In my early twenties, I dreamt a version of the following dream many times: I was a young adult in a Nazi concentration camp, and I was trying to save young children and babies from extermination. The dreams always ended before I found out whether I lived to tell the story or if I perished with the ones I was trying to rescue or even if I was able to save anyone. Of those nightmares, I only remember that I was there, in the scene of the terror, I was scared, and the story never had a conclusion. To this day, my body remembers what it felt like to wake up from one of these dreams. With the passage of time and as I tell of these recurring nightmares, it’s not the details that I remember, it’s not the tangible fear that I felt, no, what remains for me so long after these dreams, is the very question on my mind, each time I woke from the dream. I asked: “What if….” “What would I have done?” What would I have done had I lived in Nazi Germany around the year 1938, or in Eastern Europe around 1942? What would I have thought, felt or done if I were a child then? What would I have done as a Parent? A Grandparent? An Adult? What would I have done if I was not a Jew? Would I have been among the righteous gentiles? Would I have kept quiet, not admitting or seeing anything wrong?
The question, “What would I have done?” feels like it has always been with me, even before those dreams and from time to time throughout the years it has surfaced in my mind or shown up in conversation as the ‘what if game.’ Maybe you have played it too. To be honest, it never occurred to me that it was a question which required an answer. The question was never about the answer, actually. In the last few years, however this question has resurfaced in a different light. While we are certainly and thank God, not living in Nazi Germany, the question, “What would I have done in the midst of virulent hatred and Anti-Semitism, is no longer hypothetical and it is the answer to this question that matters most now.
On August 11th and 12th 2017 neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists, white nationalists and another other far-right extremists descended on Charlottesville, VA for a rally they called, “Unite the Right.” The event was planned for months via the underground web. The Jew-haters discussed how they would congregate in Charlottesville, who would bring the tiki torches, where they would congregate, who would bring the arms, they even went back and forth on how to sew a swastika on a flag and they even asked each other questions like how long would a gluten free sandwich last in a plastic sandwich bag the day of the rally.
At their siege on Charlottesville two years ago, there happened to be an interfaith church service going on and when participants in service heard the clamor outside the Church door, they barricaded themselves in, thinking they were literally going to die that day. They didn’t die, but Heather Heyer, a protester in the crowd did die that day after a neo-Nazi purposefully ran her down. Countless others were injured. A block away from the incident was a synagogue which moved all but one of their Torah Scrolls, to safety in member’s homes. The one Torah scroll remaining was a Holocaust scroll they had on display. The irony is maddening. It was 2017 and a holocaust scroll is the only remaining scroll in a synagogue closed down because of the neo Nazis marching towards it!?! Although the marches began Friday night, members of the synagogue attended shabbat morning worship the next day. Synagogue members arrived early to pray and realized they needed to end services early, the Neo-Nazis were coming towards them. They escaped out the synagogue back door. The hired security guard at the shul soon after called the president of the congregation and said, “I’m scared for my life; they intend to burn down the synagogue, what do you want me to do?” The President responded, leave and find safety.
The Extremists carrying lit tiki torches in the streets of Charlottesville, chanted: “Jews will not replace us.” “White Lives Matter.” “Blood and Soil.” “Whose streets? Our Streets?” They chanted as some of them hurled lit tiki torches filled with fuel into the crowd, trying to light the counter-protesters on fire.
Much of the details of what happened in Charlottesville 2017, I heard directly from two of the three powerful, smart, Jewish women who are suing the Nazis. Robbie Kaplan, the litigator who won the Equal Marriage case in the Supreme Court who herself, heard of the rally on the news flew down to Charlottesville that very day to gather evidence and witnesses and within 48 hours garnered support for and the beginnings of a plan to sue the Nazi’s, getting at the heart of the leadership of these dangerous anti-Semites. Robbie Kaplan, and Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America told their powerful and courageous story to the Central Conference of American Rabbis at our convention this past March. They are suing the top leadership of White supremists, overt Nazis and an assortment of hate groups whose sole purpose is to rid the country of Jews. These groups of course don’t only hate Jews, they hate Blacks, gays, women, and Muslims, but their core, most fundamental hatred is towards the Jews who they believe are out to destroy democracy and freedom.
