By Rabbi Analia Bortz
Rabbi Analia Bortz of Congregation Or Hadash delivered a version of these remarks Tuesday, Aug. 11, at an anti-Semitism forum convened at the United Nations in New York by Proclaiming Justice to the Nations.
Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds prejudice, prejudice breeds hatred, hate breeds violence.
The history of anti-Semitism is rooted in this premise. We Jews have been carrying the weight of this foundation for over 2,000 years.
Bishop Apollinaris of Hierapolis wrote a polemic against the Jews in approximately 175 CE. The first anti-Jewish polemic in Latin, Adversus Judaeos, dates from about 200 CE and was written by Tertullian.
Was the anti-Semitic view of the fathers of the church rooted in racism? Jesus was born, lived and died as a Jew. Was it a persecution of a race? The contra Iudaeos tradition is a dispute with Judaism as a religion in the same way the church fathers disputed pagans, Manicheans, Donatists and other heretics.
That the early Christian anti-Jewish polemics did the intellectual spadework for later persecution of the Jews is undeniable, but at their heart the first centuries of Jewish-Christian relations were based on intellectual and theological disputes among people who sprang from the same religious soil.
Nevertheless, the interpretation of deicide sprouted as a convoluted understanding of future occurrences. Medieval blood libel accusations, the Crusades, expulsions from England and Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” “Mein Kampf,” the Shoah, and the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires are just illustrations of many more anti-Semitic attacks.
Honorable members of this forum, honorable attendees:
This forum presents us with a unique opportunity. Dialogue turns down prejudices and fears. Freedom of speech invites us to reflect and respect each other’s opinion. I don’t like the word tolerance — no human being wants to be “tolerated” — I insist on the premise of mutual respect.
I learn from the sages who wrote “The Ethics of the Fathers.”
Hillel the Sage taught: “If I’m not for myself, who am I? If I’m only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
We live in the 21st century. We are recipients of a masterpiece called “Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church With Non-Christian Religions,” which on Oct. 28, 1965, introduced a new concept of reconciliation between Jews and Christians. We called it in Hebrew an opportunity of teshuvah, of redemption. The time has come. The time of mutual reconciliation, of relational ties and spiritual growth, has come. Pope Francis represents a breath of fresh air in the Judeo-Christian relationship.
My Latino roots bring me to Don Quixote de la Mancha, a man who refuses to give up on his principles.
I have lived through the “The Junta,” the military government in my place of birth. I have lived through the Israeli Embassy bombing March 17, 1992. I have witnessed and served as a morgue examiner during the AMIA/Jewish Federation bombing in the center of the beautiful city of Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, where my husband and I lost friends and students.
That day changed the course of our lives forever. We decided to leave Argentina, not because we felt unsafe, but because we knew justice would not prevail, and unfortunately 21 years later we were proved right. The words of the Book of Deuteronomy — “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — did not awaken the Argentinean government.
Resilience is our Jewish name. This resilience swerves from hatred and vengeance to communication and mutual understanding.
We Jews are masters of looking at things from a different lens, from a positive angle, when prospects look gloomy. You can call it idealistic distortion or prophetic fantasy, but the truth is that we Jews do not give up easily. We fight for what is right. We claim for justice and truth, even when we have been persecuted and mistreated.
Dostoevsky said it right: “The primary cause of Jewish existence is not the instinct for survival alone, but a driving and motivating idea, something universal and profound, and it is possible that mankind is not capable of understanding this cause.”
In each of us resides the responsibility to teach how much we can construct instead of destruct. At the end of the day we are all humans in the eyes of G-d, and we should reflect our humanity in the eyes of “The Other.”
Our cry for survival unleashes a need for survival and has kept us alive and well.
Unfortunately through history, hatred and bigotry have been based on ignorance. Once again: Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate breeds violence.
In 1961 when men started exploring space, Chekhov said: “A white man can orbit the Earth, but a black one cannot enter a regular restroom.”
Fifty-four years later we are still so preoccupied with finding details on Mars while oblivious to the cries of our neighbors.
No more justifications and no more apologies should be expected from us, the Jewish people. We have our right to exist. We are not better than anybody else; there is no superior race. It doesn’t exist. We all have the responsibility to better the world.
Just as we wish to know G-d’s mercy, so we should show mercy to each other and to ourselves. Only three weeks ago we celebrated 46 years of humans touching the moon. We have been so devoted to look beyond space that we forgot to look at the divine spark inside our human souls.
Let’s strive to look inside the eyes of the other and find the divine spark, each one of us choosing right over wrong. Who knows? Maybe that one small step of a man could be a giant leap for man/womankind.
Today we carry the responsibility of being ambassadors of mutual understanding, of mutual respect, of bettering of this world. We have to defeat ignorance, fear, prejudice, so we can prevent violence. We have to start at our kitchen table, with our own families, in our homes, in schools, on the streets, through social media, and our wings should spread globally.
Let me conclude with a famous Talmudic story.
For many years the disputes between two schools of thought, between two prominent rabbis, Hillel and Shamai, escalated. Hillel’s school usually won the argument regarding the outcome of Jewish law. One time the disciples of Shamai decided to test the disciples of Hillel. They took a butterfly and placed it in one pupil’s hand. They wanted to surprise Hillel by asking this conundrum. Rabbi Hillel, he would ask, the butterfly that I have in my hand is alive or dead. The disciples expected Hillel either to say alive, and the pupil would close his hand, then show it was dead, or to say dead, and the pupil would open his hand and show the butterfly was alive and would fly.
Confident that they would win this trial, they knocked on Rabbi Hillel’s door and asked this enigmatic question: Rabbi Hillel, the butterfly that I have in my hands is alive or dead. Rabbi Hillel smiled and replied: The answer is in your hand.
Members of this forum, the Jewish people and the state of Israel are here not just to stay, but to flourish, helping others to improve their life standards, as we have done during catastrophes in Haiti, in Africa, in Nepal, in Indonesia, being the first ones to assist “The Other,” the one who is in need, regardless of race and religion. We continue to do so in time of war (as Israel does quietly with Iraqi and Syrian refugees) and in time of peace. In time of growth and in time of disaster.
We need each other.
Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor, is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
First 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 for me.
We have many answers in our hands. You, as representatives of the United Nations, have the responsibility to teach the world that anti-Semitism is a “never again” statement, and never again truly means never again.