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Temple Beth El

Offering Conservative Jewish worship since 1935

83 Chestnut Street/POBox 383
Oneonta, NY 13820
Phone: (607) 432-5522

President’s Yom HaShoah Address

May 1, 2019

In Israel, at 10:00 am on Yom Hashoah, Israelis anticipate the sirens. Across the country, from Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanon border to Eilat at the Red Sea, the somber day of remembrance is marked by the wailing of sirens. Businesses, schools, and the daily routines of an entire nation stop. For two minutes, wherever they are, on farms or highways, Israelis stand in silence to remember the 6 million. In the US, we have no sirens on Holocaust Remembrance Day, but we need them. Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic hate crimes seem to have become routine features of American life. And hate crime statistics have soared. As we all know, this is not only an American problem.

The resurgence of Nazi parties in Europe is frightening. In Greece, the neo-Nazi party is third in opinion polls. In France, Jews endure the worst anti-Semitism since WWII. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has won key posts in government. In Hungary, the popular Prime Minister Viktor Orban has ridiculed Hungarian-born, Jewish billionaire George Soros while encouraging far-right extremists to thrive. In Germany, nearly 40 percent of the population reported having anti-Semitic viewpoints while attacks against Jews rose by 60%. In Poland, an article titled How to Spot a Jew was front page news. In England, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stokes anti-Semitism in his own party.

This problem continues in America. Just days ago, at Chabad in San Diego, a shooter killed one person and injured three others. Almog Peretz, an Israeli was shot while helping save his niece, Noya Dahan, and several other children. Almog and his niece live in Los Angeles. They were just visiting San Diego for the weekend. I know this because Almog and Noya are friends of my daughter, Aliya. They often spend Shabbat together in LA. In fact, Aliya was planning to join them for Shabbat in San Diego, but cancelled at the last minute. We spoke with her after Shabbat, but had no easy answer when she asked us why this is happening. It feels like attacks against America’s Jews are creeping closer to all of us- because White nationalism is brewing and strengthening. If we have learned anything from history, it is that we cannot be silent and we cannot rely on others to do the right thing.

In December, I was told by a Temple Beth El member about anti-Semitic graffiti on a building in Oneonta, so I went to look. She was right, spray painted near the rear entrance to the building was a 2 foot by 2 foot Jewish star with a 666 painted above it, the number representing the devil.  I took photos before going inside and introducing myself as Temple Beth El’s president to the director of the organization that owns the building. I informed him of the complaint and showed him a photo. He expressed shock and embarrassment and pledged to take care of it right away. When I went back two weeks later, the graffiti was still there. I contacted law enforcement and they responded immediately. I asked that they file a report, and they did. The commanding officer I spoke to was not nearly as concerned as the director of the agency, (the one who failed to deal with the graffiti), and he seemed unconvinced that 666 drawn beside a Jewish star was a problem. He suggested the graffiti might not have anything to with Jewish people. I told him that regardless of his opinion, it is disturbing, it warrants a police response, and needs to be reported. I was so surprised by the series of events in this story that I shared them with the mayor of the City of Oneonta. Mayor Herzig assured me that it would be resolved quickly – and it was.

This local story concerns a relatively minor incident, but it still demands that we ask: What is going on? Neo-Nazis marching with torches are not our greatest threat. The silence of the masses and the passive behavior of people in positions of power are more serious concerns. When agency directors and commanding officers fail to take anti-Semitism seriously, it is a problem. Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust scholar and Emory University law professor, just published a book titled Antisemitism: Here and Now. In it, she coins the term“anti-Semitic enabler.” This term describes leaders and politicians who fail to call out anti-Semitism, particularly neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Lipstadt states that the act of enabling is itself an anti-Semitic act, and it causes as much damage as something that comes from an ideological anti-Semite. Leaders at every level, from the director of a local agency and a commanding officer to elected representatives of local, state, and federal government, all must be held responsible when hate crimes occur. Any response that fails to be clear and decisive must not be tolerated.

American anti-Semitism has for the past several years flourished, and each year it has become more invasive, toxic, and destructive. As we gather tonight for Yom HaShoah, we join millions of our fellow Jews around the world to remember the 6 million and to be reminded of the important lesson our people have learned too many times: When it comes to our safety, the Jewish people cannot rely on others. Unlike Israel, America has no sirens to remind us. For that reason, we must be the sirens. We must signal the warning that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated especially when “anti-Semitic enablers” fail to behave ethically. It is heartbreaking that in synagogues around the world, today’s Yom HaShoah speeches will sound a similar alarm. On a day a to remember the six million heroes and martyrs in Europe, American Jews are forced to talk about White nationalism, a movement that mirrors the rise and normalization of hate in Germany in the 1930s. Whether in Pittsburgh, San Diego, Borough Park, or Oneonta, anti-Semitism is alive.

As we remember the six million, let us be mindful of the present. We are now tasting the bitterness of anti-Semitism which was familiar to our grandparents, but never to us. It is a reminder that we will Never Forget and the People of Israel will never be destroyed.