For those of us born in the 1970s, and Jewishly educated in the 1980s, there is a shared experience of being gifted a persistent, no-holds-barred Holocaust education. The lessons came at home, at the temple, at camp, and in youth group.
Many of us in our early teen years sat through the graphic 10-hour-long 1985 documentary Shoah as part of our Hebrew school experience (director Claude Lanzmann passed away this July) detailing the horrors of fascism and genocide. We saw the human carcasses strewn like garbage, the detention centers, the death chambers, the distinctive clothing, the discrimination, the illegal border crossings, and the fate of the stateless. We saw the shame, the vulnerability, and the confusion of our fellow Jews (and non-Jews, too). We learned about the fate of the gay community, of the Roma, of the disabled, and of religious leaders and political activists who spoke out against their government.
Beyond Shoah, we were encouraged to read all we could about our people’s genocide. We went on March of the Living trips. We traveled to Yad Vashem in Israel. We counted paper clips. We played Anne Frank in the school play. We made pilgrimages to see Elie Wiesel speak on college campuses. Much of my childhood, teen, and young adult years were spent with the concept of “Never Again” on my lips and in my heart.
It was seen as a moral obligation to send our generation a message. We survived to be lights of justice, compassion, truth, and peace in this world. We were here for a reason -— to never forget. And our education ensured that we would be able to recognize the warning signs.
When I saw a call go out for clergy to travel to McAllen, Texas, early this summer to bear witness to the confinement and suffering of stateless children, I knew I had to go. Like most Gen-X Jews, I can list the telltale signs of rising fascism faster than I can name all the members of Nirvana. I know what it means when citizenship or safe passage is denied to those fleeing oppression. I know what tagging people with markers of difference, be it a yellow star, a pink triangle, or a tracking ankle bracelet, means in a society trying to demonize the weak and marginalized.
While in McAllen, we witnessed the signs of a society moving toward nationalism, totalitarianism, and state-sponsored terrorism. Those seeking refuge from violence and oppression are treated as enemies of the state. We saw mothers of babies and toddlers wearing tracking devices on their ankles, devices that must be charged three hours a day, limiting their movement. We saw agents of the state give confusing and contradictory information to religious leaders and the press. We saw agents of the state upholding policies that violate international human rights laws.
My interfaith group of 40 clergy members, including Reverend Al Sharpton and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of T’ruah (a rabbinic human rights organization), was turned away from a detention center holding hundreds of asylum-seeking youth. The act of denying access to a group on a humanitarian mission is extremely alarming, as was the utter lack of transparency.
Now is the time for my generation to speak and act — we were raised to be watchdogs by soldiers of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations who poured their resources into our education. And now, our day has come. We are the freest, most wealthy, most educated, and most privileged generation of Jews who have ever lived. It is time to stand up and be the righteous generation that our ancestors knew we could be. From the Muslim travel ban to our government’s desire to do away with due process for asylum seekers, the alarm bell is ringing. This is not a test. And we will not be silent.