When Rabbi David Saperstein was sworn in as the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom on February 20, he became the first non-Christian to hold the job. Prior to this role, Saperstein served as director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and has been called the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek.
The speech he gave at his swearing-in ceremony was emotional and effective — and deeply personal. Below is an excerpt, but you can read his full remarks here.
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During my career, my mandate has indeed covered a wide range of issues, but there are few that have been as central to my heart as that of religious freedom, for like most Jews, I know all too well that over the centuries, the Jewish people have been a quintessential victim of religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and demonization.
Indeed, the Bible on which I affirmed the oath today was published at the turn of the century by the Hebrew publishing company owned by — in part, by part of my mother’s family and purchased by my great-grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, on my father’s side, both part of families that left Europe looking for refuge, freedom, and opportunity in this great land, which distinctly offered all three. But through too many tragedies we have learned firsthand the cost of universal rights, security, and wellbeing of religious communities when good people remain silent in the face of persecution.
This is just one key reason why I stand here today, to affirm that I cannot remain silent. When we see historic Christian, Yezidi, other communities in Iraq, from which I have just returned, in Syria being devastated; when we see Baha’is in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists in China, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, all victims of governmental or societal discrimination, harassment, persecution, physical attacks, sexual violence, enslavement — even in Western Europe we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and anti-Semitic discourse and acts of desecration and violence against Jewish individuals, synagogues, and institutions and communities that we thought we would never, never see again after World War II.
Sadly, this list is far from exhaustive, but shows a broad range of serious threats to religious freedom and religious communities in nearly every corner of the globe. I approach my new responsibilities mindful of Dr. Martin Luther King’s warning, who challenged our nation and humanity — in a remarkable Riverside Church speech on Vietnam: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”
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So allow me to conclude with a personal story. In the summer of 1939, my father traveled throughout Poland and Palestine. He was one of the last to see the glory of European Jewry in full bloom. He visited Danzig, now Gdansk, just days after the Nazis had taken over. He went with enthusiasm to see the magnificent historic main synagogue of this vibrant Jewish community. To his utter dismay, it lay shattered in ruins. Only the portal over what had been the beautiful entrance front doors still stood. On the lawn, there was a sign that had been erected by the Nazis during the campaign which read “Komm lieber Mai und mache von Juden uns jetzt frei — come dear month of May and free us from the Jews.”
With a chilling sense of the impending disaster symbolized by this scene, he gazed upward and saw the words — the ancient vision of Malachi, still inscribed over that remaining doorway: “Halo Av echad l’chulanu; halo eyl echad b’ra’anu — have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Two visions: one of hatred and tyranny, the other of brotherhood and sisterhood, of unity and peace; one of oppression, the other of freedom; one of darkness and despair, the other of light and hope.” This is a choice we face today.
To the religiously oppressed in every land who live in fear, afraid to speak of their beliefs; who worship in underground churches, mosques, or temples, lest authorities discover and punish their devotion to an authority higher than the state; who languish in prisons, simply because they love God in their own way; who question the existence of God; who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid persecution, indeed, as we have seen so often to avoid simply being killed because of their faith — to all of them, together, you and I here, the State Department, this Administration, the Congress, together our nation can be, must be, will be a beacon of light and hope.
I pray that contributing to the fulfillment of that dream will be my legacy. Bless you all for being here.
Image courtesy of World Economic Forum.