14 Elul 5776                                                                                                 B’SD

Freedom of choice is one of our countries fundamental principles and I delve into this subject matter cognizant that my words may be misunderstood. Any discussion on sensitive matters will be emotionally charged and mired in controversy, yet it behooves all Americans to probe all issues with respect, integrity and an open mind.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has willingly immersed himself into controversy by refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem in protest of what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.

His latest refusal to stand for the anthem — he has done this in at least one other preseason game — came before the 49ers‘ preseason loss to Green Bay at Levi’s Stadium on Friday night.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Reprinted from nfl.com

Dear Mr. Kaepernick,

I want to preface my remarks by thanking you for opening my eyes and giving me greater insight and clarity into patriotism. I, too, share your sentiment and find that my country has not always lived up to my expectations. As a Jew I vividly remember my parents telling me about real estate covenants that stated, ‘No Jews or dogs allowed,” or quotas that kept Jews out of the best universities. Life for the Jew in our country was often less than pleasant and fraught with vitriolic Anti-Semitic undertones. I would never tolerate a rewriting of our history by expunging from the record how the USA closed its borders to those trying to escape the horror of the Shoah. I could never excuse the USA, Canada, and Cuba for refusing entry to 908 refugees aboard the St. Louis, even though they knew that upon returning to Europe those Jews would be murdered by the Nazis.

Thus as Jews, we are well positioned to commiserate with the misfortune and degradation of the African American community. Our fight for liberty and freedom cannot be self-serving but must be aimed at bringing justice for all who are unjustly oppressed. I don’t believe in whitewashing the truth or revising historical realities. Any honest chronicling of our brief history will highlight a penchant by our politicians and law enforcement agencies to maliciously and vindictively treat minorities with disdain and contempt. The Jew and many other immigrants were subjected to unfair practices, but none as patently obvious as the treatment of the African American community. Not only were they enslaved, segregated in schools and housing, but more so they were deliberately maltreated and exploited by those sworn to uphold the law. Today, all citizens may be guaranteed equal treatment under the law, but sadly biases against minorities still persist.    

I also believe that it’s impossible for a country to be altruistic and always devoted to the welfare of others.  And indeed, it is entirely feasible that some deep-seated grievances are real and may never be resolved amicably. Of course you can focus on the injustices as your constitutional right allow; you can sit, kneel or clasp your hand during the National Anthem, but is that really how you want your country portrayed? In your world vision, is our democracy cast in such a deep darkness that no light can penetrate it?  Is your political agenda so ingrained in your psyche that it’s able to override all your country has given you?

Perhaps the narrative in this week’s Torah portion can elucidate the depth of gratitude we should feel for our own country. It states: Lo tetaev Edomi ki achichah he, lo tetaev Mitzri ki ger hayita b’artzo – do not reject an Edomite because they are your bothers and do not reject an Egyptian for you were a stranger in their land. Although we may not know who the Edomites were, anyone attending a Passover seder certainly knows who the Egyptians were and what they did to our ancestors. The Haggadah goes into detail how over two centuries the Egyptians enslaved and oppressed the Israelites.

Yet look at what the Torah states: Do not reject the Egyptian, because in spite of their wrongdoing they allowed us to live in their country. Imagine that! We are told to ignore all of their animus and subjugation and focus only on how they assisted the family of Joseph. Now understand that the invitation wasn’t a magnanimous gesture of kindness towards the Jewish people, as they didn’t even know who or what a Jew was. They were only making an accommodation for Joseph as he was viceroy of Egypt; the person directly under Pharaoh who ensured the welfare and economic viability of the entire country.

Nonetheless, the Torah tells us that this single act of kindness is sufficient reason to ignore the animus, repression, and demoralizing exploits. If they so desire, we must welcome them with open arms and accept them as equals. It’s not that we should forget our enslavement, on the contrary we must always remember our past but put it in perspective. Thus, I ask you Mr. Kaepernick, that in spite of the prejudice, racial inequality and injustice, be cognizant of all this great country afforded both of us. Don’t be so indignant about your mistreatment that you dismiss all the positive this country did for your ancestors and mine.

I ask you to see your country in a different light. Look at what they did to help the African American and the Jew succeed beyond their wildest imaginations.  Of course, not all Americans earn $19,000,000 a year, but the fact that an underprivileged minority is able to should makes us proud to be an American. The per capita income in all of Africa is a pittance compared to how much those living in poverty receive in the United States. The life expectancy of the African American community in the United States is vastly better than the countries from which they were forced to leave. Of course there are problems but where would you rather live?

As a Jew, I know how anti-Semitism can impact my people. Every day I am reminded of the six million who were brutally murdered during the Holocaust. In Spain and Portugal my people were issued an ultimatum: convert to Christianity, be exiled with the loss of all property and wealth, or be killed. In the Soviet Union all religion was banned, but Jews were persecuted more than members of other religions. In Muslim countries before 1948, Jews accepted being classified as second class citizens and were thrilled just to be tolerated. My ancestors may not have had the easiest time acclimating or being accepted in America, but in comparison to the alternatives, they were very fortunate.  

For the Jew living in America, Israel is always on our minds. We sense any hostility towards Israel as a precursor to anti-Semitism. We worry that our politicians will abandon the only democracy in the Middle East and no longer veto anti-Israel UN resolutions. We are frightened by the sophistication of weapons being sent to hostile countries and that Iran will soon have the nuclear capability to reach the Jewish State. I doubt America is ready for a Jew in the White House or that subtle anti-Israel sentiment in the State Department will ever disappear. However, in spite of it all, I am honored to live in a country where freedom of religion is not a political statement but a reality. I am honored to live in a country which allocates more international aid to Israel than any other country. I am honored to live in my country regardless of its imperfections.

In the aftermath of the most tragic terrorist attack on United States I believe the American flag represents the most noble of causes. Our Pledge of Allegiance should reverberate beyond our personal grievances; the word ‘indivisible’ should resonate clearly as a call for unity.  

You live in a country that grants you the absolute right to express a strong emotional attachment to any just and righteous cause. But often expressing that right causes more harm than good. Instead of a rallying call that unites, your actions have led to a partisan divide. Instead of raising awareness it has served to resurrect racial tensions.

 

Are there exceptions to my premise? Absolutely! The narrative at the end the Torah portion clarifies those parameters. It states: Zachor et asher asah l’cha Amalek – Remember what Amalek did to you (the fledgling Jewish nation) when you were leaving Egypt…… And thus when Hashem gives you rest from your enemies … wipe out the seed of Amalek and never forget. This law is not only for biblical times but would include any country or person that would be an existential threat to a race or a people. We need not stand idly and watch North Korea threaten the United States. The State of Israel has the moral authority to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities as soon as they publicly declared their intention to eradicate Israel. As a Jew, I can never forgive or forget what the Nazis did and being politically correct when faced with the return of Nazism is just not an option.  

I empathize with your courage and conviction to seek change but I can’t imagine that you believe that our country is an existential threat to the African American community. In two and half weeks we celebrate Rosh Hashanah; the time of year to forgive and forget and to release the arduous burden of hate that weighs so heavily in our hearts.  It is a time when people come together in unity and pray for the welfare of all humanity. In the Aftermath of 9-11, I would hope we can all appreciate that our flag is not the enemy, our flag is our unifier.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jack Engel

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