With the seders behind us, we are on our way to the Red Sea. But we’re not fully free yet. On the last day of Passover, according to tradition, we find ourselves trapped, with the Red Sea in front of us and Pharoah’s army closing in from behind. Moses tells us, “Have no fear! Stand by and witnesses the deliverance which G!d will do for you.” And yet when all is said and done, God tells Moses, “Why are you calling to me? Tell the people to move forward. Lift up your staff and split the sea.” (Exodus 16:13 – 16).
Here, God tells us, human action is necessary. Even when we are terrified. Even when we want to just leave it all up to God. Even when our leaders are saying, “Trust in something else.” God tells us, “Yes, I will work with you, but you have to do your part.”
As role models for stepping up, for taking action, the Torah offers us Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who “feared God” and deliberately disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to slaughter newborn Israelite babies.
When I think about the Pharaohs today, when I think about the people who at times invoke a paralyzing fear, I think of those who subscribe to white supremacist ideology.
I am still sitting with the Christchurch mosque attack, where a shooter entered two mosques and killed 49 people. Synagogues and mosques are places of vulnerability. They are where we come to express our deepest desires. Share our hopes. Grieve our losses. Celebrate our joys and support each other. A shooting in a sacred space so often paralyzes us.
We often ask, “How could a person do this? What influenced them?” We know the gunman wrote a 70-page manifesto filled with white nationalist ideology. We know he had white nationalist symbols in his bag, on his guns, and wore them on his neck. White nationalism seems to be the main motivation for this attack.
White nationalism and white supremacy; the same ideologies I personally witnessed in Charlottesville, Va., when I was there as part of a T’ruah delegation on August 12, 2017. (For a discussion of the differences between white supremacy and white nationalism, see Eric Ward’s writing, including “Skin in the Game.”) The same ideologies that influenced the shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past October. The same ideology we saw days before the Tree of Life Synagogue when a shooter targeted a black church and — when he failed — shot two people in a grocery store simply for being black in Kentucky. The ideology that claims only cisgender, straight, white, Christian people belong in this world and if you are anything else you are a threat. You do not belong here. We can do anything we want to you and we will kill you. This is an ideology that influences so many types of systemic hatred including both anti-semitism and Islamophobia.
So often, these attacks make me want to turn to something bigger than myself, turn to God and ask, “Where are you? What are you doing to help?” In these moments, I am reminded of the God at the splitting of the sea. “Why are you crying to me? There are things you can do. Do not let your fear stop you.”
One thing we can do to ensure there is no platform for white supremacy is to deny white supremacists interviews, public event appearances, and social media platforms to present and/or debate their views.
When we allow someone promote white supremacist ideology in the media, on college campuses, and in public spaces — even in a debate forum — we implicitly say, “This is something you are allowed to believe in. This is an ideology that can be considered just as valid as any other ideology out there.” Furthermore, we allow people who may be swayed by white supremacist ideology to find peers, leaders, and examples to follow with the intention of committing more violent acts. We also risk those speaking and those coming to hear the speeches committing the atrocities we have seen in Charlottesville, in Pittsburgh, and now in New Zealand.
To be clear, I am not advocating for government censorship. Our government has a responsibility to protect people’s First Amendment rights. We as individuals, especially those with media platforms, however, get to choose whose voices we amplify and whose we let fade into obscurity. For us, ensuring there is no platform for white supremacy might look like: reporting Islamophobic hate speech on social media, just like we hope that others report anti-Semitic hate speech on social media. Turning off the news when a pundit spouts off Islamophobic talking points, just as we would hope others turn off the news when pundits spout off anti-Semitic talking points. Calling out friends and family when they make an Islamophobic joke, or better yet stopping them from using Muslims as a punchline before they do. Understanding that, just as we do not want anyone to claim that we as Jews have no right to safety, support, or the ability to live our full spiritual lives as Jews in this country, so too there is no debate when it comes to the fact that Muslims should be safe, supported, and able to live their full spiritual lives as Muslims in this country.
Many of us still feel traumatized by the violence of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Some of us may still be wondering if we are safe wearing kippot, stars of David, even having a mezuzah on our door. Our Muslim friends, family, neighbors and siblings for so long have wondered if they are safe wearing hijabs, speaking Arabic on a plane, walking into a mosque. We and other communities who know intimately the violence of white supremacy are natural partners in the call to give no platform to white supremacy. This is how we show our fear of God today. This is how we show we will not let our fear of human actions paralyze us. By ensuring that those who would kill anyone who does not look like them are not allowed a platform.
Rabbi Bryan Mann is currently the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, Fla. He was ordained at The Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and is an alum of the T’ruah Israel Fellowship.