Jewish silence in the face of atrocities in Chechnya?

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

In recent days, reports have emerged about authorities in Chechnya rounding up scores of gay men, imprisoning them, beating them, with many dead.  Reports are now coming to light of concentration camps where gay men are being held and subjected to brutality, torture and murder.  Apparently, this deplorable treatment is in response to the application of a Moscow-based gay rights group to hold Pride parades in the region. Chechen authorities are denying these claims.  Alvi Karimov, a Chechen spokesman told Interfax, “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic. If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

These reports of purging, murder, brutality and erasure are disturbing enough in themselves.  But this Passover, I am struck by another disturbing reality:  American ignorance of this issue in general, and Jewish ignorance in particular. Of course, we are living in times where our news cycle is overwhelmed with rising threats over Syria, North Korea and Russia.  At home, our media is beset over the latest scandal du jour in connection with the presidency.  It is indeed very difficult these days  to notice what is happening in a small republic in the north Caucasus mountains.

But we cannot afford not to notice.  If we have been paying attention to the meaning of our Passover seders, we know that we ourselves are a people who were brutalized, oppressed and murdered simply for being who we are.  We have gathered as families and communities, telling our story of having been refugees of slavery.  And we emerge from our seders with a clarion call to invite ‘all those who are hungry to come and eat’ together with us.  The beginning of our ethics, and our very Jewish identity, lies in our ability to empathize and to act on behalf of all those who still know the oppression that we have known.  And after the Holocaust, with Chechen authorities rounding people up, putting them in concentration camps, and murdering them, the silence of the Jewish people on this issue is unconscionable.

A danger inherent in the Passover experience is to read the Haggadah only in tribal, particularist terms:  God’s unique love and rescue of our people vindicates our people alone, and denigrates all other peoples.  That danger extends to all the times that we fail to see the story of who we are reflected in others, simply because those others are so different from ourselves.  I once spoke to an American Jewish woman who was a young mother during the years of the Second World War.  I asked her if she knew at the time about the internment of Japanese Americans, and she answered yes.  When I asked her what she thought about that internment during those years, she responded that there was a war going on!  She felt that it was not the time or place to speak out against such a thing, and frankly, it didn’t occur to her at the time to speak out.

The essence of Passover is that we, ourselves, were the ‘other.’ We, ourselves, were the ones whose plight was ignored by those who might speak up.  To be Jewish is to be, eternally, the other.  And in a very real sense, all those who are oppressed and erased must become a part of our people.  The gay men in Chechnya may seem so far away and other to us.  But in this case, they literally are us, as the story of the Jewish people is, and always has, included the story of LGBT people.

The good news is that our people do respond so often when called upon to speak out on behalf of the oppressed.  Organizations like HIAS and others are doing great work to raise awareness and to act on behalf of refugees and others in dire need of our help.  The challenge, however, is to endeavor to notice those who have escaped our attention–perhaps because their plight feels too far beyond our reach, or their stories too ‘other’ and different from anything we can relate to.  The most Jewish thing we must do, however, is to speak out and act on behalf of the very ones who seem the most ‘other’ to us.  It is only through their redemption that our own redemption from slavery can truly become complete.

Gil Steinlauf is a prominent Conservative movement rabbi in Washington, DC.  His opinions are his own.