By Jacob Bender
CAIR-Philadelphia Executive Director
Many of our readers know that I was born into a Jewish immigrant home, my parents and grandparents having migrated to this country to escape the anti-Semitic persecution and poverty of Czarist Russia. This experience, as well as the commitment to justice that lies at the heart of Jewish tradition, contributed to my family’s engagement with social justice activism across four generations.
One of the great causes that mobilized millions around the world was the defense of the Spanish Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. Tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world traveled to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic, their bravery commemorated in the novel by Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
During the war, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy both sent troops and weapons to their fascist allies in Spain, leading to many massacres of Spanish civilians, such as the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica, an act of barbarity immortalized in the painting by Picasso, below.
One day in 1939, my mother, then age 12, and my grandmother were out grocery shopping when they came upon a newsstand with headlines blaring “Madrid Falls to the Fascists.” As my mother remembers, my grandmother dropped the shopping bag she was carrying, scattering broken milk bottles and cracked eggs all over the sidewalk, and screamed “What will become of us?”
(Below, Franco reviews his fascist troops after capturing Madrid.)
My mother told me this story when I was a child, and I recalled it this past weekend while I watched in disbelief and anger as the Senate voted to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh as the 114th Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States. Undoubtedly, Judge Kavanaugh is one of the most unfit justices in recent memory due to his rampant misogyny, antagonistic temperament, unbridled partisanship, and is the most disliked Supreme Court Justice in modern US history.
All over social media, I read the same words of disbelief, anger, and now depression from my friends; these words being instantaneously repeated tens of millions of times across the nation. A half-century of legal landmarks and progressive social policy — advancing civil rights and voting rights, reproductive rights and the right to privacy, protection of the environment and workplace protection, freedom of the press and freedom of religion — are now in danger before a court with a 6-3 right-wing balance. Conservatives have declared this as a victory, while a majority of the nation remains crestfallen by the result.
Indeed, “What will become of us?” Yet it is often at the worst moments of despair that we can hear our respective religious traditions imploring us to overcome our hopelessness and set off once again down the road of righteousness.
So, verily, with every difficulty, there is relief: Verily with every difficulty there is relief. Therefore, when you are free (from your immediate task), still labor hard. And to your Lord turn (all) your attention.
– Quran, 94:5-7
Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff-they comfort me. You set a table before me in the presence of my adversaries; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.
– Bible, Psalm 23
The story of America is filled with moments of progress and moments of pain. The promise of the Declaration of Independence (with its stirring assertion that “All men are created equal”) was followed, in short order, by the odious “Three-Fifths Compromise.” The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave way to Jim Crow apartheid and the terror of the Klan. The triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement led to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” And the election of our first Black President was soon met by the rise of the Tea Party and then the nightmarish election of Donald Trump. Such is the dialectic of history.
Dr. King was surely thinking of this dialectic when he wrote:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
This Supreme Court will be in power for a generation, but important though it may be, SCOTUS is not the only arbiter of power in this country, nor the president’s or the nation’s only voice of authority. The road to justice is long and winding, but as the rabbis of the Talmud wrote:
It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.
– Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21
A new generation of activists has arisen. I have seen them at meetings and at rallies. They were at Ferguson and Charlottesville, and at dozens of airports spontaneously protesting the first Muslim Travel Ban. They were at our Southern Border and ICE offices nationwide demanding that no child be yanked from their mother’s arms.
They will not be alone. Millions of all ages and religions and colors will join them, flooding the streets across the land, declaring an end to the reign of Jurassic Inquisitors of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And from the inner city to the suburbs, I am sure the Muslim community will be with them as well, drawing strength from their faith, following in the steps of The Prophet [PBUH]:
Verily, Allah orders justice and good conduct and giving to relatives and He forbids immorality and bad conduct and oppression. He admonishes you that perhaps you will be reminded.
– Surat An-Nahl 16:90
This, I believe, is no liberal do-gooder dream, but a real future made possible by your vote, your time, your money. So despair if you must, but remember the words of the American labor leader Joe Hill as he was about to be hanged in Utah in 1915 for a murder he did not commit. Said Joe:
“Don’t mourn! Organize!”
And if there is an antidote for political depression, it is to be found, I believe, in the joy and exhilaration of mass action, knowing you are one of millions in this land who will not allow the clock to be turned back to a time when Black folks sat at the back of the bus and when women were seen but not heard.
So wipe the tears away and get to work.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
– Frederick Douglass