Two years ago, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Edison suggested that Israel’s national anthem be omitted during the area’s interfaith Holocaust commemoration, because, he said, Muslim imams at the event remained seated while it was being sung.
At the time, he told NJJN, he said he was making the suggestion “for the sake of peace.”
“I thought, this is a Holocaust event, not a political event, so let’s just take it out,” Rosenberg, the son of survivors, said. “I’ve always had friendly relations with the imams.”
The singing of “Hatikva” was removed from the program for the last two years.
But in a reversal of his position, Rosenberg is now calling for a boycott of the event he helped found, if the singing of “Hatikva” is not reinstated.
Omitting the anthem would be “giving in to the current atmosphere of anti-Semitism,” said Rosenberg, referring to a spate of incidents in Europe and rhetoric against Jews coming out of the Middle East. He said he was particularly motivated by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s description of Israelis as “bloodsuckers and war mongers” and Jews as “the descendants of pigs and apes.”
In addition, he said, despite the absence of the anthem, no imams attended last year’s program.
Rosenberg’s reversal and protest — in addition to his own lengthy e-mails on the subject, he has urged survivors and children of survivors to send e-mail messages to organizers — has frustrated organizers of event, which is sponsored by the Metuchen-Edison Area Interfaith Clergy Association. It is scheduled to take place Monday, April 8, at the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison.
Nevertheless, the association’s Holocaust committee plans to meet Feb. 13 to discuss and make a decision on the matter, said former committee president the Rev. James Thomas of the First Presbyterian Church of Iselin.
The organizers emphasize that no programming plans have yet been set for the program, and some believe Rosenberg has overreacted to the situation by urging survivors and children of survivors to join his boycott.
“No one ever said it’s not going back in,” said Jennine Shpigel, the JCC’s director of Jewish and family programming. “But it has to go through the proper channels. We didn’t take it out [two years ago]; the committee did at the suggestion of Rabbi Rosenberg. I personally wasn’t happy about it but that was the decision.”
Shpigel, who oversees the planning of the Holocaust commemoration, said preparations are in the early stages, and Rosenberg had not contacted her prior to his announcement of a possible boycott. Concerned survivors and children of survivors have been contacting her, some with incorrect information.
Shpigel said the JCC has no political agenda, but “only good intentions in presenting” the program.
“We strive to educate the entire community, remember the victims, and keep the magnitude of the atrocities that occurred in the minds of our citizens,” she said.
Meanwhile, the clergy association is open to the possible reinstatement of “Hatikva.”
“I think we might want to revisit this and put ‘Hatikva’ back in the service,” Thomas told NJJN in a phone interview. “It seems to me, and I didn’t understand this before, that ‘Hatikva’ is the symbolic representation of the Jewish state, which was the embodiment of hope for many people in the late ’40s and early ’50s.”
However, he said, the majority of association members were unaware of the “Hatikva” issue and invited Rosenberg to attend the meeting to give input, but, Thomas said, both the rabbi and the imams have recently “been almost invisible.”
Thomas said he told Rosenberg “it would have to be a collegial decision…,” adding that the rabbi “has a way of getting stuck on these things. I said we won’t be threatened or coerced.”
However, Rosenberg said he first began speaking about the subject with association members over the summer. He produced e-mails from October and November that he had sent to association president Dr. Annari Griesel and others about concerns he had over the removal of “Hatikva.”
“I don’t blame anybody, but this could have been taken care of very easily and did not have to become a whole big deal,” said Rosenberg. “Me and Jennine were the whole committee last year. Now we have to have a whole committee making the decision. It just got all blown out of proportion.”
Rosenberg, religious leader of Congregation Beth-El in Edison, founded the Holocaust program about 15 years ago with the Rev. John Painter, former pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Metuchen.
The lyrics of “Hatikva,” which means “The Hope,” refer to a 2,000-year longing by the “Jewish soul” to return to “Zion.” In Israel, some Arab lawmakers and left-wing parties have complained that the anthem excludes Israel’s non-Jewish minority.
Imams Raouf Zaman of the Muslim Center of Middlesex County in Piscataway and Moustafa Zayed of the Muslim Center of New Jersey in Parlin attended the commemoration in the past. Zayed told NJJN he would do so again regardless of what is decided about “Hatikva.”
“I always try to participate in humane causes,” he said. “They have a right to include it, and I would not want to make them uncomfortable by not attending because of it.”
However, Zayed said, as in the past, he would not stand if the anthem is played because he considers it to have political implications regarding the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
“I renounce for the 100th time what went on in the Holocaust and can separate it from politics,” said Zayed. “I care about people and humanity and our relationship with each other. I know some of my Jewish friends have strong beliefs about the State of Israel, but it has nothing to do with our relationship to each other.”
He said it was important to maintain relations as friends and colleagues, adding that “the horror of the Holocaust went way beyond any political differences we may have.”
For his part, said Thomas, “I think it’s worth putting ‘Hatikva’ back in”; he said he believes many other association members feel that way.
“The Holocaust was one of defining moments of the 20th century and one of the defining moments in world history,” he said. “In both the Christian and Jewish traditions, we are told to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
“I think this is an issue where we need to love our neighbors in a way they want to be loved.”