The following op/ed appeared in The Forward on July 2, 2018.
By David A. Lehrer, Rob Eshman, Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Rabbi Laura Geller*
July 2, 2018
The immediate crisis involving the separation of children from their parents at our Southern border seems to be receding. On June 26, a federal judge in California ordered that the policy of family separation be discontinued and that all separated families must be reunited.
What will not recede as quickly is the memory of how countless leaders and organizations responded to this callous display of inhumanity. What did people say and do when the president of the United States ordered agents of the state to separate mothers from their children and place those kids — some, mere toddlers — in cages where they were denied basic human needs (touching, warmth, consoling) that could cause permanent impairment?
Many Jewish organizations and leaders spoke out, organized demonstrations, showed up at detention centers and supported those organizations working to help reunite families. But some significant Jewish organizations and leaders didn’t show up, and their silence was deafening.
Two of these organizations are located in Los Angeles: The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Both these visible, high budget organizations were sadly missing in action in the crisis that human relations, tolerance and decency just endured.
The Jewish Federation, which once had a vital community relations arm (long since abandoned), has been mute on the issue of what Trump’s policies signify. What most see as the “official” arm of the Los Angeles Jewish community chose to remain silent about the human crisis.
According to Federation leadership, a “process” needed to be followed before a statement could be issued. Whatever that process might have been resulted in the Federation missing the opportunity to speak publicly in response to this grotesque emergency.
Not that many years ago, the Federation managed to take stands on tough issues from busing to affirmative action —- the issue of incarcerating little kids is not a tough one. To hope that a crisis will blow over is not a good strategy for dealing with matters of such transcendent importance.
If the tables had been turned, and it was the Federation or the Jewish community or Israel under attack, Jewish community leadership would not be pleased when the search for allies is met with silence or inertia in the unspoken hope that the trauma will pass, and an accounting avoided.
An equally troubling response was the Simon Wiesenthal’s Center’s press release on the border crisis.
It was only on June 19, days into the crisis, that the Center’s rabbinic leadership chose to speak up about what was happening on our borders. The Center condemned the government’s actions as “unacceptable.” Not only is “unacceptable” a rather mild rebuke (a bad wine is “unacceptable”) the statement focused less on Trump’s “nativism, demagoguery and capricious cruelty” than on the criticism of critics of the president’s policies. The condemnation of this low point in American political morality was almost a perfunctory sidebar and in stark contrast to numerous Los Angeles clergy who not only voiced their deep concerns but chose to be arrested when Attorney General Sessions came to town.
In a move sure to please the Trump administration and in a bizarre twist to what taking a moral stand demands, Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abe Cooper focused their ire on those who dared to mention the Holocaust as a reminder of what Trump’s policies could lead to. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and others were “denounce[d]” for their “sickening and immoral misappropriation of the Nazi Holocaust.” They weren’t just “unacceptable,” they were “sickening and immoral.”
Neither Hayden nor Scarborough were saying that the federal government was committing a Holocaust; rather they noted that when our country is employing tactics previously utilized by the Nazis, that should be unacceptable to every American. We would add: and doubly so to every Jew.
In stark contrast, we are grateful to the Anti-Defamation League for its powerful video of Hidden Children of the Holocaust which discussed the decades-long impact of children being torn away from their parents. Would the Wiesenthal Center rabbis critique this as Holocaust “misappropriation” and “sickening and immoral”?
Silence, or equivocation, in the face of political outrages and immoral conduct ignores the most basic of the Holocaust’s lessons — the obligation to speak up, to stand up, to show up, when bigotry and hateful actions arise — even at its earliest stages.
The separation of families at our borders tested the conscience and humanity of the American people; thankfully, most Americans passed and forced a change in this barbaric practice; many Jewish organizations and leaders did as well.
Sadly, some did not answer the call — clearly placing other values ahead of a core Jewish tenet (“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”) of treating others with the respect and dignity that we ourselves would want to be accorded.
We are concerned that even with the recent decision to stop separating children from their parents at our border, much still needs to be resolved — including returning those children who have been separated from their parents to those parents (the administration has no plans to make that happen).
We expect that all our leaders, including those in the Jewish community, will stand up for and speak out for what tradition (and most especially Jewish tradition and history) requires; to do what is right and just… and compassionate.
*David Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. a Los Angeles based human relations organization. He was counsel and regional director of the ADL for 27 years. Rob Eshman is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Janice Kamenir-Reznik is an attorney and community activist in Los Angeles. Laura Geller is the rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.