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Tehillah in the World Initiatives

Dvar Presented Friday, March 1
by Jay Stanton, Rabbinic Intern

May 17th, 1924. The Klavern, a weeklong festival of white protestant supremacy, sponsored by the revitalized, expanded KKK hate group, was scheduled to begin in South Bend, Indiana. In the 1920s, Indiana was the center of the new Klan, which, in addition to hating Black people, also hated Catholics, Jews, immigrants, American Indians, and others who didn’t fit the very narrow mold of whom the Klan considered to be fully human. At the time, 1 in 3 white men in Indiana were members of the Klan — nearly half of the white men in the state who weren’t also members of a group that the Klan hated. Most of the Klan’s Indiana activities centered around hatred of Catholics. So the Klan chose heavily Catholic South Bend, close to the University of Notre Dame, to make a point. Notre Dame’s domination of college football in the 1920s gained prestige for the previously obscure Catholic university. As Klan members arrived at the train station in downtown South Bend, Notre Dame students, led by the football team, were there to greet them with fists and baseball bats until police intervened and allowed Klan members to safely disembark. Despite the police intervention, violent resistance to the Klan continued for several days, until Notre Dame President Father Walsh and Football Coach Knute Rockne urged students to stay on campus and refrain from further violence.

To understand how horrifying it was for the Klan to choose South Bend as the location for its festival, imagine a large gathering of American Nazis in Madison Square Garden. You actually don’t have to imagine that, because all you need to do is watch the short documentary A Night at the Garden to see footage of 20,000 Nazis pledging allegiance to the American flag while making Nazi salutes on February 20th, 1939, as they faced a 30-foot tall picture of George Washington before listening to speeches about Jewish controlled media and the necessity for white Gentile control of America. Most protesters were kept outside the venue. In scuffles, Jews were largely blamed and Nazis exonerated. When a Jewish protester, Isadore Greenbaum, rushed the stage, a group of police quickly subdued him and proceeded to beat him on stage, in front of the entire audience. The message of both these hate rallies was clear: we’re coming for you, and we’re right next door.

Growing up, my example of Nazi neighbors wasn’t Nazis in Madison Square Garden but neo-Nazis in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago home to many Jews from Eastern Europe. And the Klan lived, and still lives, two towns over from South Bend, in Osceola, and still occasionally burns crosses on the lawns of nearby homes owned by interracial couples.

I thought of these connections when the Southern Poverty Law Center published its 2018 data about hate in the US in an interactive “hate map”, which geographically displays the hate groups they track. What is striking and perhaps surprising about this map is that hate lives where we do; anti-Semitic hate groups are found in large port cities, anti-Black organizations throughout the South and also in Northern Black cultural centers, anti-Latinx in states with the largest Latinx populations, anti-Native groups in states with reservations, homophobic groups near gayborhoods, Islamophobic groups in cities with our largest Muslim populations, anti-immigrant groups along our sea and land borders, and so on. We want to believe that living in diverse environments is in and of itself an antidote to hate, but this data suggests that the opposite is true.

Diverse environments can also amplify hate. California is home to 83 hate groups, but Wyoming only has 1. New York has 47 hate groups, but Rhode Island only has 2. Illinois has 31 hate groups, Iowa only 3. Virginia, 39 (remember that now we’re in the former Confederacy) West Virginia, 5. Florida 75, South Carolina 17.

Here’s where I need to tell you to bear with me. What I am saying is that hate is more organized in more diverse places. I’m not about to tell you that segregation is a good thing or that if we moved to Wyoming we’d less susceptible to hate. So, if, right now, you’re thinking, where is Jay going with this? That’s ok, and, I invite you to live into the same discomfort I’ve been living into thinking about this.

Because I do think we can resolve hatred. We’ve done it before. By 1925, the Klan, even in Indiana, was declining in membership. When we declared war against the Nazis, American Nazis born abroad, like the ones who gathered in Madison Square Garden in 1939, lost their US citizenship. Those in my generation who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation and with Holocaust education are less likely to hold conscious racist, sexist, and/or anti-Semitic bias than our parents, and younger generations are less likely to hold conscious homophobic, ableist, and anti-Latinx bias. Legal and cultural liberation, combined with open inclusion and discourse, mean that the next generation will, in fact, be raised better. True multiculturalism, that is to say, the lived experience of diverse society, works.

But for true multiculturalism, we need something beyond an ambience of diversity. We need something beyond a variety of identities. And that’s where this week’s parashah comes in. In Vayaqheil, the entire community of newly freed Israelites is gathered - the entire community, not only the initiated men. That’s our diversity component. But a diverse gathering in and of itself is just a group of people. Without direction, without purpose, such groups fail. If the Israelites had been gathered, but not given a direction, perhaps the tribes would have competed with each other for scarce desert resources. Each tribe would have gone into its own area spent the next forty or four thousand years fighting with each other. Instead, they took their existing commonalities - shared experiences as freed slaves of Egypt - and built on them towards common goals. God asked both that they work six days and rest on the seventh, and that they make the mishkan, the wilderness tabernacle. In having a common direction, they focused on what they could accomplish together.

I think hate groups are correlated with multicultural environment because such environments can facilitate competitive thinking. No one knows that better than New Yorkers. We compete for everything, even the chance to get on the elevator that leads to a subway station. If I beat you to that elevator, I might experience remorse because I know you also have to get somewhere. But if I get to hate you, it simplifies competition. It’s ok to take that elevator spot, that subway seat, your labor, even your life from you because it becomes normal and even desirable if I’m supposed to hate you. Yet, competition only ever leads to limited success. Cooperation and collaboration yield better results, which is why love will conquer hate, eventually, every time.

There’s a midrash that the tribal chieftains were the last to bring their voluntary offerings to the mishkan. The midrash says that they thought they were too important and the rules didn’t apply to them. Yet, when they saw everyone else bring a gift voluntarily, they felt pressured and prepared lavish gifts. But when they arrived to give their lavish gifts, almost everything was built already. Each tribal chieftain was only able to contribute one small stone that would go on Aaron’s breastplate. The chieftains’ lack of participation in the communal efforts rendered them irrelevant. For the most part, that’s currently the case with American hate groups, even in these hateful political times. To keep hate groups irrelevant, we need to be in a multicultural community. And to keep hate groups irrelevant, we also need to build with our multicultural community. May this be our blessing. Shabbat Shalom.

Building on deepening our ongoing relationship with Sheik Drammeh and the Al Imam mosque.
David Hyman, facilitator

Working with HIAS  -
Ralph Leezenbaum, facilitator -

Make your check out to 'Riverdale Bronx Interfaith Coalition' and mail to:
Riverdale Interfaith Coalition
c/o Irina Kimelfeld, Finance Chair
2500 Johnson Avenue
Bronx, NY 10463

A Jewish Partnership for Justice -
Madeline Ritter, facilitator -

Wed, June 26 2019 23 Sivan 5779