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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

With Pesach just about a week away, we are all immersed to one degree or another with our personal Pesach prep. For those of us who have the bandwidth, we might be reaching out either physically or financially to help other Jews with their Pesach prep. However, after reading an op-ed (Blog #1) by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg that has nothing to do with Pesach, I realized that we need to broaden our horizons. The op-ed discusses Muslim Uighurs in China who at this very moment, are being subjected to terrible slavery and genocide. These are two topics that we as Jews are unfortunately intimately familiar with, starting with our ancestor’s Egyptian experience and culminating with the Holocaust. Therefore, it behooves us to at the very least, speak out against these atrocities.

In Blog #2, David Weinberg wonders if after "cancelling" literary, musical, artistic, and theatrical classics one after another, will the Bible be next? And, what should be a response to the attempt to cancel so many classic parts of our American culture? 

     

Blog #1: 

[Ed. note: This expanded version of the editorial was printed in Cross-Currents, the original first appeared in the Intermountain Jewish News]

Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, on his last day in office, declared China’s persecution of the Muslim Uighurs a genocide.

Joe Biden, president of the US, did not reverse the declaration.

Now what?

The information leaking out of China follows the pattern of obfuscation, denial and euphemism that has characterized initial information about genocides of the past century. We have learned to see through terms like “Final solution” and “Deportation.” China’s term is Stalin’s favorite, “re-education.”

More Chinese terminology is straight out of Stalin: Uighurs forced laborers are “happy because they have the opportunity to earn a living.” Female Uighurs, whom the Chinese forcibly sterilized, are “celebrating their liberation.”

Like the Chinese euphemisms, the conditions of the Uighurs are intentionally veiled by China. As best as we can tell, China is intent on destroying the Uighurs as a Muslim religious group via murder, rape, forced sterilization, forced labor, torture and family separation.

Public outcry — if sustained — can make a difference.

Public outcry — if sustained — is where the world can come in.

Public outcry — if sustained — is where the American Jewish community must come in.

Public outcry — if sustained — is the only way not to repeat the Nazi-era indifference that played a major and painful role in the deaths of millions of Jews.

An occasional press release cannot make a difference.

When it comes to the American Jewish community, we are aware of, at best, an occasional objection to one of the most heinous, governmental persecutions in the world today.

We, as a “genocided people”, have a special obligation to make sure it never happens again.

Yet, it is.

Not, of course, that it is only non-governmental organizations that need to make a difference. How will the Biden administration follow up on its acceptance of the Pompeo declaration? On Joe Biden’s first telephone call with Xi Jinping, the leader of China, Biden didn’t bring up the topic. Not a good sign.

George Shultz, with respect to the Soviet persecution of Soviet Jews in the 1980s, brought up the topic again and again and again — every single time he met with Soviet leaders. He annoyed them. He pressured them. He showed them that Soviet persecution mattered to him, mattered enough to motivate him to go beyond lip service.

The Biden administration needs to decide whether it merely wants to go on record against genocide in China, or whether it really wants to do what it takes to make China stop it.

Note: The word “genocide” can be a trap. “Genocide” is carefully defined in law. Just because an evil does not fit the legal definition of genocide does not mean that the evil may be ignored. It is an immorality of its own to get hung up on whether a given persecution meets the technical criteria of “genocide” and thereby refrain from taking action against the likes of China’s persecution of the Uighurs. The fact that insufficient information is made available by China should tilt the scales in assuming that it is committing genocide. But if not, China remains engaged in, and is covering up, an evil campaign against a nation of one million or more people.

Chinese policies against Uighurs are so extreme that Uighurs outside China cannot even substantiate whether their relatives inside China are alive or dead.

It is time for the expression of American Jewish outrage.

British Jews have launched a public outcry.

So should we.

“Thou shall not murder” (Exodus 20:12) ought to suffice as reason enough to protest these atrocities. Halakhic Judaism condemns all murder of innocents.

Maimonides, for one, indicates that saving a non-Jew’s life is equal to saving a Jew’s. When codifying that saving a life is analogous to saving the entire world (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12:3), he changes the language of the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) from “one Jew” to “one person.” He invokes mipnei darkhei shalom (social civility) as the basis on which Jews are enjoined to visit non-Jews who are ill and provide for non-Jews who are impoverished. 

