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December 19, 2014

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 19, 2014 PAGE 5A By Ben Cohen A winter of discontent is brewing in America. Over the last fortnight, large parts of the country have seethed with anger, first at the decision of a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict police officer Dar- ren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown--18 years old, and black--and second, at the decision of a grand jury in New York not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island police officer who placed Eric Garner--43 years old, and black--in the chokehold that contributed to his death minutes later. The proximity, in terms of timing, of the two killings, together with the proximity of the grand jury decisions, has dealt a blow to the Don't let Palestinian extremism hijack debate about policing in America artfully simplistic notion that with Barack Obama's election as president in 2008, America entered a new, post-racial era. Many Americans now believe that, as far as law enforcement is concerned, the lives of African-Americans--and particularly those of African- American men trying to eke out a living at the margins of the economy--are worth far less than the lives of everyone else. Moreover, it's a belief that is spreading. Those persuad- ed that there were enough procedural and moral am- biguities in the Brown case are finding it hard to reach the same conclusion in the Garner case, because we've all seen the video of the New York Police Department of- ficers rounding on Garner, and we've all heard the pitiful plea of"I can't breathe" as he was wrestled to the ground. And I'm pretty positive I was not alone in reacting to Officer Pantaleo's claim that he was trying to protect Garner from being injured by his colleagues with an inner groan of contempt. In this charged environ- ment, no mental gymnastics are required to understand why slogans like "Black Lives Matter"--something that re- ally shouldn't have to be said in a civilized, democratic so- ciety-become so appealing. But therein lies the dan- ger. Talk to some of the pro- testers (or just read the signs they carry), and you will walk away with the impression that police forces across the U.S. are targeting African- Americans with all the zeal of a Haitian death squad. So, instead of discussing policy remedies regarding policing methods in those African- American neighborhoods where distrust between the cops and the community reigns supreme, and instead of trying to understand the degree of racial bias that informed the actions of the police officers in the Brown and Garner cases, we default to the overarching expla- nation that America is an irredeemably racist society. As a result, a political approach based on finding solutions is displaced by a political approach that compensates awoeful lack of ideas with pure spectacle-- furious protests, chants like "How do you spell 'racist?' N-Y-P-D," and CNN reporters breathlessly charging after demonstrators blocking the main traffic arteries into Manhattan. All this, of course, gets picked up joyfully by me- dia outlets like Russian mouthpiece RT and Ira- nian mouthpiece Press TV, whose mission is to portray America as both tyrant and hypocrite--because accord- ing to their warped logic, a country that criticizes the abuses of Vladimir Putin or the mullahs in Tehran while simultaneously murdering black people for venturing into the street hasn't got a leg to stand on. I am fearful over where this stance will take us, for two reasons. Firstly, the policing of minority com- munities where there is an excess of poverty and lack of opportunity is not just an American problem, but one shared by many democ- racies. We are not Russia and we are not Iran; in our political system, all citizens are equal before the law, re- gardless of ethnic or racial origin, and if that principle isn't being applied consis- tently, then reform is needed. The key difference is that we can cite that principle as our point of departure, whereas we couldn't do that in Russia or Iran, since that principle doesn't exist in the first place. If you are a Baha'i or a Jew or a Christian in Iran, for example, the courts will, a priori, regard you as inferior to a Muslim. 8o these com- parisons, as my old history teacher would have said, are odious. Secondly, the toxic politics of the Palestinian solidar- ity movement has emerged in the Ferguson and New York protests. Essentially, Cohen on page 15A N.Y. teens teach a lesson in helping terror victims By Moshe Phillips and BenYamin Korn They don't have plush of- rices or secretaries or gala din- ners, but a group of 15-year- olds on Long Island are providing an inspiring model of leadership for the rest of the American Jewish community. Tenth graders at the Ram- bam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, New York, recently initiated an on-line crowd sourcing campaign, which has raised an astonishing $2.4-mil- lion for the families of the four American-Israeli rabbis, and the Druze police officer, who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue last month. We were all horrified and saddened by the news of the Har Nof massacre. But most people quickly returned to their usual daily affairs. The grim reality of what the wid- ows and orphans will endure for the rest of their lives not attracting much attention. When the Rambam stu- dents heard about the mas- sacre, they asked: What can we do? And then they did something--something that will make a real difference in the lives of the victims' families. They can't bring back the innocents who were massacred by Palestinian terrorists. But they can ease the pain of their widows and orphans, just a little. Once the crowd-sourcing campaign began gathering momentum, the Orthodox Union recognized the im- portance of the students' effort and has been assisting it. Hopefully other Jewish organizations will dq likewise. It's inspiring that these teenagers are pointing the way for the rest of the community, reminding us that more can be done. It's heartening to think that the next generation of Jewish leaders will be drawn in part from these deeply car- ing and energetic youngsters. And it's instructive to note how many times inAmerican Jewish life that our youth have taken the lead. In the 1940s, rabbinical students in New York City, dismayed by the American Jewish community's weak response to the persecution of European Jewry, created their own activist group. They wrote articles, handed out leaflets, organized a landmark Jewish-Christian conference on the refugee crisis, and lob- bied Jewish leaders. They con- vinced the Synagogue Council of America to undertake a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the