On Punching a Nazi

Thu, 01/26/2017 - 9:11am -- Rabbi Noah Farkas

Right now, there is a viral video making its way across the internet of the Alt-right leader, Richard Spencer getting clocked by an unknown assailant. Spencer has been denying the Holocaust, rousing xenophobia, and hosting rallies in conferences which include Nazi-era salutes. Spencer says he is not a Nazi, yet his choosing to fashion himself on the model of early twentieth century German iconography, paired with a lapel pin that is a common anti-Semitic cartoon character belies his crocodile tears telling and reveals his true nature as an anti-Semite. He once wrote, “Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.” In other words, “Whites Only.”

The latest political season has awakened people like Spencer who use old anti-Semitic tropes to cast dispersions upon Jews, Muslims, and many other non-white minority groups. Admittedly seeing someone with Spencer’s viewpoints get the bad end of a knuckle sandwich feels good. It releases feelings of revenge, even fanciful dreams of Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt punching Nazis. “Finally” one might say, “the Jerk gets what he deserves.”  But while it feels emotionally good, it is still ethically wrong, and moreover serves no just end.

Take a look back at last week’s Torah portion. Moses, sees an Egyptian taskmaster, the Nazi of his day, beating a Jew to death. In his first true sense of moral awakening, Moses hits the Egyptian and kills him. The rabbis, including the great scholar Maimonides, sees this act as righteous. Here is Moses standing up for justice. In fact, it’s this very act of violent response that extends the capital punishment for murder beyond the Jewish realm to encompass all people. As Rambam states, “when a Gentile strikes a Jew and kills him he is liable for death for it is written, ‘Moses struck down the Egyptian in the sand.” (Mishna Torah: Injuries 5:3)

Moses’s action is rightly lauded by the sages for its bravery in the face of a great crime, yet I am still left to ask, why does the Torah include such a story? Perhaps it is because of this awakening that leads Moses to Midian and to the Burning Bush. The argument goes that it was this butterfly effect where the awaking to the plight of the Israelites overtime gave way to the epic story that follows up this week. I see it differently. Punching out the Egyptian led Moses away from the injustice, not brought him into it. His punitive action, while immediately justified, did nothing to change the power dynamic that enslaved the Jews. Not an Israelite went free because of what Moses did.

All the more so, punching a Nazi like Spencer, especially while he is committing no crime, cannot be condoned. It looks great on film and feels good to watch, but it’s not ethical. Where in the Torah does it say that one can strike another because of hatred in your heart for them. Nowhere does it say you can strike a man down because he has hatred for you. In fact it proves their own narrative that they carry as victims. Spencer is now is trying to organize his groups of followers to arm themselves and to beat down would-be assailants. This very act of emotional release in the name of justice could lead to less justice, not more.

Instead, we should move from last week’s Torah portion to this. Moses, an older and wiser man, comes back from Midian. He, along with his brother, sister, and God, confront Pharaoh, demanding that the Israelites go free. As you know, through a series of ever-increasing demonstrations of power (a staff that becomes a snake, the blood, frogs, diseases, etc.), Moses is showing Pharaoh that the world is organized against his tyranny. Pharaoh becomes isolated and eventually capitulates. There is no butterfly effect when it comes to justice. Justice is born through organizing, building, and executing a plan that speaks truth to power.

Moses has learned his lesson and so do we. To change the world for the better you stand up for what is right. No matter how much someone hates you and stands for things you hate. You don't punch them. You can demonstrate that you are not afraid. You can show them your power. You can rise up and overthrow them.

Don't punch the Nazi - organize the world against him. Raise money for the organizations that protect the vulnerable. Speak out against hate of all kinds. Most importantly, be proud that you are a Jew and not run away. Lean in to your Judaism. Lean in to your community and know that your Judaism stands for justice.