It is not a leap to suggest Maimonides would advocate for protests of genocide against non-Jews as well.

Widespread British Jewish outrage against China’s outrages against the Uighurs is reported in this week’s IJN. Surely, Jewish morality is not subject to division by an ocean. Surely, the offenses in China are not subject to geographical relativism.

Evidence of the Chinese destruction of the Uighur nation is provided by China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in an ironic, telling way.

Jiechi speaks of foreign attempts to pressure China to change its genocidal policy against the Uighurs exactly as perpetrators of earlier genocides have spoken. Listening to Jiechi, one hears, in tone and content, the voice of the most despicable specimens of humanity going all the way back to the Ottoman Empire’s Taalat Pasha, one of the prosecutors of the Armenian genocide. Jiechi, warned foreign nations against China’s policy regarding Hong Kong and the Uighurs: “They constitute a red line which must not be crossed.”

For Jiechi, there is nothing to be discussed, disclosed or negotiated. The only option for the Biden administration is to stand up against this in word and deed. Those who engage in “final solutions” of their own are not given to reason.

For years, the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League shamefully denied that the Armenian genocide took place. The national Jewish objectors to Holocaust denial engaged in genocide denial. We expect these leading American Jewish organizations not to take the many years it took them to acknowledge the Armenian genocide in order to speak loudly against China’s persecution of the Uighurs.

We expect the same of the Jewish Federations of North America.

We expect the same of the Union of Reform Judaism and the Orthodox Union.

We expect the same of all major American Jewish voices, however politically divided they might otherwise be.

It is not enough to bemoan the Holocaust and the indifference to the death of six million Jews. From the point of view of historical truth, it is critical to point out the uniqueness of the Holocaust. But from the point of view of present policy against a contemporary genocide such as the one in China today, it is an immorality of its own to debate whether China’s evil rises to the Nazi level. This is a diversion. This is a perversion of Holocaust remembrance. The persecution of an entire people is a violation of every Jewish and humane standard of morality, requiring vocal objection, blinding sunlight, and sustained interference by all people and governments of conscience.

The early 1970s saw Cambodia.

1988 saw the Iraqi Kurds.

1994 saw Rwanda.

2004 saw Darfur.

Years in between saw Bosnians and Yazidis and others.

Do we want to be known as the years of the Uighurs?

As if this were not enough, no one has yet labeled Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya as a genocide. Do not fall into the genocide trap. Whatever it is labeled, mass persecution, wherever and by whomever, requires repeated pressure, repeated expression of abhorrence, repeated objection, repeated attention — and repeated counteraction.

Silence is sin.

 

Blog #2: 

In the following op-ed originally printed in Israel Hayom, David Weinberg wonders whether the Bible will be the next victim of cancel culture. He says:

After all, isn't there slavery in the Bible, alongside discrimination against women, the handicapped, and non-Jews? Isn't there intolerance of gender-fluid identities and racism regarding certain nations? The Bible even calls for genocide against the seven Canaanite nations, and Amalek!

On the surface, these accusations seem to be correct. However, for those of us who believe in the Oral Torah, these damming interpretations are not necessarily correct. Only when one has the whole picture i.e., both the written AND oral traditions can one begin to understand what the Bible is teaching us.  

Weinberg goes on to describe the chilling effect that cancel culture has had on freedom of speech in our society and examines some of its seemingly innocent victims. This is what happens when there’s no room for differing perspectives and alternative interpretations.  

However, as Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy have written in their book “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People”, we are today living in a Western version of "fear society"; where pressure to conform does not come from the totalitarian top (as was the case in the Stalinist Soviet Union) but from the fanatics around us – on campus, at work, and in the media – who bully people into silence or into politically-correct compliance. 

How else to explain the rash of book banning and movie cancellation of late?

First, they came for Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's books on Babar the Elephant, which were deemed as "celebrations of colonialism" because the title character leaves the jungle and later returns to "civilize" his fellow animals. 

Is this the only way to understand the book? When reading this book to my children I never ever saw it that way and neither did my children. Nor do they see it that way now when reading the book to their children. 

