The Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, debuted at the end of September, and the Gordon JCC hosted a preview on September 14. As with all of Mr. Burns’ work, the documentary is meticulously researched, and contextualized within the bigger story of our nation’s complicated history related to immigration, racism, and discrimination. It begins with historic records and video of notable American public and private sector leaders and the shocking lengths they were willing to go to bar certain immigrant and refugee populations from tarnishing the white protestant ideal they hoped to protect, including open and blatant antisemitic views. These views were ultimately at the heart of decisions to maintain quotas, and the refusal to allow greater numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany be afforded safety in the United States.
Antisemitism is not new, but it has had a resurgence both leading to and after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in which it was emboldened and metastasized into our politics. Views that had become marginalized were brought back into the daylight, using some of the same propaganda and old-fashioned antisemitic tropes and conspiracies theories – the Jews are capitalists and communists, Jews control the media, Jews own the banks, with some modern twists, including Jews are to blame for COVID-19, Jews want open borders and are responsible for failed immigration policies. These are simply variations of the themes used against Jews for generations and social media and encouragement from elected officials has only made the situation worse.
This propaganda is partnered with a rise of Christian nationalist groups and the influence they are having on elected officials, much like the power wielded by past nationalistic movements which are dangerous to Jews. Promoting “Christian values” in the public sphere, with laws based on one belief system imposed on all of us, creates the ecosystem necessary to effectively and successfully convince people that Jews are not only part of the problem, but they are also the enemy.
Promoting one religion over another is anathema to what our founding fathers intended when they very intentionally and deliberately enshrined the concept of separation of church and state in the Constitution. Too many of those both holding office and running for office in the upcoming election are loudly and inaccurately using rhetoric of division, trying to convince us that we are a white Christian nation. They are sadly and dangerously mistaken. Our country is greater when we welcome, protect and respect differences of background and faith.
Those who hold office, and those running for office, would be well served to remember this:
“We in the United States, above all, must remember that lesson, for we were founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.” Ronald Reagan
The mission of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Nashville includes the duty, “To promote a just, democratic, and pluralistic society.” It is by embracing the value of pluralism that we as Jews, and all of minority and marginalized communities, can have our full rights at citizens. This has been and will continue to be the foundation of our work.
We have seen the fragility of our democracy, and the serious efforts of some to undermine our faith in elections through propaganda, fear, and political violence. As we prepare ourselves to vote, I am reminded of the words of President Zelensky of Ukraine when asked how he and his people are maintaining their resolve against the vicious and relentless attacks against civilians, he answered, their strength comes not from what they are fighting against, but from what they are fighting for. Democracy, self-determination, and freedom. These ideals are providing the courage for their determination and commitment to protect their country and fight for the right to a democratic system.
As we begin the Jewish New Year 5783 may we resolve to both cherish our past, celebrate our present, and amplify our efforts to bring in a future of pluralism, inclusion, respect, and peace.
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