to live proudly and bold Jewish lives. Asserting our not just our culture and history but our faith in One God who led us out of Egypt on Passover to taste the waters of redemption and freedom in a Promised Land. In many ways America has been a Promised Land to our people. We have thrived here because of democracy and the separation of Church and State. We as its citizens have a great stake in ensuring that democracy and liberty and the separation of Church and State remain strong. For then we will continue to thrive as a people and as a nation.
May this always be our prayer and an antidote to any kind of hatred, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, racism or misogyny.
May our words and actions give strength to one another. Ken Yehi Ratzon.