Then they came for H. A. Rey's Curious George books, targeted for cancellation because the premise of a white man (with a yellow hat!) bringing home a monkey from Africa was said to be demeaning to Africans and especially African Americans. 

Is this the only way to understand these books? When my mother used to read these books to me, I never saw them that way. And as a father, when reading these books to my children I never ever saw them that way and neither do my children who now read these books to their children. 

Then they came for children's movies, leading Disney Plus to pull Peter Pan, Dumbo, Aristocats, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and Swiss Family Robinson from its offerings for children under seven. Disney labelled these as movies that contain "stereotypes and negative depictions of people or cultures" that could corrupt the souls of young people. (PBS also has put "sensitivity warnings" on Sesame's Muppets). 

Once again, is the only way to see these characters have to be in a negative light?   Here are the reasons given to support labeling these movies as problematic. 

In Dumbo, the crows allegedly "pay homage to racist minstrel shows." Peter Pan supposedly "portrays Native people in a stereotypical manner that reflects neither the diversity of Native peoples nor their authentic cultural traditions. Peter and the Lost Boys engage in dancing, wearing headdresses and other exaggerated tropes."

In Swiss Family Robinson the pirates who antagonize the Robinson family are portrayed as a stereotypical foreign menace. "Many appear in yellow face or brown face and are costumed in an exaggerated and inaccurate manner with top knot hairstyles, queues, robes and overdone facial make-up and jewelry, reinforcing their barbarism and otherness."

I don’t know about you but my children, grandchildren and I love these movies and haven’t been adversely influenced by them. 

Then they came for Mr. Potato Head, and forced Hasboro to make the doll gender neutral. It is amazing how the woke are worried about the sex of a plastic potato!

Then they came for Dr. Seuss, including his iconic books And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo and McElligot's Pool – because of "racist and insensitive imagery." What is "insensitive" here? An Asian person wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl, and a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

An "academic" journal published "The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books." Theodor Seuss Geisel was accused posthumously of "racial transgressions across his entire publishing career." 

Once again – I don’t see it that way.

Undoubtedly next on the guillotine will be Berenstein Bears. Why? Well, here is a famous (and certainly-offensive-to-the-woke) paragraph from this beloved series of books by Stan and Jan Berenstain: "I'm a father. I'm a he. A father's something you could be. I'm a mother. I'm a she. A mother's something you could be." Such horrible gender stereotyping. Burn all the Berenstein Bear books!

The problem here is not the cultural effort to diversify children's book characters and their creators. The problem is the "cancellation" of well-meaning works out of an uncritical and violent embrace of "critical race theory." It's one thing to take a few truly bad books off the shelves. It's another thing all-together to see racism and "gender-backwardness" everywhere and try to impose a new "woke" ideological straitjacket on society.

Indeed, New York State Senator Samra Brouk of Rochester seeks to introduce a state-imposed curriculum that will teach kindergarteners about "gender fluidity."

The legislation would teach eight-year-olds that there are multiple, fluid gender choices. They would also be instructed about the opportunity to receive hormone blockers that would allow little children to avoid having the "wrong puberty." Children as young as 11 would learn about different kinds of sex, and about "queer, two-spirit, asexual, and pansexual identities."

Higher grades would be fed more overtly political lessons, such as the need to lend support to every possible "family configuration." The curriculum also clearly condemns religious believers and others who hold fast to traditional morality, including sexual abstinence before marriage. 

Writing in Seussian verse in The National Post of Canada, John Robson warns of the curse at hand: "There is nothing, no nothing, that (the woke) find in the past, That they won't burn to ash with a self-righteous blast.

"When they're done with their work then a wasteland you'll see, Not a book will be standing, and not a movie.
There are some who once thought they could gain from PC, It will strike down my foes but it won't target me.
Sadly now it is clear that its rage knows no bounds, And upon its old friends it will set its hell-hounds…

"I'm no racist, no hater, but this I decree, Others too had their faults but all's not well with me.
So please fix what you can and repent what you can't, But don't ever let loose with a paranoid rant.
That the past was a plot and that all things were wrong, Until history ended and you came along.
Thus to Seuss at the close of this poem I return, And I say with conviction his books must not burn."