By Saundra Sterling Epstein
The latter half of January was quite busy, including the Women’s March, the Creating Change Conference for the LGBTQ community and Martin Luther King Day. Martin Luther King Day serves to remind all of us of our humanity and our need to see ourselves as equal and cherished members of this large family of beings created by God who are to ensure the well-being of each other.
Through his life, King advocated and fought for this basic notion of equality, due to its absence for too many Americans. In the 1968 Campaign for the Poor, King was asked about the Native American poor; could they join the blacks who were marching? Absolutely. What about the Hispanic poor? Yes. What about the white poor? Why not? He wanted all those who shared this concern to march for and with each other. In marching for inclusion, he wanted inclusiveness. That makes sense, right?
Our foundational Jewish teachings often remind us about the power of our words and actions towards and for each other, and our need to be compassionate and empathic towards others and to work towards being as inclusive as possible. King adjured us to use our words appropriately, to join hands in nonviolent resistance, so we would not end up with physical violence and destroy that which we very much would hope to build. We often have occasion to remind ourselves and others that we are all equal and deserving of the most basic rights of inclusion and validation.
So what went so horribly wrong a few weeks ago? Commentary after commentary reports how this year’s Women’s March brought about disunity and discord. In some cases, local Marches actually had to be cancelled or scaled back due to threats and concern for the safety and wellbeing of attendees. Too many people wrote about why they would not attend, how they had to leave and why they would not go back. Some women, instead of focusing on their shared humanity, chose to use this very vehicle to discredit the humanity of others, turning what was to be an experience of solidarity into a political shout out and a podium for prejudiced views and words of hate reflecting exclusion, maligning entire populations and groups.
In California and New York, as well as other locales, once again Israel was painted in horrible hues as a victimizer in a misguided application of intersectionality. The presence of anti-Semitism and comments about different groups greatly offended Jews, Muslims, Blacks and others. Much has been and continues to be written at this moment regarding this lack of appropriate use and direction of the movement itself, which is so important at this point in time.
Then there is the Creating Change Conference, which has been touted as the most important annual gathering of LGBTQ persons and to which I was invited to teach about inclusion in faith communities and our texts. However, due to issues within the organization and the group it serves, those who are more religiously observant unfortunately cannot actually attend and have their safety assured. Three years ago at this conference, there were not just words, but physical attacks, that resulted in members of the Eshel community, Orthodox LGBTQ Jews, being harmed. For that reason, I had to decide that it was not prudent for me to go.
Unfortunately, this year the conference was once again co-opted as a platform for the same type of hate speech and attacks on Israel as happened three years ago.
But why do we have to worry that inclusion may not actually be inclusive? Why can’t any of us go to various spaces and be assured that the cause that brings people together will be the unifying factor, and that we can simply agree to disagree on other issues? Why can’t we talk about important and threatening issues in our world today without worrying that doing so will raise political ire, eclipsing the original issues?
There is so much to worry about regarding women’s rights that the agenda is large enough to take center and all of the stage, and for those who march to rally around reproductive rights, equal pay, harassment in the workplace and other such issues. There is no need to get blindsided by hate speech. We know all too well the precarious nature of the rights of all people. As the Supreme Court has just revived the ban on transgender people in the military, many of us are incensed and worried about what comes next.
It is traditional to observe Martin Luther King Day as a day of service. I would suggest that it also needs to be a day of meaningful and inclusive conversations. We have forgotten how to speak with each other.
Can we all take a step back and pray that in 2020, when we reach this same season, it will look different?
Saundra Sterling Epstein is director of BeYachad: Bringing Jewish Learning and Best Practices Together, director of the Welcoming Shuls Project of Eshel and president of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council.