Czech Chief Rabbi: Racist prejudice in communities who have themselves been targeted by racism is especially damnable
The Jewish people are celebrating the arrival of New Year 5774 and the subsequent holiday of Yom Kippur. Here in the Czech Republic, the start of the new year is accompanied by a rising wave of anti-Roma demonstrations organized by neo-Nazis and participated in by ordinary people.
Two leading Jewish representatives, Chief Rabbi Efraim Sidon and the chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papoušek, have addressed these ongoing events in their New Year's letters. That makes two more authority figures in this society who are not ignoring its indifference to racism and who are directly condemning the fact that ordinary people are joining in such manifestations.
In his New Year's letter, Efraim Sidon has aimed his remarks at members of his own community. "The experience of a nation that survived its own death and should know more about racism than all other nations put together should have inoculated us, once and for all, against this virus, but that is not what is happening," he writes.
News server Romea.cz here presents in translation the section of the Chief Rabbi's letter that directly addresses current events:
...The arrangement of the Earth orbiting the Sun was once considered to be on our side. It was a guarantee - on this arrangement we could base the hope that we might stand face to face with despotism and its compulsive need to destroy and spoil everything that shows any signs of life at all.
We have learned a few things, and we have personally experienced that the exceptionally bad regime [Editors Note: the communists] also included some equally evil fellow-travelers whose existence we hadn't noticed. I don't just mean the corrupt, the neo-Nazis, the pimps or the terrorists. Unfortunately, I mean we ourselves.
The post-1989 euphoria dispersed rather quickly, and when the light was turned off just for a moment - so everyone could steal whatever he could get his hands on - the "bad mood" took over. Previously, all one had to do was raise one's arm along with everyone else, or sign a statement in support of the Anti-Charter or the Warsaw Pact invasion, but now people started using their elbows on one another. Yesterday's heroes dispersed into the political parties and began banging their heads against their hateful rhetoric.
In the conflict with other people's stupidity, the natural order is a welcome ally, but when we confront our own stupidity, then that same order suddenly seems to be our enemy. Even today that order has not lost its purpose. It is simply showing us the embarrassing fact that even before, we were far from being what we, in our euphoria, flattered ourselves to be.
Anyone hoping that at least the Jewish community might be immune to this trend is greatly mistaken. The experience of a nation that survived its own death and should know more about racism than all other nations put together should have inoculated us, once and for all, against this virus, but that is not what is happening.
The average member of our community differs in this respect from the average Czech citizen only in the fact that he gets angry when the Nazis dare to demonstrate their racism by marching past our synagogues. However, when the neo-Nazis target the Romani ghettos, and when angry, "decent" citizens join them shouting slogans with which we are all too familiar, then the average member of our community doesn't care.
There is only one kind of racism, and only one kind of cloddish hatred that goes with it. This vision of the world as comprised of groups divided into "us" and "them" gains strength during times of crisis in particular. Like a cancer, it corrodes our ability to perceive human beings as individuals.
The existence of racist prejudices in communities who have themselves been targeted by racism is especially damnable. We can read the average community member's silence not only as a kind of naive relief that, praise be to God, this is happening to someone else, but as a fear that the hatred might turn against us next.
What is worse, many of us - I dare say most of us - even understand our angry fellow citizens. Not that we would send the Gypsies to the gas chambers, no, but that each and every one of them are slackers and thieves who destroy everything around them and have no respect for nighttime quiet - most of us agree on all of that.
Is our memory so short that we have forgotten that all Jews were once considered slackers and thieves too? That it was an insult to say a situation was like being "in a Jewish school"?
This is why I am glad to see that there are individuals and small groups among us who are not indifferent to racism in Czech society. However, even though we, as the Federation of Jewish Communities, issue formal declarations against this racist violence from time to time when it crosses the line, that is not enough.
Unlike Ludvík Vaculík, who used to write (and maybe is even still writing) his "Spring is here!" letter, I write my annual letter for the Jewish New Year. It is no accident that the 10 days of penitence begin in the autumn and culminate in the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
In the Talmud it is written that everything is up to the power of fate, with the exception of the three actions where everyone enjoys total freedom, and we recall this on Yom Kippur. Only penitence, philanthropy, and prayer can ward off an evil fate! [...]
In previous years I have recalled that the concept of "penitence", in Hebrew, also includes the meaning of "answers". At least once before I have definitely mentioned that this is supposed to be the answer to the question first addressed to Adam in paradise: "Where are you?"
Adam answered: "I heard your voice in the garden and I was startled because I am naked, so I hid!" Instead of saying "I ate from the tree you ordered me not to eat from", he offers an alibi, blaming his sin on his wife, and she blames it on the snake.
People have never stopped taking refuge in giving this answer - that they are dismayed to be seen as they are, naked. We are no different.
When I write that it is not enough to formally distance ourselves from the behavior of others, this is what I mean. First, at the height of our euphoria over ourselves, we don't want to know anything about our nakedness. Then, when we are caught naked, we blame others, best of all the Creator himself, or the order of the world, for which he is responsible.
If it were not for the inexorable functioning of that order, however, our stupidity would never fall from those heights back down to earth. It might never land on our own heads so we could realize, at least some of the time, that beneath all of our disguises, each one of us is naked as a finger and very, very defenseless.
Does this strike you as pessimistic? If so, that's a shame, because it is really the only starting point for optimism we have.
Petr Papoušek: The obligation to warn of the dangers of Nazism
Petr Papoušek, chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities, also made the following statement for the New Year 5774:
At the start of September, the time of the High Holidays begins, a time of penitence and the search for atonement. I would like to mention the current situation concerning the so-called "anti-Roma marches" in this context.
In our recent past we have had our own experience, one that began with small marches like these and ended in an enormous tragedy. The people who are actively organizing these meetings are continuing the idea of Nazism.
Our community has an obligation to warn of the dangers that flow from these ideas. I hope that every one of us can contribute, even if only through some small work, to condemning the racism we have been seeing in recent weeks on the streets of our own towns.
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