Rise of Nationalism

I am writing to all Jewish newspapers in Canada and the U.S., as a concerned Jewish writer who experiences racism and anti-Semitism on a regular basis, much as French Jews are
living it in 2015.

I live in Montreal, Quebec, where only a year ago, our religious rights and freedoms were on the legislative chopping block, so I know how it feels: Living somewhere you consider to be your home only to have an elected government try to strip you of your religious rights and freedoms is a terrifying experience, to be sure. It definitely changes how you feel about “your home”; I may live in Montreal, but it is no longer my home.

France has had these so-called secularizing laws on the books now for 10 years, and they are routinely strengthening and expanding them. These so-called “secular” laws are primarily targeting France’s 10 percent Muslim community who, as one might anticipate, isn’t taking too kindly to having their religion legislated out of “French society.” (For the record, neither are the Jews, but Jews represent only about 1 percent to 2 percent of French society.)

How can we frame the Charlie-Hebdo massacre as a freedom of press or freedom of expression issue when satirists were actually poking fun of a religious group of people whose rights are being systematically stripped away, simultaneously, by the state? To me, this is not satire. This is not freedom of the press related. This is rubbing salt on a wound and, in my opinion, represents the worst in journalistic ethics and practice.

I’m just saying that there are two sides to the coin here, and I fear our desire for solidarity with any people who’ve just experienced an act of terror like this is clouding our ability to delve deeper into the issue of what the state might or might notbe doing to enable and even stoke the fires of this type of extremist reactionary violence.

What would happen in New York State if the governor suddenly passed similar legislation? Could you imagine telling New York Jews that it was against the law for them to go to work wearing yarmulkes? There’d be a lot of plotzing and very few doctors left to handle it all.

As Jews, we are, or at least should be, more sensitive to issues that involve a state trying to take religious rights and freedoms away from its citizens. Our ancestors have experienced this for generations and generations, all over the planet.

In fact, Europe’s current trend toward secularization is not that at all; it is actually a red herring for
nationalism. If you look deep enough into the legislative agenda behind these laws, it is the preservation of the future “French state” that is uppermost on legislators’ minds. Historically, does this remind you of another era?

Win-Win Situation

Marc Shapiro’s Jan. 2 article on the issue of wages for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (“Opinions Divided on Subminimum Wage”) did an excellent job in conveying why there is a need to continue expansion of job opportunities that pay at or above minimum wage while cautioning what would occur if we completely disallow sub-minimum wages that may be paid to
people with significant disabilities. While these individuals’ disabilities may greatly diminish their productivity, they do not inhibit their desire to work nor their pride in earning.

Of the nearly 1,000 people supported in our day and employment programs at The Arc Baltimore, 53 percent are employed in jobs paying at or above minimum wage. Less than half of those we support are based at area centers and are involved in other activities in the community. Of these, 45 to 50 people get the opportunity to work for a limited number of hours each week earning 50 percent to 90 percent of the minimum wage.

Shapiro also put the right focus on the interest of The Arc, Chimes and other agencies in finding more companies that would hire people with disabilities, whether for office filing and administrative support, janitorial or landscaping jobs or customer service jobs. We have a lot of capable people who just need a chance to show what they can do, and our team is ready to back them up and make it a win-win situation.

Danish Hypocrisy

It’s always good to know when someone has left no doubt about their anti-Semitism and hypocrisy. Jesper Vahr, Denmark’s ambassador to Israel was clearly revealed in this regard in “European Hypocrisy” (Jan. 2). Remarks of the sort he made at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference would get many diplomats declared persona non grata and sent home. This individual has lost any credibility he may have had as a representative of his country. He’s a hypocrite because if a Palestinian with a knife approached him on a Jerusalem street and attempted to
inflict bodily harm, would he really say, “Give it to me in the gut because my proud Danish standards call for me to accept your antipathy toward Europeans and non-Muslims?”

