We Were Strangers, Once

April 15, 2014
We're all in this together, after all.

We’re all in this together, after all.

Passover preparation this year was interrupted by horrible news: on Sunday, April 13, three people were murdered just outside Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. From the news reports, it seems likely that a notorious anti-Semite chose that day to terrorize Jews.  Children were terrified. Three innocent lives were taken.

Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.

We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.

I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.

And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”

There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.

Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?”  “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.

We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.

We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.

I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.

Image: By Koshy Koshy, Some rights reserved.

This post originally appeared on kol isha, the blog of the Rabbinic Women’s Network.

 

 

 

 


Never Forget – But Do More Than Remember!

February 19, 2013
Ester och Ahasverus i Vänge kyrka

Scroll of Esther (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Esther 3:1  After these things, Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and elevated him, and set his seat above all the nobels that were with him.

The Book of Esther doesn’t say why Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the bad guy of the story. What the book does say is that he was the son of an Agagite, which provides a link back to Israel’s Biblical enemy, Amalek.

Agag, the king of Amalek, appears first in the blessing of Balaam (Numbers 24:7) but he comes up again and again, finally to war again with Israel and be killed off by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15.  Amalek was an enemy we first encountered in the wilderness, where that nation preyed upon the stragglers on the margins of the camp (Exodus 17: 8-10). At the end of that chapter, God says to Moses:

Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

This verse makes a puzzle:  how can we memorialize Amalek, rehearse the story of Amalek, but utterly blot out remembrance of Amalek?

First, and simplest, this is why we boo and make the groggers roar at the name of Haman. We are “blotting out” his name.

But more importantly, this is a warning about all the enemies to come in Jewish history as it unfolds, whether it is Rome, or Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, or Hitler.  On the one hand: don’t forget. And on the other hand: don’t give these guys too much attention. Don’t reduce Judaism to ONLY remembering.

Purim reminds us that as long as we are here to celebrate it, Amalek has not prevailed.  So yes, we remember all the stories from the bad old days, but also we live vital lives of Torah in the here and now.  The Holocaust is important to remember, but it is also important not to make it the sum total of our identity as Jews. We are more than what has been done to us.

I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

 

 


jonathan lace

theologian | musician | developer

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