As members of the Atlanta chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, we were extremely disturbed by the racist and dehumanizing Rosh HaShanah sermon delivered by Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia. We were also dismayed by the lack of response from the rest of the Jewish community after the sermon became public.
Because we believe strongly that people of conscience must speak out to challenge bigotry in all its forms, we decided to send letters to Atlanta area Rabbis, to the Atlanta Jewish Federation, and to the board of trustees of Congregation Etz Chaim calling on them to repudiate Rabbi Lewis’s sentiments and to take a stand against anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism in their synagogues and organizations. Our hope is to raise awareness of racism in our community, to hold our leaders accountable, and to work together to find solutions.
We received only a brief reply from the President of Etz Chaim’s Board of Trustees, stating “we appreciate your concern” and wishing us “a peaceful New Year.”
The letter addressed to Atlanta area Rabbis is reproduced below.
We are writing to you as members of the Atlanta chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. We are well aware that there are many issues that may divide us, but today we are writing to you regarding an issue about which we believe there should be no disagreement between us.
As you may be aware, a Rabbi in our greater Atlanta community, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, recently delivered a Rosh HaShanah sermon (originally posted at www.etzchaim.net/ehr_daw_2014; the full sermon is also posted at http://mondoweiss.net/2014/10/genocidal-atlanta-hashanah). In it, he spoke of Muslims in what can only be viewed as a racist and dehumanizing manner. He asserts (without evidence) that there are “50 million Koran-waving, Allah Akbar-howling Muslim murderers out there planning to slit our throats, blow us up or forcibly convert us.” Rhetorically, he paints all Muslims as enemies of freedom – he describes the Muslim population of Europe as “violent Islamists, extremists who reject every value we treasure.” He states: “The enemy has eyes and ears. Fingers and toes. Speaks with lips. Runs with legs. Eats. Drinks. Has the face of a human being – but, has a much different heart and a much different soul.” He ends with a call to “exterminate […] utterly and absolutely.”
This language, which explicitly denies the humanity of others, and calls for their extermination, should be unacceptable to anyone, but it should be doubly so to us as Jews. We know from our own all too recent history that dehumanization, if left unchallenged, can take root in a society with breathtaking speed, leading to genocidal consequences. Perhaps history might have been different had the plans of the Nazi leadership met with greater opposition from people of conscience in the German religious and intellectual communities before meaningful opposition became impossible.
We believe it is our responsibility as Jews, and in particular we feel strongly that it is your responsibility as a leader in the Atlanta Jewish community, to call out this dehumanization, to challenge it publicly and to make it clear that it has no place in our houses of worship, our homes, or anywhere else in our community.
While we believe all American Jewish leaders should decry Rabbi Lewis’s sermon, we feel that as Jewish Atlantans we have a particular responsibility to do so, both because its words were spoken in our “backyard,” and also because of our responsibility to uphold Atlanta’s historical role as a leader in the civil rights movement by fighting racism in all of its forms. Let us continue to live up to our reputation as the “city too busy to hate.”
We call on you not to be silent when forms of racism and dehumanization appear in our midst, but instead to publicly call it out, to denounce it, and to ensure it has no place in your worship services, your religious instruction, or anywhere else in the life of your congregation. We ask that you repudiate Rabbi Lewis’s hateful speech in your own sermons, and in your communications with your congregation. Let us make it abundantly clear that these words are not the teachings of our religion or the sentiments of our community.
We appreciate your attention to this urgent matter and hope to be in conversation with you now and in the future.
The membership of Jewish Voice for Peace – Atlanta