Show of Support

As a staunch practicing Christian, I believe that the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center (“Israeli NGO Blows Whistle,” Jan. 9) is correct legally and morally in its allegations against  the Presbyterian alliance, and I hope the Church reverses its positions regarding Israel and its peoples.

Plagued by the Plagues

This week’s Torah portion  has always troubled me. The plagues, with their collective punishment caused by the sins of Pharaoh, always seemed unnecessarily cruel to the Egyptian people. Perhaps some of the Egyptians were complicit in Pharaoh’s enslavement scheme, but we can assume that the ordinary people were not. It is they who suffered the most from the plagues that upset the natural order and ruined their water, their crops, their skin, their general comfort and well-being.

These days, when we retell the story of the Exodus at our Passover Seder, our treatment of the plagues often ignores their seriousness. We sing silly songs about frogs in Pharaoh’s bed to entertain the children, and many use props and toys to imitate the strange use of natural phenomena for supernatural punishment. We are not the first to make light of the plagues, especially the plague of frogs. They are strange looking creatures and seem to invite levity.

Exodus 8:2 reads: “Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.” There is a problem, however, with this translation. In the Hebrew text, the word for frog is in the singular: hatzfardeia, not the plural  hatzfardiim, as is used for the rest of the narrative. It literally says, “The  frog  came up and covered the land
of Egypt.”

Our sages found meaning in every variation in the text and did not ignore this one. Rabbi Akiva commented, “There was one frog, and it filled all the land of Egypt.” Imagine one giant, Godzilla-like frog, coming up out of the water and filling the entire land! Even though he lived at a time when people believed in dragons and sea monsters and mythological creatures, Akiva clearly saw the humor in his literal interpretation of the singular noun. Perhaps at the same time he was
suggesting that while the Egyptian magicians could also create frogs, only God could create this enormous monster,  the Frog that Covered Egypt!

Kidding aside, the plagues are still problematic. As we examine the story of the plagues, we come to my other major difficulty with this  parshah: the repeated assertion that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God announces this intention before Moses even goes to Pharaoh, saying to Moses, “You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Eternal, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.”

Each plague brings more suffering, and every time we see Pharaoh about to give in and let the Israelites go, he changes his mind, ostensibly as God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” and prevents him from exercising whatever kernel of mercy he may have had inside of him. One cannot help but ask why: Why more plagues? Why not let Pharaoh relent early and avoid more suffering for the people? The reason stated in the text is so that God’s power may be known to the Egyptians.

The rabbis taught that Pharaoh was so wicked that he needed greater demonstrations of God’s power before he understood the consequences. After the plague of frogs, Pharaoh indicated to Moses and Aaron that if the plague was lifted he would let the people go. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn (literally, ‘he hardened his heart’) and would not heed them, as the Eternal had spoken” (Exodus 8:11). The Midrash tells us: “This is the way of the wicked: when they are in trouble, they affect humility; but as soon as they have respite, they return to their perversity.”

This interpretation assumes that Pharaoh acted with free will, that he made his own decisions to continue the enslavement. But God told Moses from the beginning that divine power would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Can we hold Pharaoh responsible for refusing to let the people go if God caused him to act that way? Far be it from me to defend Pharaoh, but he is in an impossible situation. He is
destined to play out this drama and pay an enormous price for his stubbornness.

We read this epic story of our liberation and we are left with gnawing questions. It would be much easier to tell the story in black and white, with clear good guys and bad guys, and no ambivalence. If God was going to liberate the Israelites with “signs and marvels,” did it have to be at the expense of others? The “extraordinary chastisements” fell upon the innocent Egyptians as well as the guilty. We can rationalize that they were all paying the price for benefiting from centuries of slavery, or we can simply accept that our present-day ideas of fairness may not work in hindsight. There are no easy answers. Every good story has layers of meaning. The questions and the struggle are all part of the process of wrestling with our sacred text.

Unconditional Support for GW’s Steiner

Since December, emails from The George Washington University flood my inbox. Most of them I disregard, knowing they are reminders to evaluate my professors from the past semester’s courses. All my professors are listed there — history, political science, economics and statistics; however, the best teacher of the semester is absent from the list.