Holocaust and to put pressure on the U.S. government to take action. In the 1960s, itwas a group called the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry that took up the cause of the Jews in the USSR at a time when most of the Jewish world was not paying attention. A band of high school, yeshiva, and college students armed with little more than mimeograph machines (remember those?) helped galvanize the national Jewish organizations to make Soviet Jewry a priority. "Mitzvah goreret mitz- vah"--mitzvahs can be conta- gious. The SSSJ's work helped inspire another generation of young activists. Many of us still vividly remember that day in 1982 when 65 Ramaz yeshiva high school students (together with their princi- pal, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein) chose to be arrested rather than halt their protest-prayer service in front of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations. The Rambam Mesivta itself has a long and admirable record of student activism. For example, they have staged numerous demonstrations outside the homes of sus- pected Nazi war criminals. Rambam's students spend most of their day studying. But they also know that there are times when it is appropri- ate to briefly step into the world of bullhorns and picket signs--and, in this era-- crowd-sourcing, tweeting and other 21st Century means of communication and action. We say: More power to them! Moshe Phillips is president and Benyamin Korn is chair- man of the Religious Zionists of America, Philadelphia. How American Jews made Chanukah the holiday of religious freedom By Noam Zion In the 21st century, Chanu- kah is celebrated by more Jews than any holiday other than Passover. Both are performed at least one night a year by almost 90 percent of American Jews, more than the number who observed Chanukah in the 1930s. The sociological reason is surely related to the competition with a com- mercialized, publicly observed Christmas and holiday season. Yet Jews could have also adopted a secularized Christ- mas, as many German Jews did in the 19th century and early 20th century. If social pressure and a desire to be like everyone else and make sure children are not left out were the only reasons, then one need not enhance a separate Jewish holiday that highlights the very difference that makes many American Jews uncomfortable. There was also counter-pressure to assert one's ethnic and religious identity against the majority. Thus, whatever the social reasons for Chanu- kah, Jewish educators devel- oped an ideological rationale that became very popular. Reform and Conservative Jews led the way in this Ameri- canization of Chanukah, not only by inventing the custom of giving eight gifts, one per night, and using colored candles, unknown beyond its shores, but also by reshaping the message of the meno- rah's light to fit the Ameri- can Jewish predicament. The Reform reinvention was striking, because there are elements in Chanukah that could be difficult for classical Reform Jews to adopt. For the Maccabees, Chanukah is celebrated as the rededication of the altar desecrated by the Greek Syrians who sacrificed pigs on that altar to Zeus, but Reform Jews do not pray to return to sacrifices and to re- build the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees fought to achieve political indepen- dence for a separate Jewish nation in the Jewish homeland by trying to .expel Western culture (Hellenism) by acts of military heroism. But classical Reform Judaism was non-nationalist, anti-Zionist, pacifist in orientation, and committed to integration within Western civilization in their own lands. Mattathias killed a Jew who publicly worshipped Zeus when Antiochus's men came to enlist supporters, and Judah the Maccabee forcibly circumcised Jewish babies when their parents wanted to be more Hellenized or were simply afraid of repri- sals by the Greek Syrians. In contrast, freedom of con- science, faith in God, loyalty to the state, and an ethics of peace and reason have been central Reforrfi values. Thus, it should not be surpris- ing that Isaac M. Wise, who introduced Reform Judaism in the United States, suggested in 1865 the elimination of the Chanukah lights. But sixyears later, the Augsburg Synod, with delegates mostly from German Reform congrega- tions, introduced a resolution urging the appropriate com- memoration of Chanukah, which had been neglected in many Reform Jewish congre- gations and schools. The ra- tionale for this resolution was to counteract the celebration of Christmas by many Jewish families "in direct opposition to Jewish consciousness." One hundred and fifty years later, American Jews continue to give great sig- nificance to Chanukah as a counterweight to Christmas. But they have also made Chanukah a major symbol of America Jewish values. A 1971 Reform curriculum for children written by Harry Gersh said Chanukah was "the first for the right of a people within a country to believe as they wish---so long as they followed the king's law in worldly matters. For thou- sands of years, Jews have lived under kings, princes, dukes, caliphs, governors, and presi- dents. And they have always been loyal to these rulers--so long as they were permitted to practice their own religion. This idea of religious freedom is followed in all free nations today. It was first given to the world by the Jews." The battle of the Maccabees against the religious and po- litical coercion of Antiochus was a battle for collective religious, hence national political freedom, but not for individual freedom of conscience as such. Yet the Reform interpretation is certainly as valid as any rab- binic reading of the past, and it makes Chanukah central to the American Jewish concern for maintaining its difference within a democratic land. Reform Jews have become, at least since the Holocaust, strong supporters of Zionism. And so nowadays, Chanukah can also represent for them, as it does for Israelis, a war of independence and a model for the virtue of military courage in a just war. Still, some liberal Reform Jews, especially during the protests against the War in Vietnam, have felt ambivalent about militant nationalism. But I think it is still true to say that liberal American Jews hold that Chanukah candles represent a value that they are proud to propagate in the public sphere: the banner of religious freedom for every individual. This is the central value for American liberal Jews and for liberal Americans, and that bridges the tension between Jewish and American identity, so the Jews need not feel so uncomfortable with being dif- ferent. This rationale is as im- portant as the eight presents. Noam Zion is a Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of "A Different Light: The Chanukah Book Celebration." Dry Bones