The basis for the lawsuit is the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act stating that it is unlawful to engage in a conspiracy to commit violence based on racial animus. The KKK Act was passed by a reconstructionist Congress to prevent Southern states in the South from re-enslaving the newly freed slaves. This law was used in the 1920s, and with the freedom riders and now, to sue the Nazi’s and take down their infrastructure. The ultimate goal of the suit is to send the very infrastructure of these hate groups back into basements and to quiet them for good.
The case is moving slowly, but at each step they have won, for justice is on our side. It takes a tremendous of amount of money, security, time and people power to fuel this case. Ultimately the law team believes they will win in the courts, as they have thus far. All of us need to not only be aware of this potentially landmark case and support it, but we need to acknowledge and talk about the fact of why this case is so vital to our democracy and freedom. Violent extremism is on the rise and we have the power to stop it.
- Right-wing extremists killed more people in 2018 than any year since 1995-the year of the Oklahoma City bombing (ADL)
- The majority of domestic terrorism, which by the way is not a federal crime, is motivated by White Supremacy. (FBI)
- More often than not, each extremist attack is used as inspiration for the next, with far-right nationalists seeking to galvanize other extremists to action (IFA). Remember, the Pittsburg murderer, and the gunman who murdered 51 in a Christchurch, NZ mosque and the Poway killer, all used the same anti-sematic rhetoric.
- The Anti-Defamation League found a nearly 60% increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017, the highest one-year jump since the 1970s.
- In last year—our Country had two mass shootings in synagogues, Pittsburgh massacre in 2018 and murder in Poway on Pesach, 2019. A 117-year-old shul in Duluth, MN was destroyed by arson just a few weeks ago.
- Illinois and Wisconsin have seen an increase this year in anti-Semitic vandalism and hate crimes (ADL)
Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head with a vengeance. Social activist and community organizer, Eric L. Ward who I heard at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation of Conscious this past May, reminds us that Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired on one day, but that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired and was not going to take being sent to the back of the bus one more time. But it wasn’t her courageous act alone that sparked the Civil Rights movement. There were many other small and significant courageous acts that helped bring about a bus boycott and it was each and every one of the small acts of speaking truth to power that caused a movement to rise up in the name of justice and equality. It wasn’t Rosa alone who sparked the flame for civil rights, it was those who came before her, it was all of the folks who were sick and tired and who stepped up and said, “enough!” and it was those who took the mantle of the call for justice after her that allowed for civil rights to advance in this country.
Mr. Eric Ward, who is African American, infiltrated the White Supremist movement and had much to teach the 2000 Reform Jews attending the RAC’s, Consultation on Conscience. He said go us, “Anti-Semitism is on the rise and what we know is that anti-Semitism is a driver, its purpose is to seed fear not only in the Jewish community but other vulnerable communities as well. The danger of Anti-Semitism,” he goes on to say, “is that it seeks to deny vulnerable communities like immigrants, African Americans and others of their agency. It denies that we have legitimate grievances in terms of racial and economic inequality. Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist just on the right or on the left, it is in the air we breathe.” He concludes, “Let’s be clear, hate groups don’t bring Anti-Semitism in our communities, they simply organize the Anti-Semitism that already exists. Anti-Semitism is a direct assault on democratic values and institutions.”
The once hypothetical question, “What would I have done if I were living in Nazi Germany or in Eastern Europe?” emerges now loudly and clearly. I am reminded of the famous quote by Pastor Martin Niemoller who served the German Lutheran Church during the rise of Nazism. In his time, as much of the public continued to look away from the anti-Semitism, and Niemoller came to the realization that his personal security in the face of increasing oppression was an illusion. His quote is posted at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC: “First they came for the Communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me And there was no one left To speak out for me.
What would I have done? Is no longer relevant. The only question to ask ourselves and our community now is, “What Will I Do?”
