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Un-American?

There is a great Superman poster from the 1950s in which the Man of Steel tells a group of school children that it is Un-American to denigrate someone because of their race, ethnicity or national origin.

I thought about that poster -- and what it means to be an American -- a lot during a mind-bending 24 hours last week.

Last Thursday, Cantor Ellen and I had the honor of taking part in a very unusual memorial at Libby’s Funeral Home. Libby’s had been holding the cremated remains of four veterans who had died at the VA hospital at Castle Point in 1979. The remains had sat unclaimed for 40 years, and they were finally laid to rest in a ceremony that honored their service.

At the ceremony, I shared the remarks of Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, the first Jewish Marine Corps chaplain, when he dedicated the military cemetery at Iwo Jima.

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, blacks and whites, rich men and poor . . . together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color....

Whosoever of us ... thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of all men - Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and black men alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price ..."

Though I lament that Rabbi Gittelsohn overlooks the role and commitment of women in our national history, I fully embrace his sentiment. However, not everyone does.

The same day that we were honoring these men, one Jewish, one Protestant, one Catholic and one of unknown religion for their service in the United States Armed Services, a member of our community let me know that somebody was traveling up and down Main Street in Beacon putting up posters with a very different understanding of what it is to be American.

These posters from a neo-fascist organization calls upon us to “Keep America American” and to call the Department of Homeland Security to report “any and all illegal aliens - they are criminals.” The organization which printed these posters claims that “"An African, for example, may have lived, worked, and even been classed as a citizen in America for centuries, yet he is not American. He is, as he likely prefers to be labelled, an African in America. The same rule applies to others who are not of the founding stock of our people....”

There have always been two visions of what America is.

One vision, articulated by Donald Trump and others, holds that America is fundamentally a country for European men and that others really have no place here. It should be of particular interest to us that, as Peter Beinart and Eric Ward have pointed out, nativist thinkers commonly explain that Latinos and Blacks are inferior races and yet pose a threat to real Americans because they are controlled and manipulated by -- you guessed it -- us, the Jews.

The other vision, articulated by Rabbi Gittelsohn says that we are a nation of immigrants, bound together by the best principles and laws of the Constitution and we are made stronger by our diversity. Our Jewish ancestors and in many cases, we ourselves, came to America based on this promise.

In this week's Torah reading, the Israelites defeat the Amalekites who had attacked them, after which the Holy One says the name of the evildoers shall be blotted out forever. So too may we work for and soon see a day when the evil of nativism is utterly wiped out, and the inclusive vision of our country, which recognizes the Divine presence in every human being,  prevails. 

 

Wed, June 26 2019 23 Sivan 5779