Brattleboro Area Jewish Community

Congregation Shir Heharim

Yom Rishon, 28 Av 5777


Shortly after the Presidential Election of November 8, I had a disturbing experience. I posted on Facebook linking to an article in Tablet magazine about anti-Semitic graffiti popping up all over the USA since the election.  Some of the graffiti involves swastikas and a variety of unmentionable comments. What bothers me even more than the graffiti was a comment by a friend of a friend. He wrote, “Whatever happened to freedom of speech? You may not agree, but it’s part of what makes this country great.” I replied, “Freedom of speech does not allow you to deface other people's private property. A huge difference! Fly any flag you want on your own property. I will fully support your right to do so. But vandalizing public or other private property is a crime all by itself, regardless of the content.”

How is it that anyone could confuse hateful vandalism with freedom of speech? Was it simply being obtuse that attacking other people’s property is a crime? How can one rise to the defense of freedom of speech while at the same time running roughshod over the concept of private property? I suspect that at a variety of levels, his comment was born of a dangerous disconnect from reality. Never before in my memory has reality been so irrelevant in our political process. And it seems it was not just irrelevant, but actually reviled with disgust that anything as sobering as reality should get in the way of our rabid emotions of the moment. This disconnect from reality can all too often lead “freedom of speech” to degenerate into “freedom to attack.” This further putrefies into an entitlement to denigrate and disparage because of irrational and baseless fears. While much of the public displays of mindless hate have been directed at our Muslim brothers and sisters, it comes as no surprise that hate crimes against Jews have become once again fashionable. This trend is fortified when the President-elect appoints a trash-peddling, celebrity, anti-Semitic evangelist as a White House aide.

Isn’t this likely to get worse before it gets better? Isn’t reality likely to become even less important to some? Even within the hallowed bounds of free speech, statements that celebrate and/or incite violence must not be protected. As a Jewish community, it is most essential for us to consider how we will respond to this trend. I suggest that ignoring it is not an option. This kind of gutter behavior has at least one silver lining; it leaves the high road free and clear for us. Whenever possible, we should choose to take the high road, focusing on what good can be accomplished, but sometimes the high road demands direct confrontation, condemnation and rebuke.  While we should not fall into the trap of alarmism, being timid should not be an option.

This is not pleasant, heartwarming work, nor is it the Jewish experience we want to share with our children, but it is essential spiritual and moral work for us as Jews, at least as important as any Jewish religious observance or ritual. To bolster the emotional and physical safety of our community, BAJC’s Anti-Semitism Committee, chaired by John Ungerleider, is meeting to discuss what to do next. Please contact John or me if you have an incident of anti-Semitism to report or if you would like to join the committee, or if you have any related matters that you wish to discuss. We do not have to get angry. We do not have to respond in kind. But we do need to stand up to protest injustice and hate speech.  Perhaps it is time again to march in Brattleboro under the banner “Hate has no home here.”