From the Editor // September/October 2015
We live in disquieting times. It seems we make progress in creating a better world, and then some of what we achieve slips away. We overcome prejudice, only to find it has metastasized into new forms. That is the story of anti-Semitism today, and it is also the story of other deeply ingrained prejudices.
In this issue we publish “Birthright Denied” by Jacob Kushner, winner of Moment’s Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative (DPIJI), whose mission is to help young reporters expose prejudice, wherever it is. While living and traveling in the Dominican Republic, Jacob observed the disdain many Dominicans feel for people of Haitian descent, including those born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He was deeply disturbed by the way this discrimination has been codified into law through new legislation and amendments to the nation’s constitution. Seeing the birthright of hundreds of thousands of people being stripped away, I can’t help but be reminded of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg laws that disenfranchised German Jews.
Of course, we had no idea, when we selected Jacob as a DPIJI fellow, that the story he was working on would be relevant today in the United States. Never in our wildest imaginations would we have thought that Donald Trump’s opinions on citizenship rights and his doubts about the validity of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would enter mainstream political discourse. Yet this is what has happened, and several other candidates—motivated by the same kind of intense xenophobia that has taken hold in the Dominican Republic—have followed his lead. Anyone interested in this topic should read Jacob’s story, a cautionary tale of what happens when new exceptions to birthright laws are created, and, in the case of the Dominican Republic, retroactively applied.
Another alarming subject tackled in this issue is the rise of murder, rape, torture and carnage committed in the name of religion. In a Moment symposium that includes a wide range of prominent thinkers such as former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and religion scholar Karen Armstrong, we try to pin down the relationship between religion and violence. As usual, there is no single answer. For those of you wondering, this is indeed a Jewish question. At various times in our long history, Jews have been perpetrators as well as victims. No one religion has a monopoly on violence.
The willful destruction of the world’s shared cultural heritage is addressed in our “Visual Moment” section. We take you through Syria, Iraq and Yemen to see which ancient cities, temples, monuments, statues and other artifacts have been blown up, sledgehammered, shelled or looted—or are in danger. Here, too, on the surface the topic may not appear to be “Jewish,” but we all suffer. In obliterating objects they deem inimical to their beliefs, groups such as ISIS are wiping out evidence of the Middle East’s intertwined cultural roots—including periods when people of different faiths lived together in relative peace.
This issue also touches upon some of the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism.Polish writer Konstanty Gebert reviews Anna Bikont’s new book and examines his countrymen’s struggle to accept the reality of the massacre of Jews by Poles in the village of Jedwabne during the Holocaust. Jonathan Brent, president of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, reviews The Murder of William of Norwich, about the surprising origin of that perennial damning charge known as the blood libel. In “Ask the Rabbis,” our rabbis discuss whether they should talk to congregants about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and if so, how. In an in-depth interview, we gain insight into the thinking of Ruth Wisse, the pioneering Yiddish scholar who is one of North America’s most outspoken Jewish critics of liberalism. Her relationship to language and her political views were shaped, in part, by her family’s escape in 1940 from Romania.
Despite our disquiet, we need to hold firm to the knowledge that we can continue to work together to make the world a better place. Yes, I am an optimist. I know the world is a better place than it once was every time I go for a walk or travel through this amazingly beautiful, if imperfect, country—or visit other corners of the planet. Yes, there remain vortexes of instability and even evil, and there are places too dangerous to set foot in. But we have come far, and we cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by disillusionment, hatred and fear. It is our responsibility as Jews to carry on this tradition. We need to keep this in mind as we enter the New Year, number 5776. One of the reasons we eat honey and honey cake on Rosh Hashanah (as we learn on page 70) is to savor the sweetness of life and promise before us.
Happy New Year! May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.