At Hanukkah, a contemporary battle against oppression

This week, the Jewish community around the world celebrates our victory over oppression by lighting the Hanukkah lights. But just as we are lighting our lights, hatred and intolerance are growing, here and around the world.

The Ugandan Parliament is considering a draconian bill, the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009,” that would sentence homosexuals — and those who fail to report them — to imprisonment or, in some versions of the bill, execution. In addition to endangering Ugandan citizens, this legislation would make it impossible for aid groups to operate effective HIV prevention programs to slow the spread of infections in Uganda. The bill is being advanced by the religious right in Uganda, which has disturbingly close ties to the religious right in the U.S.


In recent days, Christian groups and clergy from across the political spectrum have spoken out against the Ugandan bill. Some of these clergy members are vocal opponents of LGBT equality, but they still recognize the human rights violation in imprisoning or executing people for being gay. These are powerful voices and it is important that they are speaking out, especially because Uganda is a predominantly Christian country. There are some reports that the bill’s sponsors have removed capital punishment from the bill in response to pressure from outside Christian groups. If true, this would be a promising development, but we must still oppose a bill that makes it a punishable crime to be gay.

We need our elected officials in Congress to speak out. As of today, very few members of Congress have taken a public stance on this legislation. Pressure from the U.S. government could help stop a barbaric bill from becoming law.

While we raise our voices against hateful legislation in Uganda, we must also be ever-vigilant against intolerance close to home. At last week’s meeting of the U.S. Attorneys Hate Crimes Task Force in St. Louis, representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, the St. Louis Police Department and other groups shared a concern that levels of hate have been growing.

Recently, there has been a spike in allegations of hate crimes in our region. Authorities are investigating alleged hate crimes based on sexual orientation in Silex and St. Louis City; based on national origin in Lebanon and O’Fallon, Mo.; and based on race in Sauget, Ill. and Columbia, Mo. These are, of course, just the crimes we know about; the very nature of hate crimes leaves many victims too frightened to report the crimes.

Until I attended last week’s Hate Crimes Task Force meeting, I had no idea it had gotten so bad.

There has been minimal media coverage of most of the alleged hate crimes, and there is no public outcry against growing intolerance and hate.

We must educate ourselves and create a sense of urgency in the Jewish community and in the broader community, and we must do it now.

The ADL and other organizations that participate in the Hate Crimes Task Force are willing to take the lead in creating a community force against hate in our community. I call on our community to join in their efforts. The price of inaction is too high.

And we must not forget our sisters and brothers around the world. I will be contacting Senators Claire McCaskill and Kit Bond and my U.S. Representative to urge them to speak out publicly against the Ugandan bill. I hope we will continue to hear from President Obama and Secretary Clinton, both of whom have denounced this bill. The U.S. continues to have a strong influence around the world; now is the time for us to use that influence to save lives.

Every time we say the Shema, we affirm our belief that all of creation is connected.

That lesson hit home last month when CRC hosted J.J. Keki, a leader of a 1,000-member Ugandan Jewish community, who spoke about the discrimination they have often faced and asked for our help in promoting tolerance in Uganda. We promised we would try.

The easy thing to do is always to look away from the hard issues — they aren’t my friends; it’s not my town; it’s not my country.

But we know better.

We know what happens when one group becomes the scapegoat during different times. We know what happens when good people fail to speak out against injustice. We know from hard experience where that path leads.

As we light our Hanukkah lights this year, let us see into those places where intolerance and hatred are threatening the values of freedom and human dignity that the Maccabees fought for so long ago. May this year’s light also illuminate a holy response as we join together and stand up to the oppressor once again.

Rabbi Susan Talve serves Central Reform Congregation.