The Israeli Minister’s ‘Holocaust’ Remark and the American President’s Tweet

This past Shabbat I was away from my home community and the Rabbi in the shul that I attended spoke about the uproar that was created last week when Israel’s new Education Minister Rafi Peretz referred to intermarriage in the United States as a ‘second Holocaust.’  The Rabbi argued that if statistics are correct, and the intermarriage rate among non-orthodox Jews is a staggering 71%, then in some sense we are creating a Holocaust insofar as the Jewish people are being destroyed, not by gas chambers, but by choosing to marry outside the faith.  The Rabbi argued that years ago, parents would sit shiva if their children intermarried. However today that is not the case. The Rabbi lamented our desensitization to this tragic new reality and argued that by using the particular term “second Holocaust,” the Education Minister was effectively shocking the orthodox Jewish community out of our complacency and calling us to action. Though surely Minister Peretz did not intend to equate anyone today with the Nazis, his harsh language served an important purpose.

This past week, President Trump tweeted that “Progressive Democrat Congresswomen” from foreign countries should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”  The backlash was swift by many. Telling anyone of foreign ancestry to go back to where they came from is an old racist trope, and Trump was called out for using this language against these American Congresswomen.  Others saw the situation differently. They argued that perhaps the President intended to call out those Congresswomen who, in his view, are racist, anti-American, anti-semitic and anti-Israel. If he believes that these Congresswomen are normalizing a dangerous ideology, then perhaps using this harsh language was the only way to effectively communicate a message that he deems very important.

Both of these incidents left me with the question –

Are there instances where harsh, divisive language has its place? Can it be a means to a critical end? I share Minister Peretz’s concern about intermarriage.  And I too fear the rhetoric coming from some of the Congresswomen that President Trump singled out. Nonetheless, I disagree with the claims made and the language used in both cases.

As sympathetic as I may be toward a Jew who struggles to find true love and resorts to marrying outside the faith, I consider this practice a tragedy for our community.  All the more troubling is the reality that intermarriage nowadays is not met with the shock that it was twenty or thirty years ago. I am reminded of the Gemara in Sanhedrin that forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, the High Court stopped adjudicating capital crimes because too many murders were taking place.  When a High Court administers the death penalty once every number of years, then this punishment has the ability to shock society to the core and spur them to reflect upon what led to this horrific crime and punishment. However, if the Court administers the punishment on a regular basis, then it loses its potency and society is desensitized to this horrific crime and punishment.  A similar phenomenon has taken place with respect to intermarriage. If we were to sit shiva every time someone intermarried, then unfortunately, we would be constantly be paying shiva visits to members in our communities. The practice would lose its potency and its purpose. That being said, it is important to shock us once in a while to wake our community up to the tragic reality that intermarriage has become.  We must call this tragedy what it is, in the hopes that we will redouble our efforts to convey passion and commitment for our Torah values to the next generation so that they will not even dream of intermarrying.

In today’s American political landscape, I am very concerned about anti-Zionist and anti-semitic remarks made by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. I worry that the Congresswomen are shifting mainstream Democratic rhetoric to espouse or at least tolerate dangerous views toward Jews and Israel.  And I am concerned that their positions are not being sufficiently condemned by the mainstream in the Democratic party and they may even be creeping into mainstream Democratic thinking.

Having said all of that, I find both the “second Holocaust” remark and the President’s tweet simply offensive.  Just saying that “I am not comparing the Nazis to those who promote intermarriage” or “I am not racist” does not excuse us from reasonable interpretations that these remarks convey.  A reasonable interpretation of the Holocaust remark does not only express that intermarriage is leading to the destruction of Jewry, but it also implies that proponents and/or facilitators of intermarriage are comparable to the Nazis who were responsible for the Holocaust.   We can shock people as to the tragedy of intermarriage without using such offensive language.

Similarly, a reasonable interpretation of the President’s tweet conveys the sentiment that foreigners are not welcome here.  Three out of the four Congresswomen addressed were born in America, and all are American citizens. Imagine if someone had made those remarks about an American Jew, even if he or she had engaged in anti-American rhetoric or nefarious behavior.  If a Jewish American was told to “go back to where they came from,” I would be offended. I believe we all should be offended.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states “Chachamim hizharu b’divreichem,” or “Sages, be careful with your words.”  Tosafot Yom Tov explains that Sages are especially warned to be careful in their language, because the consequences are far greater if the people misinterpret the words of a Sage than if they misinterpret the words of a commoner.  Certainly, this should apply to the President of the United States, and the Israeli Minister, as well. We can and we should continue to warn the American people about the dangers of the ideology espoused by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Omar Ilhan.  And our community must not become complacent or accepting of the very real threat that intermarriage poses to our community. But this is certainly not the way.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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