Thursday, October 20, 2016

To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance, by David Gruber

Seek the Peace of the City

The Responsa tradition in Judaism is one that is almost as old as Judaism itself. Responsa (singular responsum), as a concept, are pretty simple: a person asks a rabbi a question, and the rabbi writes a detailed answer, not just answering the question, but spelling out how the rabbi arrived at the answer.

One of the first Responsa is found in the Bible, written by none other than the prophet, Jeremiah. He addresses an important question, which was on the minds of his brethren, who had been exiled to Babylon. What are the People to do, now that they have been exiled from their land? Should they plan on quickly returning to Judah or put down roots in Babylon? In his answer (Chapter 29) he addresses this, but goes beyond this question:

“Build ye houses, and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply ye there, and be not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” The People are not only to put down roots, but to seek the peace of Babylon, be good and loyal citizens, and even pray to the God of Judah for it.
Jeremiah, as imagined by Rembrandt in 1630
Now, though Jeremiah is speaking to the exiles of his time, the Ancient Rabbis were of the opinion that prophecies were included in the Bible, only if they had relevance for future generations. And this tradition, begun by Jeremiah was one the Jews carried with them for more than 2,500 years. Indeed, in the Mishnah, Tractate Avot 3/2, Rabbi Chaninah, the Assistant High Priest, is quoted as saying, “Pray for the welfare of the kingdom (=government). For without fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”

Think about this for a second. Who is Rabbi Chaninah talking about, specifically? He speaks of the Roman Empire! This is the same Roman Empire that conquered Judea, put an end to its independence, and eventually destroyed its great temple. Still, pray for its welfare, for without the order it imposes, society falls apart. And so, through the generations, Jews kept praying for their rulers and the welfare of their governments.

The Vision of G. Washington
In 1790, the new President of the United States, George Washington, traveled through the thirteen states of the union, to promote the new Constitution. One of his stops was to be Newport, Rhode Island. The Jews of Newport were conscious of their ancient tradition discussed above. They prayed for the government and its ruler. However, they dared to think one step further. Perhaps, this new democratic experiment could yield something better. Perhaps, this new country would reciprocate, and treat them as equals. This was almost unheard of in Europe, where Jews were barely tolerated, and certainly never thought of as equals of their Christian brethren.

And so, the Jews wrote a letter to their new national leader, hoping beyond hope, that this country would be different. Washington wrote a letter back copying many of the very phrases they used, into his own letter. This letter, signed simply, “G. Washington,” is still read in full at an annual ceremony at the Touro Synagogue in Newport:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving 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 demean themselves as good citizens...  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 under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
George Washington’s Letter, Courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History
The United States, at the time, would stand out in this sense. In later years, with the coming of the Napoleonic Wars, and with the Enlightenment sweeping across Western Europe, other countries adopted policies, under which Jews enjoyed rights approaching the full equal rights enjoyed by Jews in the United States.  However, in Eastern Europe, home to the ancestors of most of today’s American Jews, this was still a foreign concept, well into the 20th Century. The government and its rulers, whom the Jews still would pray for, at most tolerated the Jews, and at worst persecuted them. That was just part of life. The humorous representation of this is preserved in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof, when the village rabbi is asked, what blessing one must recite upon seeing the Czar. The rabbi pauses for a moment, and says, “May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us!”

This is why when these Jews would arrive here in the United States they would not only be surprised, but could not really comprehend that any government would treat them otherwise. Between 1907 and 1914, groups of Eastern European Jewish immigrants were brought to Galveston, rather than going through Ellis Island. In one instance, a group was greeted not only by fellow Texas Jews, but by Galveston’s mayor, Henry Landes, who welcomed them to the community. They were stunned! Historian Bernard Marinbach, in his book Galveston: Ellis Island of the West, quotes a representative of the newly arrived Jews, who spoke for all of them in response to the mayor’s warm welcome, “We are overwhelmed that the ruler of the city should greet us. We have never been spoken to by the officials of our country except in terms of harshness, and although we have heard of the land of great freedom, it is very hard to realize that we are permitted to grasp the hand of the great man. We will do all we can to make good citizens.” 

