Even after President-elect Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon – the former head of Breitbart and an enabler of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other prejudices – as his chief strategist, some of our largest Jewish organizations remained silent about the hate that is being welcomed into the White House.
In their absence, Jewish activists around the country are leading our communities from the streets and standing up for ourselves and other minorities in line with Judaism’s ancient injunction: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
The Talmud tells of three rabbis – Yehudah, Yose, and Shimon – who met in the second century to discuss the fate of the Jewish community after it had been devastated by the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah suggested a conciliatory approach. Rabbi Yose was silent. Only Rabbi Shimon, who had watched as the Romans brutally executed his teacher Akiva, called out the Romans for their cruelty, materialism, and selfishness. Rabbi Shimon was reported to the Romans, who sentenced him to death. He escaped and went into hiding to preserve our tradition (Shabbat 33b).
Today, we are faced once again with a choice about how to respond to oppression and injustice. The Talmud leaves little doubt that Rabbi Shimon’s decision to speak out was the moral one, but many of our institutions have still opted for Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose’s passivity. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP), among others, have refused to explicitly condemn Trump or Bannon.
As head of Breitbart, Bannon turned the news site into the platform of the “alt-right,” facilitating threats against Muslims, conspiracies about Jews, discrimination against people of color, and hatred against women. When criticized for not taking a stance on Bannon, AJC spoke proudly of its commitment to “centrism.”
Centrism means respecting a wide variety of opinions; it does not mean refusing to condemn bigotry.
Institutions like AJC have made the mistake of thinking that moderation — or a warped idea of centrism — is a value in and of itself. Our ancestors did not deny that there is a time to be moderate: the Talmud records numerous times that caution and temperance brought about the best outcome. The rabbis also asserted, though, that certain situations demand moral clarity. In the Mishnah, they wrote, “Do not associate with a wicked man” (Avot 1:7). They did not follow up with a list of extenuating circumstances in which it makes sense to cooperate with evil. They did not advocate for centrism in the face of injustice. Their message was simple: the only response to cruelty — the only response that preserves the integrity of Judaism — is Rabbi Shimon’s.
That is why last week, IfNotNow led 1,500 Jews in the streets across four cities to demand that Trump fire Bannon and to call on our institutions to stand with us. Our voices have joined with Jewish rabbis and organizations across the country – JFREJ, the Anti-Defamation League, and T’ruah, among others – that have condemned Trump and Bannon and pledged solidarity with marginalized Americans. It is now incumbent upon our community – 76 percent of which voted against Trump – to get our other institutions to follow suit.
This Wednesday, we are organizing a national day of Jewish Resistance. As part of grassroots demonstrations in more than a dozen cities, thousands of Jews will continue to demand that Trump remove Bannon from the White House. At the same time, we will keep sending a message to the leaders and institutions that claim to represent us: stand up for us and our allies or step aside.
Only a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur, synagogues across the country read the words of Isaiah: “Let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6). Let us show LGBTQ folk, people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and our fellow Jews that we meant it.
The choice is simple. Will our institutions continue to be silent in the face of a white supremacy that threatens everyone, or will they stand up for freedom and dignity for all?
Aron Wander is a member of IfNotNow. He lives in New York City where he works as a political consultant, volunteers with PASSNYC, and blogs about Judaism with his roommate at Unconservative.