Thanks to Valerie Stephens for picking us up with that wonderful rendition of Hinei Ma Tov. The words come from Psalm 133. They urge that people come together as brothers and sisters, words that are no less compelling today than when written thousands of years ago.
I’d like to share a story that vividly illustrates what I mean. It took place on Iwo Jima, a small Pacific island that was the scene of one of the most brutal battles of WWII. The U.S. suffered 26,000 casualties, including nearly 7,000 dead. And when the battle ended, plans had to be made to bury those who perished.
A young Jewish chaplain was selected to lead a nondenominational memorial service. But when several Christian chaplains objected, the Jewish chaplain withdrew and presided over a separate memorial just for the Jewish survivors of the battle. This would have been the end of the matter, but one of the other chaplains subsequently read the eulogy delivered by the Jewish chaplain and found it so moving that he decided to share it. Eventually, the eulogy found its way into Time Magazine and then the U.S. Army shared it with every active duty serviceman around the world. And now, I’d like to share a short excerpt with you:
Here lies officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor… together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews … together.
Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy….
Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against his brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.
The chaplain who said these words was Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who went on to become spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Boston. His statement was a twentieth century plea to live in accord with the words of Psalm 133 and to honor our nation’s commitment to ensuring that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law.
You see, our nation has often been challenged to assure the freedoms it has promised. George Washington assured the Jews of Newport, RI that they no longer had to fear persecution because of their faith, but today armed guards are frequently posted in front of my synagogue. President Grant assured freed slaves that their right to vote would be protected, but 150 years later that right is still under attack.
In fact, the only thing that our democracy assures is the right of citizens to fight for their freedom when it is at risk. AJC was founded to do just that 112 years ago, when discrimination was unrestrained and bigotry common. Sadly, many of these same challenges remain.
Little more than three weeks ago, a man walked into a synagogue and killed 11 people at prayer. The event was shocking, but not altogether surprising. For several years, we have been witnessing a steep rise in anti-Semitic incidents — typified by the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that involve Jews who exercise dark powers to undermine the white race, oppress vulnerable minorities and manipulate the U.S. government.
Our concerns have been amplified by hostile efforts to demonize Israel; home to nearly half of the world’s Jews, Israel has become “the Jew” among the nations: subject to more condemnations at the UN than all other nations combined; endlessly investigated by NGOs searching for signs of moral failure; and subject to campus movements that apply to Israel a standard that is applied to no other country.
We are witnessing the steady legitimization of ideas that justify and encourage anti-Jewish hate. We have seen this before. And we know that left unopposed, these toxic ideas become a cancer.
But this is not just a Jewish problem. Two days before the attack in Pittsburgh, a man tried to attack an African American church in Louisville, Kentucky. When he couldn’t gain entry, he found two people of color and killed them. There have been other attacks against churches with African American congregants, a Sikh Temple and Muslim mosques. We should not mistake these for random acts of hate.
There is a struggle in our country. Some celebrate the power, strength and dominance of their faith, their ethnicity or their racial identity. Others believe that what sets our nation apart is our capacity to embrace people of diverse backgrounds. The struggle is between those who want to weaponize our differences, and those who believe that commitment to co-existence is central to what it means to be an American.
And this brings me to why we are here tonight. History is tapping us on the shoulder. There are those from the right and from the left who are advancing ideologies that will drive us apart. In response, we need to join hands and clearly say, “No, that is not our America.”
This is exactly what happened two weeks ago when hundreds, of thousands of people from around the country of all backgrounds poured into synagogues to show solidarity in the face of the Pittsburgh massacre.
We can do more, and we can do better. This is why AJC New England established the annual Co-Existence Awards. We want to elevate the work of those leaders who inspire us to work together to fulfill our nation’s promise.
This year, we are blessed to have an honoree who is a great American, a great leader, a great advocate for justice, the champion of co-existence, Colette Phillips. AJC is privileged to have her as a member of our Leadership Board and I am so blessed to be able to call her my friend.
So, with the words of Psalm 133 ringing in our ears, let’s honor Colette, by working together like never before, to fulfill our nation’s promise.
It is now my pleasure to introduce two people who know Colette especially well.
Dr. Priscilla Douglas is an executive coach and author, who has served as a White House Fellow, held a variety of senior positions in Massachusetts state government and often finds herself on planes to faraway places where she lectures and coaches.
Bob Rivers is the celebrated Chairman and CEO of Eastern Bank, America’s oldest and largest mutual bank. During Bob’s tenure, Eastern Bank has built upon its long legacy of community service and philanthropy by developing a robust advocacy platform in support of various social justice and sustainability issues.
Priscilla will speak first and then Bob will follow.