I write to you today as a rabbi and an immigrant. With my wife Yael, I chose to build our lives, raise our children, and anchor our home in this country. I have also committed myself to helping others build their lives, families, and homes in and inspired by Judaism for the sake of the good and of the sustenance of ongoing life (Deuteronomy 22:7.) I have done so with faith in the American promise of opportunity and equality to all regardless of origin, faith, ethnicity and culture, race, and gender. I have done so with great gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the most ambitious and exciting human challenge ever undertaken: together, as an immigrant in a nation of immigrants, to participate in the formation of a great society, of the ‘City upon the Hill,’ founded in freedom, opportunity, equality, and fairness. I write this note to you in both deep discomfort and disappointment on the one hand, and in unshakable commitment to my American dream, to our values as Americans and Jews and as members of our Temple community, on the other.
Within the last few days, the President of the United States of America addressed four democratically elected members of the House of Representatives, three of whom were born in this country and one who is a naturalized United States citizen. They were described as coming from countries with dysfunctional governments and called to go back ‘where they came from,’ undermining their American credentials, and along with them, my sense of safety, equality, and opportunity to contribute to the building of this country and all it represents. To their credit, both Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and Robert Portman have condemned these comments as “un-American” (Senator Brown) and “divisive, unnecessary, and wrong” (Senator Portman.) Yet, condemnation of this kind of rhetoric, regardless of its source, is not enough.
We, immigrants and heirs to the legacy of systemic inequality, discrimination, and persecution, know all too well that the ideal and dream of a ‘City upon the Hill’ can turn to the Tower of Babel. We have seen sophisticated and cultured people turn vile and democracies self-destruct through disparaging, delegitimizing, and hateful, discourse. We know the words we use matter; we know that hateful words can lead to hateful actions and to the breakdown of a sense of common purpose and mission as well as trust and good will among neighbors and fellow citizens.
We will stand against the rhetoric of hate regardless of its source. We will fight anti-Semitism, the de-legitimization of Israel, as well as the marginalization of American voices, hate, and discrimination. We will also educate our adults and youths first to identify hateful speech and then to promote civil, respectful, and constructive discourse and work with our partners to support allies in civic engagement. In the Jewish New Year, we will share detailed plans to educate and promote our vision of civic society and the promotion of American values. We look forward to engaging in this holy work with you.
With all good wishes,
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen