As American life becomes darker for many, as hatred, bigotry, and anger gains an historic foothold in public discourse and public interactions, we gathered – more than 550 Reform Jewish rabbis – seeking to comprehend this moment in history. At the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Atlanta, we discovered once again that the lessons of the past often offer insight into the present. Perhaps, as the teaching goes, this insight can help point the way for us into the uncertain future.
Thus we listened with rapt attention as one of this generations great prophets, Joseph J. Levin Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, gave us a peek into the background of some of the extremism and hatred that has claimed a place in American life. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the great watchtower of American life, based in Montgomery, Georgia, speaks truth to power, shining a light into the darkness.
Mr. Levin, a nice Jewish boy, told us his back story: about how as the grandchild of immigrants who fled the czar’s ethnic cleansing nationalistic movement, he was a young man who struggled through an American life buffeted by the winds of racial bias and bigotry. It was a time of poisonous hatred when the Ku Klux Klan was active and burning crosses, and when Jews had to have their separate country clubs. Back then the ideal of purity and separation of the races permeated so much of American southern life; it found the voice among the predecessors of today’s alt-right, white supremacist groups. Back then, “states rights” was the acceptable code word for those who wanted to pursue anti-federal segregationist policies.
Mr. Levin reminded us that bigotry and hate, even the ascendent anti-Semitism of today, that we thought had been relegated to the far edges of American life, grow out of the olden days of his upbringing. He drew lines between the toolkit of the Jim Crow era and the overt bigotry in today’s discourse.
We shook our heads in disbelief as he recounted recent public statements of today’s hate groups, easily located through links on the SPLC’s website, which might have well have come from yesterday’s racist hate groups. We shook our heads in agreement as he urged us to consider that questions about whether this national leader or that might actually be a racist is not the point. Rather he suggested, such discussions serve only hide the deeper, more dangerous problem: that the hatred of today being articulated today, publicly and openly, is eroding the pluralistic, all embracing, open society that Jewish values imagine and which should characterize America life.
The nechemta (the solace and hope) came in the firm of a rousing combines chorale concert of singers from the Temple and the Ebenezer Church, whose integrated singing and music reminded us that when good people reach out and work together, the harmony and melody are sweet, healing and hopeful.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.