Politics in places of worship?

Recently I was invited to give a sermon at the Friday evening service in one of our synagogues. Because of the coincidence that this year the dates of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) falls together with the US commemoration of Veterans Day, it is I, a Holocaust survivor, who was honored by the invitation to share my thoughts on these two important anniversaries.

Before I go any further, let me briefly recall to you the content of these two special anniversaries.

Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass was a pogrom on Nov. 9-10, 1938 against the Jews throughout Nazi Germany. The Nazis, more particularly the Nazi paramilitary organization SA, also called the Storm Troopers or Brown Shirts, torched over 1,000 synagogues, vandalized and looted Jewish homes, schools and 7,500 Jewish businesses, killed 71 Jews and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps. The name Kristallnacht or in English, Night of Broken Glass, refers to the litter of broken glass left in the streets after these pogroms.

The pretext for the violence was the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jewish student. Grynszpan engaged in the murder as a retribution for the Nazi deportation of Polish Jewish residents in Germany to a no-man’s land at the border of Germany and Poland where the Jews were unceremoniously dumped. Grynszpan’s parents were among the group and so, understandably, he was very upset and worried.

German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, having consulted with Hitler on how the assassination could be antisemitically exploited, urged a group of SA during a large SA rally to engage in violent reprisals against the German Jewish population. The pogroms were to appear as spontaneous antisemitic demonstrations by the German population.

This violence was the overture to subsequent governmental bureaucratic anti-Jewish steps leading to the Wannsee Conference in 1942 and the decision taken there to end the so-called Judenfrage or “Jewish Question” by means of “the Final Solution,” i.e., the Holocaust or the systematic murder of the Jews of Germany and its occupied countries.

Veterans Day, to be commemorated and celebrated on the 11th of November, is an official United States public holiday, observed annually, that honors military veterans, that is persons who served in the United States Armed Forces, living and dead.

This said, I personally feel deeply indebted especially to those American veterans who fought in World War II. While I was liberated by Soviet Russian forces, who along with Great Britain, were our allies in that war, I am deeply grateful to all the allied forces who defeated the Nazis and liberated us, concentration camp prisoners, whose days were numbered. We survivors too, would have been murdered had it not been for these brave Allied soldiers who gave their all to defeat the Nazi enemy.

These are the facts which speak for themselves. Anyone interested to go deeper into these two anniversaries and their meaning can easily do so by going to an encyclopedia. In such a reference book the two “items” will be mentioned separately and in more detail. But there will be no discussion to be found there with regard to how the two relate to each other. That is left for me to do in the evening sermon I was invited to give.

Why, to begin with, should a relationship between Kristallnacht and Veterans Day be explored eight decades after their occurrence? Academic interest in history? Sure. Why not? Should we not continually enlarge our knowledge and understanding of the past? In this particular case, given the particularity of our situation in present-day America,, a reflection about the clash of the two worldviews that Kristallnacht, on the one hand, and Veterans Day, on the other hand, represent, is particularly relevant. The two political orientations as they existed in those years, stood in crass opposition to each other: Germany with its ideology of Nazism and the USA with its rooted tradition in democracy.

This is not the place for me to elaborate on the two opposing worldviews. What I want to deal with here is the question whether it is appropriate to discuss the politics inherent in this clash in a synagogue. In short, should a visiting speaker on erev shabbat in a place of worship, in a sermon, deal with politics? The question I am raising here is particularly relevant in these days because of the tensions existing between the two major political parties in our land and the probability that in my audience there will be both Republicans and Democrats, some of whom may feel insulted by the comparisons I plan to make between then and now.

I was pastor of a church in D.C. during the Watergate scandal, geographically located four or five blocks from the White House, Mr. Nixon’s residence. During many a sermon I saw people get up and walk out in protest of what I said. Should I risk the same kind of a scenario as a guest speaker in a synagogue?

How can a Jewish Holocaust survivor remain silent after Charlottesville? And how can I claim the name “Jew” for myself having personally experienced the excruciating pain of being forcibly separated from my parents as an innocent fifteen year old boy and have nothing to say about the equally innocent migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border? Yes, these are polarizing times we live, yet distinctions must be made between good and bad, decent and indecent, righteous and dishonest. Whether we like it or not, to be a “good person” was then, in Hitler times, and continues to be today, connected to one’s political orientation.

As an immigrant to America, fleeing Communism, I came to this country because I knew it was a great country. I love this country and I am eternally grateful for what this country has given me. But when I hear Mr. Trump and his followers shout “Make America Great Again” and know that what is meant is really “Make White America Great Again,” I shudder at the transparency of this mantra that points to racism, fascism and the resulting perversion of democracy.

I remember well the person sitting in our synagogue good many years ago who, whenever the rabbi made the slightest allusion to politics, shouted “No politics from the pulpit!”

How wrong he was! The Bible and particularly the great biblical prophets never hesitated reminding their kings of having neglected righteous behavior, going so far as to jeopardize their very lives.

There is no escaping “the political.” To refuse speaking out against lies, especially in the context of a place of worship, is cowardice.

To refuse to take a political stance is to take a political stance.

I have been inspired by a book, lent to me by a Christian friend. The book’s author is Audre Lorde, a black poet, feminist writer, political activist and New York State’s Poet Laureate from 1991 to 1993. I quote from her book Sister Outsider, (p. 43), “But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive , by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.

And it is never without fear – of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.”

And so I repeat: to refuse to take a political stance publicly is to take a political stance.

Ergo: I will not remain silent as to where I stand politically and will ask the folks before me to join me.