Jewish advocacy

By Joshua Yudkin

Jewish advocacy is grounded in the Torah, the seminal text that we read thrice weekly from cover to cover every year and includes numerous commandments and teachings such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) that emphasize our tradition’s principles of social justice, compassion and ethical conduct. Building on our shared Jewish experience, Exodus 23:9 admonishes, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt,” emphasizing the empathy born from the Jewish experience of oppression. Similar messaging is reiterated in Deuteronomy 23:7: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” Simply put, Jewish advocacy is based in our shared radical gratitude for life and community, relentless respect for our shared humanity and its corollary for decent dialogue, always.

Thanks to those who came before me, I was largely protected from antisemitic attacks as a young American Jewish adult who grew up here in Dallas, Texas. Unlike for my grandparents, antisemitic tropes and propaganda were not regularly found in our local newspaper and I did not face a Jewish quota for entering university. My grandfather recently shared how he had to be careful as to which nearby beach he frequented; he was often bullied for being Jewish. I often imagine my grandmother’s relationship with America — whose husband earned two Purple Hearts in World War II and whose three brothers were all fighting Nazis in Europe — where post-World-War-II antisemitism dropped from 64% to 16% in 1951. She rarely spoke about it, but what was it like for her to grow up with widespread antisemitism?

My Jewish identity and advocacy have always been intertwined. As a child, Jewish narratives often centered on standing up to a bully — isn’t that a common theme in the stories of Passover with Moses and Pharaoh, Hanukkah with the Maccabees and Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Purim with Queen Esther and Haman? Let us not forget about how little David stood up to Goliath the giant! When I was a teenager, Jewish youth groups of all denominations focused on activating young Jews to reflect on our Jewish values and lean into our own recent history in the Holocaust and speak up and fight against the Darfur genocide. I think about the way many members in our community still choose to include an orange on the Seder plate to advocate for full inclusion of women and sexual and gender minorities into all segments of Jewish life and community. As an adult, I celebrate the way an Israeli friend, who was visiting recently, helps an elderly stranger onto the subway simply because it’s the “Jewish” way to live. I have radical gratitude for our local Jewish communal professionals who build and sustain relationships with civic and religious leaders across our community that share in and celebrate our Jewish values and way of life. To lead a Jewish life is to advocate for justice in concert with community, at all levels.

A friend who works on Capitol Hill once said that her Judaism is the reason she works in politics — to be Jewish means that you are always fighting for a more just society. Perhaps fittingly, this echoes the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who stated, “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition.” To be Jewish is to advocate for justice.

 In the status quo, we propagate tikkun olam, repairing (mending) the world — how do we leave the world a better and more just place than we found it? This calling resonates with me as a scientist. Both science and Judaism are living and dynamic — all knowledge is tentative — and both seek to answer “why,” in order to improve both our individual and collective health.

Since the terrorist attack on Oct. 7, our humanity has been questioned and tested repeatedly. Hatred has tried to justify and normalize both rape and the sexual assault of the living and dead. Hatred has tried to justify and normalize both murder and destruction of the innocent. Hatred has tried to both justify and normalize terror, trauma and torture.

Since the terrorist attack on Oct. 7, hateful individuals have felt empowered to perpetuate hatred in other settings as well. In this past week alone, new hateful behaviors and words to Jews, young and old, have been reported. We witnessed youth denied correct medical care and medical providers murdered, purportedly simply for being Jewish. We witnessed a Holocaust survivor bullied at a city council meeting when asking to pass a Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation. We witnessed a Jewish woman surrounded, stalked and insulted by individuals who shouted profane and dehumanizing phrases. These are not isolated incidents. Months after we saw swastikas outside a synagogue here in Texas, we witness law enforcement stating that a swastika is only antisemitic depending on the context in other settings.

Since the terrorist attack on Oct. 7, Jewish institutions right here in Texas have received threats. Faculty at higher education institutions have made what the university labeled “hateful, antisemitic and unacceptable” comments. Both parents and students have shared their fear of reporting that they experienced antisemitism. Even leadership in some corporations have inaccurately described, inappropriately ignored and even deliberately misused the terrorist attack to further their own agenda.

Over the past six months, Jewish communal leadership have led extraordinary advocacy efforts for justice. Facing eliminationist and homicidal language and acts from coast to coast, Jewish intergenerational trauma has transformed into intergenerational resilience. Communal events like the Interfaith Passover Seder continue so that, together, we can learn from, celebrate and continue our tradition. In stark contrast to the inflammatory, inaccurate and inciteful antisemitic actions and language, we create communal spaces calling for peace and healing through dialogue, prayer and song. Incendiary chants and intimidation tactics for our elimination have been met with song and solidarity — as we saw in Teaneck, New Jersey, last week. Learning from the way Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt had to prove, in English court almost 30 years ago, that the Holocaust happened, community and civic leaders have traveled to learn from survivors and witness firsthand the horrific crimes against humanity that were committed, returning back to educate their stakeholders and constituents. Jewish leadership prudently continually counter incorrect and unverified claims with fact-checked information and decent dialogue to guide civil conversations focused on showing relentless respect and honoring the dignity of all. Individuals of all backgrounds and faiths have united to release powerful statements of solidarity and support for victims and condemn violence, terrorism and hatred.

Over the past six months, we have tirelessly advocated for life. Rejection after rejection, we continue to fight to broker a deal and bring the hostages home. While Israeli civilians endure missile after missile, they continue to send more and more aid into Gaza. In spite of the premature and incorrect reporting paired with ethically questionable journalism that has impacted both geopolitical strategy and global citizen access to and understanding of a highly complex and nuanced geopolitical situation, our narrative is guided by fact-checked information — both good and bad — and our tradition’s fervent commitment to derech eretz, showing relentless respect for all. Facing repeated attacks, we, in community, document and share our story so that our light will always be brighter than, and out of, their darkness.

As both a survival technique and an inherent trait, it is axiomatic for Jews to be engaged in and care about their community. Unfortunately, history has shown antisemitism is often the litmus test and warning that a greater force of hatred lay ahead. Just a few days ago, antisemitic protesters right here in the United States chanted “Death to America” and, earlier last week, they chanted “Down with the USA…Al-Qassam (Hamas) are on their way.”

Hatred in all forms, especially antisemitism, is on the rise. Coupled with silence from bystanders, this seductive addiction, hatred, is the biggest existential threat to mankind. For millennia, we have survived as Jews and provided a ready-made antidote to hatred — our respect, celebration and sanctity for life. Echoing Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of education is not ignorance, it is indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it is indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it is indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference to life.” To be Jewish is to be engaged with and to care about one another; it is to fight for life.

As we inch closer to celebrating our freedom on Passover later this month, let us remember that the root of Mitzrayim (often translated as modern-day Egypt) is tzar, or a narrow or confined place. As we retell the story of our emancipation and celebrate our freedom from the confinement of Mitzrayim,let us also remember what freedoms we have today, thanks to the enduring actions of previous generations. Let us articulate for what we advocate today. No matter your calling, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Dr. Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and works at the intersection of community building and public health.

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