In my three-and-a-half years at GW, Rabbi Yudi Steiner’s role in my development as a person can neither be quantified nor equaled (“Rabbis Face Off,” Dec. 19). As I reflect on my college career, I regret some decisions I made. There were people, classes and organizations I invested time and energy in with little return. My investment in Chabad GW and the Steiner family not only proved worthwhile, but also will continue to pay dividends far after my college experience.

Growing up in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore and graduating from a Jewish day school I hoped to broaden my horizon in college and finally escape the ever-present “Jewish bubble.” This plan seemed doomed from the start, as I instantly felt comfortable and connected with Rabbi Steiner.

Routinely attending Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations, I found my niche in GW’s Jewish community, but it wasn’t until Passover that I began to understand Chabad and Rabbi Steiner. I went to his apartment to ask where to buy kosher-for-Passover food and heard the following conversation between Rabbi Steiner and another student:

Student: “Last year, I broke Passover after the second day. It’s just not what I do.”

Rabbi Steiner: “Wow! Two days! That’s amazing; maybe this year you can keep it for a third day.”

Initially, I chuckled. Only later did I realize the significance and importance of his comment. Rabbi Steiner does not judge people based on their religious observance but strives to help and guide them along their own personal journey.

Because of him, I have wrapped tefillah every day since this past Sept. 2 and plan to continue after graduation. A court order may be able to separate Rabbi Steiner from GW, but it will never be able to separate GW students from Rabbi Steiner. He has built a home at GW for us, taught us, mentored us and inspired us. His family is our family, and the students of GW will support him unconditionally in any and every way. He has been there for us, and now we have an opportunity and an obligation to be there for him.

Was Gross Release Worth It for U.S.?

While I, along with many others, welcome the release of Alan Gross after his unjust imprisonment in Cuba (“Welcome Home, Alan Gross,” Dec. 26), I feel that the price was too high. The United States has exchanged an innocent man for several convicted terrorists and, in addition, agreed to resume diplomatic relations with a terrorist state, which has attempted to overthrow Latin American governments that are our friends and allies. For lessening of sanctions, freeing of terrorists and resumption of diplomatic relations, the U.S. has obtained the release of one innocent man. Is this a fair exchange?

Guilford’s Fear: Islam

I believe that the Guilford community’s holiday tree has nothing to do with anti-Semitism (“Right to Light Denied,” Dec. 19). In accordance with its constitution, were it a Christmas tree, every religion would wish to install its version of religious observance. I believe it’s an attempt to prohibit inclusion of the crescent moon and star and not anti-Semitism. These are wondrous times in which we live, as we watch our forbears’ good intentions being dismantled.

Not So Surprising

In light of the current levels of anti-Semitism in the world, the decision by Guilford’s neighborhood association not to allow the display of a menorah is much ado about nothing (“Right to Light Denied,” Dec. 19). Guilford was one of those communities that prior to equal housing laws had a prohibition against Jews and blacks in its real estate covenants. It’s amazing that Jews actually live in Guilford and Roland Park because of both neighborhoods’ historic record of anti-Semitism.

A Tradition Is Born

I was upset to read that the Guilford Association denied a menorah display alongside its holiday tree (“Right to Light Denied,” Dec. 19). Shame on this refusal! For eons, Christmas trees have represented the non-Jewish faiths and was never a “Jewish” thing.

I live in a condominium in Hunt Valley, and every year a large Christmas tree is in our lobby. Many other Christmas holiday decorations are also displayed. One small menorah is on view. This year, I spoke to Jewish and non-Jewish residents asking if they would like a display of many menorahs, and all agreed. On the first night of Chanukah, many of us brought our menorahs to our Great Room, and all were lit at sundown while the prayer was said.

What a sight it was with the candle lights in front of the Christmas tree. Some brought latkes, cookies and candy, and all said that this new tradition will continue from year to year. It warmed my heart.