One of President Trump’s guests at his State of the Union speech Tuesday was Judah Samet, who received an ebullient welcome and a spontaneous rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song from the audience on his 81st birthday. A Holocaust survivor, Samet emerged alive – once again a survivor – and somehow remained uninjured during the Tree of Life synagogue massacre Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh.
The mass murder at the synagogue marked the end of an era in the United States. A gunman took the lives of 11 Jews in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, ending an era of peace and security for America’s Jewish community.
The recent observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Samet’s appearance at the State of the Union both serve to remind Americans that the Pittsburgh shooting didn’t take place in a vacuum.
Anti-Semitic activity has been soaring in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League reported last year that from 2016 to 2017, instances of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism and assault increased 57 percent – the largest single-year jump since ADL began tracking the data in the 1970s.
We’ve read about Jewish students at American universities who reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – which seeks to isolate Israel – being crudely mocked and reviled for their support of the Jewish state. Spray-painted red swastikas have appeared on the dormitory walls of Jewish students.
We believe that the BDS movement against Israel is a soft form of anti-Semitism.
We’ve heard Jews called “termites” by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who also famously stated that “Satanic Jews have infected the whole world with poison and deceit.”
We’ve observed that perspectives similar to Farrakhan’s are embraced by many young progressives, including some who were leaders of the much-publicized Women’s March, and by some newly elected members of Congress.
Historically, Jews have suffered betrayal, scorn and persecution. They have been the favored scapegoat of tyrants, who thought that the successful persecution of Jews served to intimidate all others they sought to rule.
Over much of modern history, no survey was needed to determine whether countries were free – simple visits to synagogues did the job. As the past has shown us, if the Jews of a country were free to practice their faith, one could be reasonably confident that tolerance and freedom were possible for others.
The Jewish people have long served as canaries in the proverbial coal mine. And we would be remiss to ignore that for centuries, many of the abuses suffered by Jews were at the hands of so-called Christians.
Jews have been the first and most dangerously exposed to the venomous atmosphere of tyranny. We saw that hatred, that bigotry, culminated and metastasized in the Holocaust – the ultimate descent into evil, which demonstrated to the world that hate, bigotry and persecution never comes cheap.
The Holocaust also instructed us that once permitted to rear its ugly head, evil can grow more quickly and horribly than imagined possible.
One of the lessons of the Holocaust for those of us who are practicing Christians in a post-Holocaust world is to speak out wherever and whenever anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.
To be decent human beings – much less Christian believers – requires us to hear and respond to the cries of the persecuted, including Jews, Christians and other people of faith around the world.
We must raise our voices on their behalf.
The Bible has much to say about persecution, oppression and ultimately freedom. Ecclesiastes 4:1 laments: “I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter.”
Are we not called to offer comfort to the oppressed? And yet, despite undeniable evidence of anti-Semitism in our country, we have heard only the sound of silence from the pulpits and pews of many Western churches as well as from the political leadership in our country.
One of the most powerful pieces of writing in modern times is the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King was an outspoken supporter of Israel, and a great friend of the Jewish people. As he defended his own beleaguered people, he also declared a universal truth.
King wrote: “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound …. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th Century.”
German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lost his life resisting Adolf Hitler’s Nazism, and a profound statement is attributed to him: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Silence never helps the victim. Instead, silence actually encourages wrongdoers to continue their acts of violence, whether in word or in deed.
We have honored Martin Luther King in recent days. Let us also remember his wisdom – yesterday, today and forever: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Lela Gilbert is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.”