There are not nice people on both sides. We know that there are no two sides to hate. There is just hate and it kills. And we are targets of baseless hatred. I am not saying this to scare you or to be overly dramatic. I think it is the truth and the statistics back this up.
Anti-Semitism has been around for millennia and we are people who know how to live with courage, resiliency, determination and engage in civic duties that uphold our values of fixing this broken world and not to ‘stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters.” (Lev:19:16). We are a people loyal to democracy and freedom.
We are a people loyal to the democratic values of justice for all, of non-discrimination, of taking in the stranger, the widow, the orphan, of hesed, of love and kindness, of speaking up against injustice like our ancestor Queen Esther did when she heard of Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews. We read in Esther Rabbah (8:6) “What is the meaning of ‘you keep silent?’ [The meaning of this is] if you are quiet and do not advocate for your people now, your destiny will be to be silenced for all eternity. Why? Because you had the opportunity to speak out in order to do good in your lifetime and you did not.”
We live in a democracy and we have the ability to be change agents towards love. To ending the hate. This moment in history demands action. It demands that our actions speak louder than words. It demands that we answer the question, “What will I do?”
What will we do in times of increasing Anti-Semitism and hate?
We can confront.
We can educate
We can support Integrity for America First, helping them fight extremists leaders and sue the Nazi’s.
We can partner with interfaith organizations who also know that there are not two sides but there is only one and its love —we love and build up we don’t hate and tear down.
You can travel with me to Israel in June to learn about and understand our past as we visit the sacred sites which offer hope and an understanding of what resiliency really is. We will visit the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, that we might be strengthened by the resilience of our people and be inspirired with fervent determination to never let such hatred happen again. We will also see the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, reminding us that we are not alone and that there are people who are working with us and for us.
We can our own Beth Am Committee against Anti-Semitism and Hate. We have developed a more specific action plan which you will receive as a handout on your way out of the sanctuary this morning, to combating hate, including the plethora of online hateful rhetoric. The action plan will also be posted on our facebook pages and weekly email update.
We read in Proverbs, Ner Adonai nishmat adam. “God’s lamp is the human spirit.” (20:27) which shines light on the soul, illuminating the dark places. Each of us is a light with the capacity to illumine the dark places and the dark times. Each of us is a light that can bring love and peace into this broken world. Like the great Rabbi Jeochim Prinz in late 1930s Berlin who, when the Nazi’s intruded into his worship one Friday evening at the Berlin Reform Synagogue and marched down the aisle towards him, he stood tall, the lights of the Sabbath candles around him and said to the bearers of hate and darkness: Go Home! Go Home! and That evening they did. Darkness came and left. Light remained. Rabbi Prinz eventually was asked to leave his home and he made it to the shores of this country. He became outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Speaking right before Martin Luther King Jr’s famous address to the crowd, Rabbi Prinz said, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
What will I do when faced with increasing hate? Today we say to the forces who bring the darkness and disrupt our nation’s democratic values, who thrive upon hate, Go home. Go Home. We are not silent, and we speak up. For bearers of light and love know that if we are silent the past repeats itself. We have an action plan. We will rid our community of the Jew-haters in our own state and neighborhoods, we will call out hate and not be afraid. And we will support the strong Jewish women who have had to hire nearly full-time bodyguards and wear custom fitted bullet proof vests in order make it illegal to plan and carry through acts of hate in our country.
The reoccurring dreams I once had have not come back. My dreams have not scared me for decades and despite all that hate and violence out there, despite having to increase our synagogue security on every level, I know that hate will end one day and anti-Semitism will diminish allowing goodness and love to flourish. I don’t believe we will fail. There is too much at stake and we know it.
May we in this new year, be fearless and speak out against hate. May we be blessed with courage and fortitude, a sense of safety and ease. May we live with love in our hearts and all around us.
Ken Yihe Ratzon.
May this be true.
 Conversation with Robbie Solomon and Amy Spitalnik at the Conference of Central American Rabbi convention, Cincinnati March 2019
 To find out more about the case, see https://www.integrityfirstforamerica.org/newsroom/charlottesville-case-overview-legal-case