The March of the Rabbis

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Washington DC has been the home of some of the most historic protests. The March on Washington, of course, was one of the most famous.  On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people demonstrated in front of the Lincoln Memorial to bring racial inequalities to the attention of the country. The final speaker of the day was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose mostly improvised “I have a dream” speech is recognized as one of the greatest speeches in history.

The March on Washington was integral to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  And equally importantly, it was a chance for Black people to peacefully but forcefully tell their story.

There have been other historic marches in Washington DC. On January 21, 2017, 450,000 women took to Washington to hold the Women’s March on Washington.  It was a worldwide protest, but the main event took place in DC.  Women came together from all over the country to march for women’s rights, healthcare reform, freedom of religion, and many other important issues. It was a day of female solidarity.  It was a day for women to tell their unique stories.

Another historic march took place on March 24, 2018.  This was a march led by students who demanded stricter gun control legislation.  It was led by student activists from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which was the scene of a deadly shooting a month earlier. The march was aptly named March for Our Lives, and the students were calling for universal background checks, the restoration of the Federal Assault weapons Ban, and the raising of the age of legal gun ownership from 18 to 21 among other critical gun issues. More than 800 protests like this took place around the world.  These protests allowed teens and young adults to share their fears and tell their stories.

The fact is, social and political protests are more than just ways to bring attention to certain causes; They are a means through which people can tell their stories.

In the 1940s, during World War Two there was a crucial story that had to be told: The story of the Holocaust victims.  That story might not have been heard at the time had it not been for the ingenuity of Peter Bergson.

Peter Bergson, whose name was originally  Hillel Kook (nephew of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook),  organized a protest of rabbis in 1943. It was known as the March of the Rabbis. On October 6 of that year, 400 European Rabbis accompanied by some marshals from the Jewish War Veterans of America came to Washington. They marched from Union Station to the Capitol in their oversized black coats and thick beards.  Once they reached the capitol, they solemnly recited Kaddish and sang the prayer for the nation’s leaders to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner in their thick Yiddish accents. Then they read their petition.  They requested a special Federal Agency be appointed for the rescue of European Jews, and for the expansion of the quotas for Jewish immigration to America.  The petition was received by Vice President Harry Wallace.

Then the rabbis marched on.

They reached the White House and waited to be received by President Roosevelt. But Roosevelt had been warned about this delegation, and he decided not to acknowledge it.  He escaped through the back entrance of the White House to attend a military ceremony.

In the press, Roosevelt’s slight was portrayed as a full-blown battle between the White House and the rabbis, and this provided Bergson with an opportunity.  Bergson’s friends in Congress proposed a bill allowing for a new Federal Agency to be created with the intention of helping Jewish refugees escape the Nazis. The proposal was violently disputed by some, but when Henry Morgenthau, the Treasury Secretary, wrote a scathing report about the State Department’s efforts to make immigration of Jews nearly impossible, FDR signed a resolution to establish the War Refugee Board.  During the final year of the Holocaust, this Board was responsible for saving thousands of Jews. We have Peter Bergson and 400 rabbis to thank for that.

There is much to learn from the story of the March of Rabbis, but for us, at this moment in time, what is important to understand is how powerful these marches can be.  The March of the Rabbis saved thousands.  Imagine how many more could have been saved if it had taken place a few years earlier.

The latest March in Washington was shameful at best, and dangerous at worst.  Tens of thousands (some have estimated 100,000) pro-Palestinian demonstrators came to Washington wrapped in Palestinian flags and holding signs accusing Jews of being Nazis.  They marched while shouting “from the River to the Sea” and other antisemitic tropes.  They claimed Jews were committing genocide, and then called for the murder of the very same Jews.  They cursed at President Biden and left bloody red handprints on the gates of the White House.  It was a March for terror, nothing less.

But every protest is a story, and we have a chance to tell a very different story.  Just like Peter Bergson, we understand the power of these marches.  We comprehend the message these marches send to Congress, the White House, citizens of the United States, and the world as a whole.  It is imperative that we march in the footsteps of those 400 European rabbis.

On November 14th we have that opportunity. We can wrap ourselves in blue and white and demonstrate in Washington.  We can demonstrate for Israeli soldiers who are risking their lives, so we don’t have to.  We can demonstrate for the victims of the South, who lived the unlivable.  We can demonstrate for the hostages of all ages, who no longer have a voice.  We can demonstrate for terrified Jewish students on American college campuses.  We can demonstrate for Jews all over the world who are being physically and verbally attacked because they are Jewish.  We can show the world the power of a peaceful demonstration.  Jews do not need to leave bloody handprints on the gates of the White House.  We just need to tell our story:  Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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