These ideas and the approach of the United States to the Jews had legal ramifications in Jewish Law. In a responsum written more than 2500 years after Jeremiah’s, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the premier scholar of Jewish Law of in the 20th Century, warns school administrators, not to attempt to receive more government support than they were entitled to. Why? Because the United States is different; It is a, ”kingdom (=government) of kindness, whose only goal is to do good on behalf of the residents of the country” (Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, Part 4, Responsum 244) This is definitely NOT what the Fiddler’s fictional rabbi would ever dream of saying about the Czar.

To Bigotry, No Sanction?
Now, one could triumphantly and optimistically end this essay here, and there would be nothing wrong with that. However, we would be missing something. We forget something important, when we read the inspiring words, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” written by one G. Washington. We fail to remember that that great leader, on this very journey through the states, had in his retinue enslaved people. The new Constitution he was promoting, without one mention of the word slave, wove bigotry and persecution inherent in the legal ownership of human beings, into the fabric of the nation.

And even after the Civil War, once Reconstruction was crushed by the South which rose again, those of darker skin did not, to once again quote Washington’s letter, “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” In the very Galveston, to which the Jews were welcomed by the Mayor, Jim Crow ruled the roost all the way up to the beach.  In fact, African Americans were restricted to one small block, along the water, between 28th and 29th Streets. This State of Texas, like the rest of the South, was no “kingdom of kindness”, to its African American citizens. Even in the North, though preferable to the South, segregation was alive and well in many places. And let us not forget that redlining was the official policy of the Federal Government in most communities, throughout the country. Therefore, Rabbi Moshe’s words, that the government’s “only goal is to do good on behalf of the residents of the country,” would have rung hollow to any person of color.

And yet, I would like to think that the words of Washington in 1790, and the words of that newly minted Galvestonian in the early 1900s, represented a promise for the future. This may have been a future that they did not or could not think of – a future where their words pertained not only to the Jewish citizens of the United States, but to its African American citizens too.

That brings us to today. We, as a society, often say to our African American brethren words that sound like Jeremiah’s, “And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” And yet, we speak a lie. Despite the monumental progress this country has made since the days of the author of the letter to the Jews of Newport, can any of us, with a straight face, say to African Americans, “for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace”? How can we, when innocent African Americans, like Philando Castille, Terence Crutcher, and Tamir Rice, are killed by individuals sworn to keep that very peace?
Family photo of Tamir Rice, courtesy of the New York Times
Addressing Inequity
And, specifically, in Dallas, and specifically, in the area closest to our hearts, at MDHA, homelessness, dare we say that we have, in the words of Washington’s letter, “a policy worthy of imitation?” How can we, when the persistence of racial inequality stands out in the area of homelessness, across the nation, but particularly in Dallas? African Americans make up 13% of the population, both in the U.S. and in Dallas. Across the country, on average, African Americans make up 40% of the homeless population, and 28% of the unsheltered homeless population, which is troubling, in and of itself. However, in Dallas, African Americans make up 67% of the homeless population, and 70% of the unsheltered homeless population! This cannot stand. This cannot continue.

We must and we will tackle this overrepresentation of African Americans in the homeless population. With the help of a generous grant from United Way of Metropolitan DallasUnite Dallas Relief Fund, we will do so through a new research and action program from the Center for Social Innovation (C4)titled Racism and Homelessness - Addressing Inequity in 10 American Cities”. In the words of c4, “While no single initiative can end structural racism across all systems, we believe,” that through this initiative we can, “create positive change in attitudes and behaviors that will begin to close the racial gap that has led to the disproportionate prevalence… of homelessness among African Americans.”

As we, at MDHA, address the inequities in this area, in which it is in our power to bring about change (homelessness in Dallas), we hope other organizations and individuals (in Dallas and beyond), will do the same in the areas in which they can bring about change. Only then, in the words of the prophets and the words of Washington, will we able to finally rest, as regardless of race or creed, “every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

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