Though the origins of Thanksgiving stretch back perhaps even to the biblical Feast of Tabernacles, it was on October 3, 1789, here in New York, that George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving a national observance with these words:
Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness”; Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being…that we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country…for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and…to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue….
Religious devotion has been entwined with Thanksgiving since its inception as a national holiday; not a narrow sectarianism that divides, but an embracing ecumenism that unites.
Tragically, religion plays a unifying role too rarely in our world today. Rather, the early years of the 21st century have been marked by faith’s perversion through extremism and hate. “There is a dark side to religious devotion,” wrote Jon Krakauer in his bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven. It “is too often ignored or denied. [But] as a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane…there may be no more potent force than religion.” Religious fundamentalists profess certainty of God’s will, and approach its fulfillment with a single-mindedness that eliminates all ambiguity. Fundamentalists brook no opposing viewpoints, no competing claims, punishing those who do not fit within their narrow worldview.
Paris had not yet recovered from last January’s attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket when Islamist extremists again assaulted that city November 13, killing more than 125 and wounding more than 300. Our hearts are broken for the victims, for their families, for the city and country. And our prayers for healing are with them, as they are with the suffering victims of Friday’s terrorist attack in Mali, the former French colony, at a hotel popular among French visitors and other foreigners.
Pope Francis’s protest that “There is no justification for such things, neither religious nor human,” is one we surely echo. Yet we observe how Islamist extremism threatens the citizens not just of Western democracies but also the subjects of oppressive regimes and pseudo-states up and down the Middle East and North Africa as its practitioners willingly commit martyrdom and murder in its name.
Though al-Qaeda and ISIS differ in their Salafi ideologies, both perceive the world as licentious and faithless, qualities to be eradicated. For radical Islam’s most militant ideologues there can be no compromise. And as they vie in a sick competition for brutality’s crown every Western country lies in their crosshairs. Our political and religious liberty affronts their Salafi fundamentalism. Western ideas about social mobility, secular education, and free intellectual discourse undermine the rulers and religious leaders of closed societies. They hate our freedom to live as we choose within the law, whoever we are, whatever our race, nationality, gender, age or economic status. And often we are scapegoated for the Arab world’s pervasive economic woes, unemployment, state oppression and corruption.
Especially in the Middle East, a region believed by extremists to be Dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam, any deviating ideology, including Christianity and Judaism, remains a non-negotiable anathema. Israel, the one true democracy in the region, poses a particular threat. As Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik and current human rights activist, once explained: “the Jewish state” is perceived as “an embodiment of the subversive liberties that threaten Islamic civilization and autocratic Arab rule alike. It is for this reason that, in the state-controlled Arab media as in the mosques, Jews have been turned into a symbol of all that is menacing in the democratic, materialist West as a whole, and are confidently reputed to be the insidious force manipulating the United States into a confrontation with Islam.”
We Jews understand terrorism with unique perspective. We know how Israelis today have lived much of their lives in fear of terrorist attacks. The frantic calls Parisians made to loved ones November 13th, Israelis have made all too often. Just as stabbings on the streets of Jerusalem and most recently in a Tel Aviv synagogue are meant to break the spirit of Israelis, so these shootings in Paris restaurants and concert halls are meant to break the French spirit. Let them not succeed. Rather let Israel’s determination and ability to maintain its societal normalcy, even vitality, in the face of fear offer France inspiration at this tragic time.
Last February, after ISIS beheaded 21Coptic Christians, Timothy Cardinal Dolan decried the “coordinated effort on behalf of fanatics to see that true religion which stands for friendship, peace, the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life, is stamped out.” In his condemnation, the Cardinal brought into sharper focus a grave threat to religion today. As extremists pervert faith into a call to violence, our own religious traditions lie ever more prone on the altar of their fanaticism. Skeptics who once cited the holy wars of the past now point to ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, Palestinian nationalists who terrorize Israelis, and Israeli nationalists who attack innocent Palestinians, and aver religion as the very source of the enmity.
Yet just as we repudiate the facile equation of all Islam with the brutality of its most radical exponents, so we reject such gross aspersion on our religious traditions. Churches and synagogues, temples and mosques offer a doctrine the world needs to hear. Jewish tradition teaches that Torah’s paths are darchei shalom, “paths of peace.” For us, the study and debate of Torah as a means to deeper religious understanding undergirds our response to religious fundamentalism.
What will it take to combat Islamist extremism? Coordinated military action obviously. But ultimately only voices of liberalism within the Muslim world will defeat fanaticism. The United Nations and Western countries can help those voices be heard by addressing the needs of these impoverished war-torn populations, providing safe refuge against the violence, and food, water, electricity and medical care – for the groans of the hungry and the cries of the desperate drown out calls for peace and coexistence. And we must support voices of moderation here at home. There are millions of Muslims living in the United States who view virulent fundamentalism embracing terrorism and murder as abhorrent to their religion’s teachings, as do thousands of refugees seeking asylum here whom fearmongering politicians mischaracterize as jihadist threats.
The assailants who struck Paris on November 13th terrorized not just a city and a country, but the Western world. Yet, most extraordinary and poignant was the call by so many Parisians that Friday night for porteourverte, the “opening of doors,” to anyone needing shelter following the shootings. As world leaders now struggle to balance compassion for the Muslim refugees on their borders themselves the victims of Islamist terror with tighter security against ISIS infiltrators, and effective surveillance against civil liberties, we must remember that the openness of Western society represents our greatest contribution, our greatest strength, and our greatest weapon in the fight against religious extremism.
In too many lands populations suffer in the vice-like grip of dictators and mullahs. The strength of America as our first President articulated it two and a quarter centuries ago – our civil and religious liberties – are indeed cause for celebration each year at this season. So as he asked us, let us render unto God “our sincere and humble thanks.” And by our lives and our commitments, let us demonstrate our religious truths: that God stands with the victim not the aggressor, that faith should ease human suffering not cause it, and that the same divine spark burns in each of us.
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.